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The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: The Darb Zubaydah (Iraq)

Date of Submission: 02/01/2022
Criteria: (ii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
State, Province or Region:
Najaf province
Ref.: 6576
Other States Parties participating
Saudi Arabia

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


The yearly Islamic pilgrimage (hajj) to the Holy city of Makkah is one of the five pillars of Islam and one of the most important and most ancient religious pilgrimages in the world. Until today, millions of Muslim pilgrims visit Makkah every year to accomplish this religious duty. For centuries, every year, Muslim pilgrims undertook long distance journeys by well-established routes to reach the Holy City of Makkah. Some of the major routes crossed the Arabian Desert and followed traditional routes. Pilgrimage routes were not only religious axes but also commercial routes favouring movement across the ancient world, and the cultural and commercial exchanges with continuity over a long period of time. The hajj land routes leading to Makkah from the neighbouring countries materialize on the land of Arabia this centuries-old and deeply rooted cultural and religious tradition and constitute one of the most important material vestiges of the Islamic civilization in Saudi Arabia. They perfectly embody the concepts of “heritage route” that is based on the ancestral dynamics created through the Islamic religious faith shared by a large set of human groups and societies, at the origin of a sustainable and continuous civilization in a large geographical space and along historical time. The hajj routes have a worth over and above the sum of the elements making them up and highlight exchange and dialogue between countries and regions in a multi-dimensional way, with trade and administration adding to their primary religious purpose. The Arabian Peninsula, and its Holy Islamic Places, were at the heart of a large network of routes that converged to and crossed Arabia, in connection with a large set of surrounding regions. A series of hajj routes developed and thrived in different historic moments, adapting to the evolving political conditions and the rise and fall of successive Islamic empires. Early Muslim historians and geographers give details of major roads, linking Makkah with Yemen, Oman, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. These roads initially followed former pre-Islamic trade routes, but progressively evolved from their pre-Islamic antecedents to meet the new needs related to the Islamic pilgrimage. The pilgrimage routes formed also vital arteries of communication for the soldiers, administrators, and tax collectors of the Muslim states.

The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: The Darb Zubaydah

The main historical pilgrimage routes that have left significant remains during their use fully correspond to the notion of a transnational series. The Darb Zubaydah, linking the Iraqi city of Kufa to Makkah, bears witness to dedicated and ambitious infrastructures investments which correspond to a historical cultural route of outstanding universal value. The nomination of the other transnational routes converging to Makkah — including the Syrian and the Egyptian ones already on the Saudi Tentative List — will convey the full significance of this ancient regional network facilitating the Islamic pilgrimage. The present property, therefore, should be understood as a first element of a broader ensemble of “Hajj Pilgrimage Routes” to be followed by additional transnational modules presenting tangible vestiges of other Islamic pilgrimage routes.

The road that connected Makkah to the Iraqi cities of Kufa and Baghdad during the Abbasid period is known as the Darb Zubaydah (Zubaydah’s trail) after Zubaydah bint Jafar, wife of the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, who supported charitable works on the numerous stations along the trail. It was the most important hajj route during the Abbasid Caliphate, between 750 to 850 CE, a period renowned as a golden age of Muslim civilisation. At its peak of prosperity, markers and milestones were installed along the route that was provided with wells, pools, dams, palaces, houses, and partially paved to facilitate the passage of pilgrims. 27 major stations and 27 substations have been identified. The Abbasid Caliphate — which reigned over a vast empire stretching from North Africa to the western borders of China from the late 8th to early 10th centuries — acted as the decisive trigger of the development and full exploitation of the route’s potential.

In 751, the first Abbasid Caliph, Abu Al-Abbas, began to organise improvements on the Iraq-Makkah road ordering the laying of new milestones and fire-signals, as well as the construction of rest-houses/forts (qusur) for the pilgrims, and work on the road continued during Al-Mansur’s long reign (754-775). The success of Iraqi agricultural development during the early Abbasid period enabled an unprecedented economic exploitation of the land at the outset of the Caliphate of Al-Rashid. This spawned the growth of urban centres and a concomitant increase in the prosperity of the Iraqis. The flourishing Abbasid economy greatly increased the numbers of people possessing sufficient resources to make the pilgrimage, and the volume of pilgrim traffic exerted new pressures on the limited water and food resources along Arabia’s desert tracks and even in Makkah itself. Darb Zubaydah aimed at providing the masses of pilgrims with the necessary facilities and water supplies. Earlier construction on the Iraq-Makkah road were planned with mounted pilgrims in mind, with stations and wells placed at intervals suited to the pace of donkeys, horses, and camels. New mid-way stations were needed to cater for pedestrian pilgrims, and Zubaydah personally undertook the expense of building many of these intermediate rest stops. Building on the Darb Zubaydah also became a means for powerful and wealthy individuals to compete in charity. Rest houses, wells and cisterns were named after their sponsors, fostering a real competition among wealthy donors. In the century after her death, many shelters, hostels, wells, and reservoirs on the Kufa-Makkah road were known by the name ‘Zubaydah’ or ‘Umm Ja`far’, amply indicating the extent of her constructions and renovations, and the sheer number of these stations likely explains how the whole network of roads was given her name.

