Travel + Leisure

February 2004, Travel + Leisure

Mecca’s Makeover

Islam's holiest city attracts millions of pilgrims—more every year. To accommodate the faithful, the Saudis are constructing a vast new gateway.

Muslims from around the world have made annual pilgrimages to Mecca for the past 14 centuries. The hajj was formerly an arduous journey, undertaken once in a lifetime, on foot or horseback. It often took years. Fewer than 100,000 people made the trip in 1950. By 1983, the number of pilgrims exceeded 1 million. Today, nearly 1.5 million pilgrims arrive from all corners of the globe. Another half-million are from Saudi Arabia itself, which serves as guardian of Islam’s holiest sites.

“They will come to thee on foot and on every lean camel,” the Koran proclaims. Nowadays, most pilgrims arrive by jet, traverse the Holy Mosque at Mecca’s heart via air-conditioned walkways, pray on floors built of marble, and ascend escalators to upper terraces from which they can view the sacred stone shrine of the Ka’bah.

“This is the largest mass tourism event in the world,” says David Long, a former U.S. diplomat who has devoted extensive study to the enormous logistical challenges posed by the hajj. Saudi Minister of Pilgrimage Iyad Madani has likened it to “having twenty Super Bowls in one stadium where two million people…will actually be taking part in playing the game as well.” Overcrowding means that deaths and injuries are regular occurrences, even though the Saudi monarchy has spent billions of dollars to fine-tune the five-day religious rite, which originated in the seventh century and remains essentially unchanged in the 21st.

However, Mecca—Muhammad’s birthplace—has itself altered beyond recognition in recent decades and is now on the verge of an even greater transformation. The design for a vast new entry into the holy city was made public last summer. It calls for a boulevard nearly three times as long as the Champs-Élysées, to be lined by 32 million square feet of new hotels, shops, apartments, prayer facilities, gardens, and walkways. Selected in an architectural competition judged by Saudi state officials and private construction authorities, it is part of an ongoing effort to convert Islam’s devotional epicenter into a year-round destination for Muslims.

All devout Muslims—both men and women—are expected to make the pilgrimage at least once if they are physically and financially able. But with the ease of modern air travel, many now go on the hajj several times in their lives, adding to the crowding. And, with Islam the planet’s fastest-growing religion (1.2 billion faithful worldwide), the number of potential pilgrims is on the rise. In response, Saudi Arabia has begun encouraging those who have already made the hajj to make instead what is called the umrah, or lesser pilgrimage, which can be undertaken at any time of year.This change in policy is expected to bring in a total of about 12 million annual visitors to a city with a resident population of 618,000.

Overcrowding spurred the implementation of a quota system limiting the number of hajj pilgrims any one nation can send. The system, administered by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, began in 1988, one year after clashes between Saudi police and Iranians protesting Saudi control of Mecca left 400 dead. To further manage the crowds, the Saudis subsequently limited all residents of Saudi Arabia to one hajj pilgrimage every five years.

To non-Muslims, Mecca is off-limits. If you didn’t know this, signs on roads leading into Mecca make it perfectly clear. And anyone may be asked to prove his fitness to enter. In his autobiography, Malcolm X memorably described being barred from the city until his passport could be rigorously scrutinized and a special Muslim high court confirmed the authenticity of his conversion to Islam. He made it in, as did more than 20,000 American Muslims last year, according to the Arab American Institute. (U.S. travel agencies now offer a range of hajj and umrah packages, though the State Department has issued a warning against traveling to Saudi Arabia.)

Outside of hajj season, Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s most closed societies—it was not until the late nineties that the oil-rich kingdom began opening its doors to non-Muslim tourists. Yet, the design for the new Mecca Western Gateway was drawn up by Westerners: the French firm, Architecture-Studio, which worked with Jean Nouvel on the modernist Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Lead architect Marc Lehmann, who happens to have converted to Islam eight years ago when he married a Muslim woman, likens the project to “a machine for taking people to the holy places.” Fleets of rapid-transit buses will run continuously along the new boulevard, carrying 12,000 people per hour from one end to the other.

Palm trees and hotels (which could add as many as 30,000 rooms) will line the entire length of the avenue, with pedestrian zones punctuated by tensile-fabric structures providing shade and areas for prayer. Pilgrims arriving from the Red Sea port of Jidda, where the main airport for the hajj is located, will alight at a central bus terminal at the western end. And outdoor mist-spraying devices along the avenue will ensure a relatively cool environment for visitors. This is essential. The timing of the hajj is based on the Muslim lunar calendar (it began in late January this year), and so periodically the event occurs in summer, when temperatures can soar as high as 126 degrees Fahrenheit. It is not uncommon for pilgrims to die of heat exposure and sunstroke.

According to Lehmann, final approval for the project is still pending; Saudi construction authorities have asked for several modifications. Saudi officials declined repeated requests for comment about the plan, the scale of which far outstrips several recent mega-projects undertaken to modernize Mecca.

