The Growing Pains of the Ancient Hajj

Most cities experience a high season and for centuries, Mecca’s has been early October, when Muslims from all over the world visit the Saudi city for a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.

Islam, their faith, requires the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide to make the holy journey to the birthplace of the religion. Through a series of rituals and historic reenactments, pilgrims pay tribute to God and walk the ground where the prophet Muhammad was born and lived. During the one-week event, three million people visit the city, which takes on an air of piety. The faithful are urged to reflect the spirit of the observance by dressing in white robes and forsaking the comforts of modern life.

For centuries, beyond its role as a religious epicenter, Mecca was little more than a trading town. But as Mecca has grown and developed, the hajj—as the pilgrimage is called—has become more complicated. Since 2005, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, which consider Mecca one of the country’s greatest spiritual and economic assets, have launched an ambitious renewal project. For a decade, Mecca has slowly reinvented itself, starting with new hotels and shopping centers. The 120-floor Makkah Royal Clock Tower was completed in 2012, becoming the largest building in the historically one-story town. Longer term, the plan includes a $60 billion expansion to the grand mosque to accommodate pilgrims who, at the peak of the hajj, are forced by overcrowding to pray outside in the street.

The country’s leaders, including King Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz, say that the renewal is necessary to handle the modern hajj. The number of pilgrims has risen from 200,000 in the 1960s to 3 million today, more than doubling the city’s population for a week. Accommodating all of them and ensuring their safety and public health, officials say, requires new buildings and better roads. In 2006, a stampede that killed 346 showed the hazards of large crowds on small streets. That same year, a concrete hotel collapsed killing more than 70 people. By 2040, the hajj is expected to double again to seven million pilgrims.

Such large visitor populations represent an economic as well as a religious force. The pilgrims who come to pray also need a place to eat and sleep, especially as the ancient custom of Mecca’s Muslim residents hosting visiting pilgrims reaches its capacity. Each year, the 10-day hajj brings $10 billion into the Saudi economy, and analysts project it may become far more. Hotels near the grand mosque have been known to charge $700 per night. Souvenirs such as prayer beads and mats are as ubiquitous as they are expensive. A BBC report in 2012 found that to maximize profits, most religious souvenirs in Mecca were no longer made locally, but in China.

Pilgrims who come once may not perceive the city’s recent changes, but the people who live year-round in Mecca can remember a simpler place. Osama al-Bar, Mecca’s mayor, says that the city of his youth, dotted with spice markets and fabric merchants, is gone. Hills where Muhammad is believed to have walked have been flattened to make level sites for cranes and towers. Even at the helm of local government, the mayor has little recourse. Most custodial authority for Mecca’s holy sites falls to the national government further east in Riyadh, the capital.

As in nearby Dubai and Qatar, the urban renewal appears to cater to wealthier pilgrims, especially the newly-affluent from developing countries, looking for places to spend. Five-star hotels have sprouted adjacent to the Hajj’s holiest site, the Kaaba. Before and after their religious duties, visitors can shop in a new mall nearby and, just added last year, a gender-segregated Starbucks and a Paris Hilton store with designer handbags and accessories.

Rich or poor, Mecca’s pilgrims are all supposed to be equal in the eyes of God. As a metropolis grows in an area historically significant for its simplicity, critics push back. They lament the increasing glamour of the ancient city, and what they see as American-style largesse. Writing in the New York Times, Ziauddin Sardar, editor of the quarterly Critical Muslim and the author of Mecca: The Sacred City, complained that “The city is now surrounded by the brutalism of rectangular steel and concrete structures—an amalgam of Disneyland and Las Vegas.” Sami Angawi, an architect and outspoken critic of the changes, says that Mecca has gone “from Mecca to Mecca-hattan,” with centuries of history bulldozed over and replaced by concrete.

The business of preserving sacred sites, with at least the appearance of authenticity, has never been cheap. Consider the experience of Israel. In the 1980s, when security checkpoints were added to the western wall, the most holy site to Jews, they were constructed with thick glass instead of opaque steel. Close by at the Dome of the Rock, another Islamic holy site, officials stationed armed guards around a wide perimeter, but at enough distance not to interfere with the experience of the faithful. Rather than intrude upon the intersection of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the old city of Jerusalem, the booming metropolis of shopping malls and nightclubs was built 40 miles away in Tel Aviv.

Eyesores can be ignored; designer stores can be shunned. But a changing Mecca brings questions of how the centuries-old tradition of the pilgrimage itself could change. The word hajj in Arabic means “a great effort.” That effort—of walking through the holy sites and interacting with fellow Muslims to learn how Islam is practiced all over the world—is intended to deepen the pilgrim’s spirituality. Sardar, the author and Mecca scholar, argues that if that experience is diluted, the great virtue of traveling thousands of miles for a one-time experience may lose meaning. More people may show up, but with diminishing returns. Those who come will leave with less and less.