The Arabian Desert preserves some unique specimens of architecture and infrastructural planning that show the variety and skills of classical Muslim building techniques from Morocco to Turkestan. The milestones, road-markers, road pavements and waterworks are easily identifiable as the works of Abbasid workers and are an impressive feat of engineering and central planning which reveals how well architects, engineers, and bureaucrats more than a millennium ago tamed the Arabian Desert in the name of the hajj.

In the 10th century, the break in Meccan/Iraqi communication affected the ability of Iraqi and Persian Muslims to make the pilgrimage, leading to the progressive decline and separation of Arabia from the mainstream culture of the central Islamic lands. In the 11th century, the Darb Zubaydah was partially revitalised, but it never recovered the levels of its first flowering in the 8th century, as by the 11th century the Muslim world had changed dramatically from the early Abbasid days of Caliphal splendour in Baghdad. The decline of Iraq sounded the death knell for the Darb Zubaydah. The last organized pilgrimage convoy along this route was carried out by Abbasid Caliph in 1243 CE. In the following centuries, the trail lost its importance and was almost completely abandoned by pilgrims and travellers who forged new routes to Makkah in the following centuries.

This nomination is the first step of a more ambitious long-term program that aims at inscribing other hajj pilgrimage routes to create a strong multi-national World Heritage network of Islamic Pilgrimage Cultural Routes in the coming years.

Name(s) of the component part(s)

Name of the Component



Umm al-Qurun













30° 8'25.91"N


Description of the component part(s)

The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: The Darb Zubaydah is a transnational nomination jointly presented by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Iraq. It comprises a series of key elements and stations dating from the Abbasid period, that materialise the 1,300 km-long routes linking the town of Kufa in Iraq with Makkah. The segment of the Darb Zubaydah located in present-day Iraq covers approximately 1/5th of the total length of the route, while the other 4/5th are located in present-day Saudi Arabia. The property counts 13 sites, four in Iraq and nine in Saudi Arabia, offering a complete overview of the ensemble of the technical and architectural features that equipped this extraordinary hajj route. The four Iraqi elements of the series are briefly presented below.

Umm Al-Qurun

Umm Al-Qurun lies 56 km south of the centre of Kufa in the Wadi Al-Seba’. It stands as the northernmost site of the The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: The Darb Zubaydah transnational serial property. The site is composed of a pilgrim station which was equipped with water and residential facilities, and a lighthouse (manara in Arabic), located 1,4 Km southeast of the station. The pilgrim station of Umm Al-Qurun includes two basins (birkat), two square wells and a square-shaped rest house (qsar). The vestiges of the basins are still visible, although filled with sand. They are covered with a sparse wild vegetation that indicates more humid soil layers. The biggest basin is 40 m long and 20 m large while the other is 20 m long and 5 m large. The square well is well preserved with inside well-lined ashlar blocks. The ruins of the rest house are characterized by vaulted openings and internal subdivision wall. The lighthouse of Umm Al-Qurun, stands alone in the desert, without buildings around it., some 1,8 km form the station. Located nearly 60 Km south of Kufa, it was designed as a major road marker for pilgrims’ and caravans’ guidance. There is a rich typology of road markers along the Darb Zubaydah, that had different designs and purposes: in Zubalah, the tall stone tower was visible from afar and showed the right path to the pilgrims, the road marker of Umm Al-Qurun, however, was different because it on its top a fire was lit to indicate the way during both the day and the night. The vestiges of the fallen tower reveal an interior made of fired bricks that likely contained a staircase to access the roof to manage the fire. The cylindrical tower decorated with sophisticated geometrical patterns was built over a two-meter-high stone square substructure, and probably reached a total height of 12 metres.


Al-Talhat was the ninth station along the Darb Zubaydah, located 140 Km south of Kufa. It was a large-size station endowed with rich and diversified heritage attributes ranging from wells to residential ruins and basins. The four wells present both circular and square shapes, and, differently from Umm al-Qurun, have relatively narrow openings. The sites also show the vestiges of a large square building unit (25 x 25 m) with eight rooms and four observation towers at each corner of the building. North of the site, adjacent to the palace remains are found four water basins in a good state of conservation. They illustrate different construction techniques and designs and are impressive for their size. The largest one is 108 x 55 m, with 70 cm-thick walls and a depth of 2,55 m. and has steps descending towards the inside of the basin eased access to water and enabled maintenance. The water intake hole is located in the southeast corner of the pond. The second basin, the only circular one in Al-Talhat, has a diameter of 26,5 m and a depth of 70 cm. Its wall in regular stone blocks is 1,6 m thick. The third basin (rectangular shape, 31 x 16 m, subdivided into two parts), has a semi-circular opening to allow the water to flow and has preserved the layer of waterproofed plaster that coated the stone wall. The fourth one is also rectangular and has the exact same dimensions of the third basin. Its 1,7 m-thick walls, built of white stone blocks, are supported by semi-circular pillars with a diameter of 90 cm acting as buttresses. 


Sharaf was the twelfth station along the Darb Zubaydah and is located 180 Km south of Kufa. The site includes 140 wells, spread throughout the site, and three pools of varying sizes. Two of them are square-shaped and the last one is rectangular. Their dimensions are much smaller than in Al-Talhat. The rectangular basin is 26 m long and 5 m large; the biggest square basin is 9 x 9 m and the last one is 6,5 m x 6,5. Sharaf most relevant feature is a long stretch of the original road path, still perfectly visible for several hundred meters. Different road works, adapted to local contexts, were carried out by the Abbasid engineers: road pavement, road delineation on each side of the path, and stone clearing. This is the case of the road segment that extends from the south of Sharaf to the north of the Waqisa substation.

Al ‘Aqabah

Al ‘Aqabah (literally “the obstacle” in Arabic) was a crucial stop along the trail located some 220 Km from Kufa and about 100 Km from the beginning of the desert sands. This station covers a surface of 1 Km2. It is a plain area that allowed the collection of rainwater flowing through the small valleys descending from the high hills surrounding the site. This station is characterized by its hilly landscape that was a critical obstacle for the pilgrims (it was known as “’Aqabah Al-Shaitan”, the obstacle of the Devil) until it was levelled. North of the station is a small, and badly ruined, rectangular water pond of 5 x 2.5 m with steps in both western corners descending to the bottom. Next to it to the east, are found a 15 x 5 m water-basin almost entirely sanded up, and an ancient 50-m-deep dug circular well. A large water complex is found to the east of the site. It includes water reservoirs, and a monumental rectangular building (105 x 55 m) oriented east-west and subdivided by an internal wall. The stream of water that supplied the basin was dug in the solid rocky ground and was connected to the wall of the northwest corner of this water complex. West of this basin, there are three square-shaped wells soundly constructed and still in a good state of conservation and a circular one. The Al ‘Aqabah dam, located 4,8 Km south of the station, constitutes the major infrastructure of this pilgrim halt and is a major feature of the transnational series. More than 30 meters long, it is 3,5 m high (its original height might be more relevant as it is partially covered by silt). Its wall, built of regular stone blocks bound with lime mortar, is 2-m thick. Apart from punctual damages, Al ‘Aqabah dam is still in good condition.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Pilgrimage routes were firstly religious and traditional axes: the completion of the pilgrimage, driven by Islamic religious faith, animated the spirit and purpose of the journey. Yet, they were not only religious axes but also commercial and trade links facilitating movement across the ancient world and the cultural and commercial exchanges with continuity over a long period of time. The serial property The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: The Darb Zubaydah perfectly embodies the cultural significance coming from exchanges and multi-dimensional dialogue across countries as it brought together Muslim pilgrims from different ethnic groups and regions, favouring cultural, religious, and scientific exchanges among the people of various parts of the world until the end of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 13th c. CE.

The edification of a consistent network of roads, including the Kufa-Makkah axis, but also the broader intersecting caravan paths, originating from Egypt, the Levant, Oman and Yemen and all converging to Makkah, represents an outstanding infrastructure and engineering achievement.

The Kufa-Makkah trail — whose full value can only be understood through its integration and synergies with the other roads — stands out for its overall spatial planning coherency and the importance, quality, and size of its civil engineering work. The planners and builders that developed it along 1,300 km had a full knowledge of the territory through which the route was passing and were able to punctuate the entire length of Darb Zubaydah with pilgrim stations located at a regular distance calculated either in miles or in barid, a unit of measurement translated as “postal station”, as those were extensively developed alongside the pilgrimage trail to create a postal and intelligence network allowing the Caliphs to maintain communication across their wide empire.

While the initial road connecting the Abbasid royal centre to Makkah was designed for horse or camel riding travellers, resulting in a long distance between each station, the popularization of the pilgrimage practice led to the creation of sub-stations to meet poorer pedestrian pilgrims’ needs. The Abbasid elite consolidated and dug wells, built cisterns, edified dams, khan-s and palaces, paved some stretches of the path to make the travel easier for pilgrims, and set up a complete system of milestones and road signage that gave Darb Zubaydah its fame. Opposed to centres popping up haphazardly at any well or oasis along the route, central planning was the main driver of the stations’ network arrangement. The Darb Zubaydah was divided into three main segments: Al-Tha’labiyya was the one-third stop after Kufa and Al-Radhaba was two thirds; in addition, Fayd was identified as the halfway between Kufa and Makkah and had a special relevance.

The ensemble of these elements greatly contributes to its outstanding universal value, forming a remarkable technological ensemble showing the builders’ sound territorial planning skills, attested by the consolidation of a road network intended for the religious but also postal, administrative, and military needs of the Abbasid empire, and illustrating a significant stage of human history, with the consolidation of the regional pilgrimage practice under the Abbasid dynasty.

Many ancient geographers, historians and travellers wrote about Darb Zubaydah. Among them, the most important are: Ibn Khordadbah, ibn Rustah, Abu Al-Faraj, Al-Yaqoubi, Al-Maqdisi, Al-Hamdani, Al- Harbi, Ibn Jubair, and Ibn Battuta. Since the late 19th century, also western travellers described this trail and had the opportunity to travel along this ancient pilgrimage route.

Criterion (ii): Since the advent of Islam, the Islamic Pilgrimage Routes have played a major and continuous role in the multidirectional exchanges between the populations from each corner of the Islamic world. Though partially developed reactivating pre-existing commercial routes, they created an unprecedented regional network. The vestiges of the Hajj Pilgrimage Routes stand out for their richness and diversity. They include caravanserais, mosques, water systems, forts, palaces, cemeteries, settlements, and roads facilities developed and maintained at different moments in history. The Darb Zubaydah played a key role in religious and cultural exchanges and development during the Islamic Middle Ages, and this is admirably illustrated by the elements of the series representing the routes followed by pilgrims from Kufa. This route exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time extending from the early Islamic to the Late Abbasid and Ottoman periods. Passing through the northern and central regions of Arabia, it connected Iraqi major cities and linked the states and kingdoms through Mesopotamia to the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah. The vestiges of the Route witness major developments in architecture, ranging from simple tent camps to fortified Palaces and water management technology (to provide water to large masses of travellers either pilgrim or trade caravans). it includes memorial inscriptions and milestones, and outstanding landscape works aiming to ease travel along the trail.

Criterion (iv): The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes generated an unprecedented network of intertwined coastal and inland routes: they represent an unparalleled spatial planning achievement of impressive geographical scale and illustrate the technical expertise which allowed the establishment and long-standing use of the routes in the challenging climate and topography of the region. The Darb Zubaydah pilgrimage road and infrastructure, differently from other heritage routes, was essentially the result of a top-down decision by the Abbasid rulers to favour the Pilgrimage of Iraqi and Asian Muslims. The spiritual and physical needs of pilgrims traveling from Kufa to Makkah were met by the development of several specialised types of edifices: including water supply infrastructures, mosques, caravanserais, and palaces. The pools, canals, wells, dams and water reservoirs along the route represent an outstanding example of architectural and water management technology which illustrates a significant stage in human ingenuity.

Criterion (vi): The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes illustrate the power and influence of Islamic faith that transcends social class, geographical divisions, and historic periods. The Darb Zubaydah is directly associated with the pilgrimage ritual (hajj) engaged by Muslims from all around the world, rich and poor alike. It aimed at facilitating travel through the vast desert wilderness of Arabia. The hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage, forms the fifth pillar of Islam and many memorial inscriptions are found along the trail. Many early Muslim geographers, and later Western travellers too, contribute to Darb Zubaydah’s outstanding universal significance. Travel writing spanning many centuries constitutes an integral part of the legacy of the route documenting not only its physical character, but also the prevailing social environment and the emotions of the travellers adding a temporal depth to the understanding of the route and the pilgrimage.

The attributes of The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: The Darb Zubaydah support and carry jointly its Outstanding Universal Value as a whole, in a collective manner. The whole of the route is more than the sum of its constituent parts, but each attribute is an active contributor to its Outstanding Universal Value. The symbolical significance of the property emanates firstly from the remarkable effort perpetuated by Muslim societies through time, to comply with a religious duty. The essence of the Darb Zubaydah carries by itself a spiritual meaning of outstanding universal significance. The mosque remains found in several stations along the trail materialize in the most evident manner the symbolic value of Darb Zubaydah. The cultural value of the property is illustrated by the different facilities found along the road: road facilities, including signage and pavement, are the concrete attributes that made exchanges between the Peninsula and Mesopotamia possible. The outstanding diversity of construction design embodied by the different attributes constitutes another evidence of the cultural, intellectual, and engineering exchanges that occurred in The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: The Darb Zubaydah construction process, that saw the contribution of the best engineering expertise from the whole Abbasid empire. The decorative and ceramics vestiges, typical of Abbasid style, found in Al-Radhabah demonstrate that these exchanges were also strongly active in the artistic sphere.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity


The Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah is a powerfully practiced ritual which gathers millions of Muslim believers every year. Darb Zubaydah remained active for many centuries. The vestiges of the stations, forts, caravanserais, and the desert landscape surrounding them, reflect and exemplify the relevance of the hajj route and the prosperity it brought to the area.

The proposed serial property focuses on a selected corpus of elements which appear as the best-preserved and most significant testimonies of the pilgrimage route facilities. This corpus has the potential to include the ensemble of attributes that “truthfully and credibly express the cultural values of the serial property”. Their well-preserved form and design, and their original materiality express their potential Outstanding Universal Value.

The main attributes are: Vestiges of roadwork (pavement, pathways opened up by clearing stones…); Vestiges of signage infrastructure (milestones, road markers, lighthouse); Vestiges of water management systems installed to meet pilgrims’ water needs throughout the pilgrimage (birkat, wells, pools, dam); Archaeological vestiges of mosques and palaces.

Pilgrimage routes and practices have evolved with the progressive rise of other Muslim empires and capitals, and have been deeply modified in the past two centuries with the emergence of the European maritime companies, the opening of the Suez Canal, the Ottoman Hejaz railway, and the boom of flight transportation in the mid-20th century. This historic evolution and the changes it brought strongly affected Darb Zubaydah that saw its khan-s and palaces abandoned, and the overall disuse of its roads; yet some of the ancient wells and cisterns are still seasonally filled of water and its ruined stations are still part of the local desert scape and territoriality. Although the itineraries and modalities have evolved, the continuity of this ritual through time contributes to the authenticity of the proposed transnational property.


The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: The Darb Zubaydah used to have tens of stations initiated and consolidated at different periods of time. The proposed transnational serial property sheds light on the remaining elements which all together successfully “ensure the complete representation of the features and processes which convey the property’s significance and express its Outstanding Universal Value(Operational Guidelines § 89). The 13 elements of this transnational serial property depict the diversity of the built infrastructures deployed along the road: road markers, road pavements, wells, cisterns, ruins of palaces, settlements, and forts. The selected elements represent, in their diversity, a true evocation of the context of the pilgrimage to Makkah in ancient times. The sectors of the route materialise the routes followed by pilgrims, while the ruins of the edifices along the route share the direct testimony, conserved and transmitted to the present day, of the practice of the pilgrimage as it occurred under the Abbasid caliphate.

The stations and forts, combined with their routes and commercial markets, provide a very complete picture of the Arab desert culture along a major trade and pilgrimage route whose evocative power is intact. Remains of all the elements that comprised the stations (dwellings, forts, caravanserais, and markets) are still found along the trail. The limited recent development of these sites has given them considerable protection from urban encroachments. The Darb Zubaydah remained active for many centuries. The remains of its stations, forts, caravanserais, and the desert landscape surrounding them, still reflect and exemplify the relevance of this hajj route and the prosperity it brought to the area.

The nomination for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List will act as a catalyser to renew the interest of the international scientific community and foster new on-site research on Darb Zubaydah archaeological elements.

Justification of the selection of the component part(s) in relation to the future nomination as a whole

The section of The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: The Darb Zubaydah situated within the territory of contemporary Iraq, counts some 300 km of the total 1,300 km of the trail. Darb Zubaydah vestiges on the Iraqi territory have not yet been fully studied but present the ensemble of the elements that characterise the Abbasid planned efforts to develop the pilgrimage and trade route linking the Iraqi new cities established by the Caliphate with the Holy sites in central Arabia.

The four Iraqi sites have been selected for their state of conservation and for their architectural and archaeological features. The site of Umm al-Qurun preserves a unique example of manara, the light-towers that marked the path for the pilgrims during the night, as well as a very complete pilgrim station with water infrastructures and a large khan. Talhat, on the other hand, effectively represents the typical water infrastructure, based on a combination of water pods and wells, found along the entire road: its basins are very well preserved and show diverse construction designs and techniques, ranging from the use of plaster coating to the insertion of staircases, water supply channels, and the use of buttresses to support the walls of the basins. The site of Sharaf displays a long stretch of cleared road attesting the effort made to shape the landscape to facilitate the passage of caravans, pedestrians, and riders. Finally, ‘Aqabah was historically an important station with monumental assets and an imposing dam that materialise the ambitions of Darb Zubaydah builders and patrons.

The Iraqi sites contribute to the integrity of the transnational property and underline the unity of the interventions carried out on the route by the Abbasid central power from the 9th to the 13th centuries.

Comparison with other similar properties

From Islam’s earliest years, the desire to perform the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to the Holy City of Makkah, saw large numbers of people travelling to Makkah and to Madinah, the Holy Cities of Islam. As a result, certain pre-Islamic trade roads took on new importance and new routes developed that crisscrossed the Muslim world and the Arabian Peninsula.

To ease the journey of the pilgrims, rulers, and wealthy patrons built caravanserais, supplied water, and provided protection along these roads to Makkah and Madinah. Individual Muslims, in the name of charity, helped others to make the journey easy and safe. So, beyond its spiritual meaning for each pilgrim, the hajj acquired a great importance as a social phenomenon, contributing enormously to forging a melded Islamic culture and a worldwide Islamic community whose shared characteristics bridged differences of nationality, ethnicity, languages, and customs. The stream of pilgrims passed even the most distant parts of the Islamic world, and everywhere everyone knew someone who had been on the hajj. Each passing pilgrim was a tangible reminder of the scope of the faith and the witness of the amalgamation of various cultures. The hajj was the heartbeat of the Earth’s first genuinely transcontinental culture. The Islamic World, for nearly a millennium, was a composite Afro-Eurasian free-trade zone through which not only pilgrims but also traders, merchants and bureaucrats travelled with relative freedom and ease. By creating and nurturing this network, the hajj expanded the possibilities of science, commerce, politics, and religion.

Commerce was supported by a system of caravan and sea routes. The closer one got to Makkah, the more the hajj roads were the main arteries of this system, swelling with pilgrims from all points of the compass. No traveller came to the Holy Cities empty-handed, for some carried goods to pay their way, others bore local news that they carried among the provinces, and more learned ones brought the latest concepts and ideas, essential nutrients for the intellectual life of the Islamic World. The hajj likewise affected many who were not on the road. The desire to assist the pilgrim’s orientation, observation and movements spurred Muslim advances in mathematics, optics, astronomy, navigation, transportation, geography, education, medicine, finance, culture and even politics. The constant flow of pilgrims turned the route into channels of cultural and intellectual ferment.

The concept of “Cultural Route” was integrated in the World Heritage Convention Operational Guidelines in the 1990s. Since, the World Heritage List, and national Tentative Lists, have included several cultural and pilgrimage routes. To highlight the specificities and similarities of The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: Darb Zubaydah with other cultural routes, the comparative analysis addresses four distinct typologies of properties: 1st) Other Saudi hajj routes on the Saudi Tentative List, 2nd) Pilgrimage routes at the global scale; 3rd) Cultural routes in the region; 4th) Global transnational cultural routes.

A first, essential reference concerns the other hajj routes that connected Makkah with the rest of the Muslim world. Among the many historic trails, two routes stand out as particularly relevant form the historic and architectural perspective: the Syrian Route and the Egyptian Route. Both are included in the 2015 Saudi Tentative List.

The Syrian Pilgrimage Route (Saudi Arabia TL 2015, criteria ii, iv, vi): It is the oldest route used by Muslim pilgrim caravans. It connected Damascus to Madinah, with a total length of 1,307 kilometres, passing through several camps and stations. The most important among them were: That Al-Hajj, Tabuk, Al-Akhdhar, Al-Mu’azam, Al-Aqraa, Al-Hijr, and Al-Ula. In various Islamic periods and eras, the trail received the interest of Caliphs and Muslim rulers who conducted many of the constructions along the route, including the creation of pools, canals, forts, castles, mosques, bridges, and markets. All along the trail are found numerous inscriptions and memorial Islamic inscriptions left by the pilgrims.

The Egyptian Pilgrimage Route (Saudi Arabia TL 2015, criteria ii, iv, vi): It linked Egypt to Makkah and Medina and benefited Muslim pilgrims coming from Egypt, Sudan, Central Africa, Morocco, Andalusia, and Sicily. The pilgrims gathered in Egypt and then travelled in large caravans through Sinai to Aqaba. From there, according to the political circumstances, they followed either an internal land route or a coastal one to reach Makkah. The Egyptian pilgrimage route received great attention from Muslim rulers in different Islamic periods. A series of pilgrimage stations marked the way and offered the pilgrims the necessary facilities: pools, canals, and wells, but also bridges, castles, forts, and mosques. In the second half of the 19th century, the Egyptian Route was progressively replaced by faster and safer sea route bringing pilgrims directly to Jeddah.

These two properties share many of the values and attributes of The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: Darb Zubaydah and are intimately connected to this property from the geographic, cultural, and religious points of view. Jointly, these pilgrimage routes offer a comprehensive representation of the hajj phenomenon across different historic periods and geographic contexts. A global reflection on the hajj routes — to address the different options and envisage the best way for the protection and valorisation of these properties in the World Heritage context — will be developed in the coming years by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in coordination with the neighbouring countries, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, and the Advisory Bodies.

A second relevant group to compare with is represented by other pilgrimage routes at the world scale:

Route of Santiago de Compostela Camino Francés and Routes of Northern Spain (Spain 1993, and France, 1998, criteria ii, iv, vi): Santiago de Compostela was proclaimed the first European Cultural itinerary by the Council of Europe in 1987. This route from the French-Spanish border was — and still is — taken by pilgrims to reach Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Some 1,800 buildings along the route, both religious and secular, are of great historic interest. The route played a fundamental role in encouraging cultural exchanges between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages. It remains a testimony to the power of the Christian faith among people of all social classes and from all over Europe. Santiago de Compostela was the supreme goal for countless thousands of pious pilgrims who converged there from all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages. To reach Spain, pilgrims had to pass through France, and the group of important historical monuments included in this inscription marks out the four routes by which they did so.

Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (Japan, 2004, criteria ii, iii, iv, vi): Set in the dense forests of the Kii Mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean, three sacred sites – Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, Koyasan – linked by pilgrimage routes to the ancient capital cities of Nara and Kyoto, reflect the fusion of Shinto, rooted in the ancient tradition of nature worship in Japan, and Buddhism, which was introduced from China and the Korean Peninsula. The sites, covering 495.3 ha, and their surrounding forest landscape reflect a persistent and extraordinarily well-documented tradition of sacred mountains over 1,200 years. The area, with its abundance of streams, rivers, and waterfalls, is still part of the living culture of Japan and is much visited for ritual purposes and hiking, with up to 15 million visitors annually. Each of the three sites contains shrines, some of which were founded as early as the 9th century CE.

Route of the Franciscan Evangelisation (Guatemala, TL 2002, criteria i, iv, v, vi): The Route counts 26 churches, some chaplainries and oratories built during the time of Spanish dominance (1524-1821) under the direction of the order of Preachers of San Francisco, for the religious teaching and the castellanización of the local natives descending of the Mayan. This circumstance explains the stylistic unit of the buildings, as well as the presence of great quantity of works of art, used with didactic and religious purposes that still play a role in the region as fundamental elements of the local ideological unit.

La Via Francigena in Italy (Italy, TL 2019, criteria ii, iv, vi): The Via Francigena in Italy is the first and most important road that, in the Middle Ages, connected the countries beyond the western Alps (the land of the Franks) to Rome. Dating back to the Longobard era, this road was not built from a single path but from a network of roads that converged at junctions or mandatory points of passage. It has consistently been the preferred route for pilgrimages to Rome from the Middle Ages to the present day. The proposed route includes the entire network of routes from the Alpine passes to Rome, with a total linear extension of about 1,200 km. The route network is associated with the most significant structures connected to it: cities and rural settlements, old and new; monastic complexes; places of worship; buildings for reception, hospitality, and assistance; equipment for rest-stops; defensive structures (castles, forts, fortresses, towers, and strongholds), artefacts and road infrastructure (bridges, fords, ports). The Via Francigena in Italy represents one of the most eminent "documents-monuments" of the creation and development of pilgrim routes, standing out distinctly as a cultural route and an inseparable combination of material and immaterial assets: urban, landscape, architectural, technological, and artistic.

Though sharing many similarities with these properties, The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: The Darb Zubaydah is the only one relating to the Islamic religion and it materialises in a unique way, the centralised planning efforts accomplished by the Muslim leaders of the Abbasid caliphate to favour the implementation of the fifth pillar of Islam. This unique pilgrimage, trade, and administrative route played a role comparable to the Roman Empire ancient road network in facilitating transportation and exchange throughout the Abbasid Empire and acquires therefore a unique relevance among the pilgrimage routes included in the World Heritage List and national Tentative Lists.

A third relevant comparison can be drawn with a site that was part of the pre-Islamic Road network upon which the Islamic hajj routes developed:

Incense Route - Desert Cities in the Negev (Israel, 2005, criteria iii, v): The four Nabatean towns of Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta, along with associated fortresses and agricultural landscapes in the Negev Desert, are spread along routes linking them to the Mediterranean end of the incense and spice route. Together they reflect the hugely profitable trade in frankincense and myrrh from south Arabia to the Mediterranean, which flourished from the 3rd century BCE until the 2nd century CE. With the vestiges of their sophisticated irrigation systems, urban constructions, forts, and caravanserai they bear witness to the way in which the harsh desert was settled for trade and agriculture.

The Darb Zubaydah was partially established along the path of earlier caravan routes that crossed the Arabian Peninsula. Yet, its planned development in the Abbasid Empire period — when new regions were converted to Islam and more pilgrims were able to carry out the hajj — sets it entirely apart from the ancient spice and incense route that favoured the development of the Negev Nabatean towns.

Finally, it is important to compare The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: The Darb Zubaydah with two major transnational cultural routes and an ambitious transnational project that set important benchmarks for the ensemble of the hajj routes as they result from a long-term transnational process supported by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies.

Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, 2014, criteria ii, iii, iv, vi): This site is an extensive Inca communication, trade and defence network of roads covering 30,000 km. Constructed by the Incas over several centuries and partly based on pre-Inca infrastructure, this extraordinary network through one of the world’s most extreme geographical terrains linked the snow-capped peaks of the Andes — at an altitude of more than 6,000 m — to the coast, running through hot rainforests, fertile valleys, and absolute deserts. It reached its maximum expansion in the 15th century when it spread across the length and breadth of the Andes. The Qhapac Ñan, Andean Road System includes 273 components spread over more than 6,000 km that were selected to highlight the social, political, architectural, and engineering achievements of the network, along with its associated infrastructure for trade, accommodation, and storage, as well as sites of religious significance.

Silk Roads: The Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, 2014, criteria ii, iii, v, vi): Silk Road on the territory of Kazakhstan is divided into several main parts. Represented and marked by monuments of history and culture these sections (roads) are original and have distinct features distinguishing them one from each other. Most probably, it was the natural environment and adaptation of human to existence in definite climatic conditions that has shaped the originality of a definite section. It can be affirmed with full confidence that the Silk Road is a phenomenon of unification of diversity of regions with the help of universal system of exchange of human values which was created, developed, and maintained by people of different ethnical, linguistic, religious beliefs during more than two thousand years of existence of the Silk Road.

Frontiers of the Roman Empire (United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, The Netherlands, 1987, 2005, 2008, 2021, criteria ii, iii, iv): The ‘Roman Limes’ represents the border line of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent in the 2nd century CE. It stretched over 5,000 km from the Atlantic coast of northern Britain, through Europe to the Black Sea, and from there to the Red Sea and across North Africa to the Atlantic coast. Certain elements of the line have been excavated, some reconstructed and a few destroyed. Multiple sections of this long ancient frontier, across different European countries, have been progressively inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1987, while other sections in Europe and beyond, are currently being considered for future nominations. The 118-km-long Hadrian’s Wall (UK), built in 122 CE, the Antonin Wall, a 60-km long fortification in Scotland started by Emperor Antonius Pius in 142 CE, and two sections of the frontier in Germany form a first transnational property (Frontiers of the Roman Empire). The frontier along the Danube River, distributed across contemporary Germany, Austria and Slovakia, is represented by another transnational WH property (Frontiers of the Roman Empire – The Danube Limes Western Segment) that reflects the specificities of this part of the Roman Frontier through a selection of sites representing key features of the ancient border and the way these structures related to local topography. Finally, another transnational property, Frontiers of the Roman Empire – The Lower German Limes, in Germany and The Netherlands, comprises military and civilian sites and infrastructure that marked the edge of Lower Germany from the 1st to 5th centuries CE.

Though referring to different regions of the world and lacking the profound spiritual significance of the hajj pilgrimage, these major transnational properties are an essential reference for the creation of a comprehensive system of World Heritage hajj routes capable to include a series of trails across multiple Arab countries within a coordinated major regional project focusing on the Islamic Pilgrimage.

An effective coordination among the different concerned countries, and the positive cooperation with UNESCO and ICOMOS, are a necessary pre-requisite for such large-scale transnational nominations. The Hajj Pilgrimage Routes: Darb Zubaydah is an important first step (it is the first transnational Tentative List site in the Arab Region) of what could become another successful international cooperation project. The countries of the Arab Region share a common language and a common religious and cultural background, all favourable starting points upon which building a long-term international project with the support of the international community.