Once a hard-to-reach backwater, Mecca has been controlled in turn by the Ottomans, the Egyptians, and the Hashemites. The House of Saud took over in 1926, after a power struggle among bedouin leaders, and the city later became part of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. After oil was discovered, in 1938, mammoth revenues began to change Mecca’s appearance substantially.

International hotel chains—Hilton, Sheraton, InterContinental, Sofitel, and Mercure—cater to pilgrims there. High-rise towers vie for position near the Holy Mosque, which in 1932 accommodated 48,000 worshippers. Now up to 1.5 million can pray together at once, and the Saudis boast that the oft-expanded building contains the largest air-conditioning plant on earth. Modernity has arrived in Mecca in other forms as well. A major shopping mall was completed in 2000, and another is under construction. While alcohol may be strictly forbidden, Big Macs, KFC, and Dunkin’ Donuts are not.

The modernization of Mecca has sparked controversy within the Islamic world. In 2002, the Turkish government angrily protested the demolition of an Ottoman-era fortress overlooking the mosque, torn down to make way for hotels and apartment blocks. Turkey lodged a complaint with UNESCO, arguing that the Saudi move was a crime against humanity’s shared heritage and no different from the Taliban’s 2001 destruction of two massive Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.

But Mecca is not included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List—while other major religious sites like the Vatican, Jerusalem, and the birthplace of Buddha are. Inscription on the list requires nomination by the country controlling the site. And although it is a signatory of the World Heritage Convention, Saudi Arabia has yet to designate any specific landmarks, perhaps because this might hinder its plans to facilitate the influx of pilgrims. The kingdom’s most senior clerics reportedly even issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, that permits the destruction of historical places if that destruction discourages idolatry.

According to the architects, building a new gateway will not entail the removal of any historically significant structures; the entry will open onto the holy places from the superhighway that already links Jidda with Mecca. In 1982, the Saudis completed construction of a sprawling new airport terminal at Jidda to handle the more than 1 million people who arrive by plane. The award-winning terminal, designed by the U.S. firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is made up of white, tentlike structures with stretched fabric roofs. The airport will soon undergo a major expansion to handle 21 million passengers annually.

“The smooth running of the hajj is essential to the Saudi image,” says Frank Peters, professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University and author of a book on the hajj. “This is their showcase. But [the Saudis] live in permanent fear that something terrible is going to happen. With that many people in one place, the possibility of disaster is very large.” In 2001, 35 people died in a stampede, and in 1997 more than 340 died in a fire that ripped through pilgrims’ tents.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, security has become even tighter. Fifteen of the 19 suicide hijackers that day were Saudis, and Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda group is believed to be responsible for a bombing that left at least 17 dead in Riyadh in November. Just days before the November incident, the Saudi Interior Ministry said it had foiled an imminent attack in Mecca by killing two Muslim militants inside the holy city itself.

The hajj begins with a ritual purification and circling of the Ka’bah, and concludes with an animal sacrifice. It used to be that up to 1 million sheep, goats, and camels were slaughtered in the open air to celebrate Abraham’s good fortune upon learning that God would accept a sheep in place of his son. Disposing of the remains presented a major sanitation dilemma; much of the offal was buried in huge pits. “The devil’s punch bowl” is how one Iranian writer described the scene in 1964.

But in recent years, religious authorities have begun performing the sacrifice in enclosed abattoirs and allowing slaughter by proxy. Under a procedure overseen by the Islamic Development Bank, pilgrims can now purchase an animal to be sacrificed in accordance with religious strictures. The meat is then put in cold storage until it can be distributed to the poor throughout the Muslim world. This change was proposed by the Saudi state-backed Institute for Hajj Research, which regularly seeks solutions to the pilgrimage’s manifold hygienic and administrative difficulties.

In another hajj rite, carried out in Mina, just outside Mecca, pilgrims gather en masse to throw stones at pillars representing devils.

The space for the ritual stoning has been greatly expanded by the construction of multiple tiers for pilgrims, but the locale remains dangerous. In recent years hundreds have died in incidents of pushing and shoving. Recently, schedules for the stonings were imposed and electronic instruction boards in several languages installed to inform approaching pilgrims about congestion ahead.

“Pilgrims will be urged to wait for some time if the area is crowded,” reads an official Saudi statement.

Although Saudi Arabia insists that politics be kept out of the pilgrimage, participants have reported hearing vitriolic anti-American and anti-Israeli chants as the satanic pillars come under assault.

“It’s increasingly difficult to have a spiritual experience in the middle of this traffic jam there,” says Michael Wolfe, an American convert to Islam and author of a memoir about the pilgrimage. “It’s difficult to execute the rites in a place resembling a concrete parking lot. A lot of people come away from the pilgrimage depressed because it’s not what they imagined it was going to be.”

Still, for most Muslims, completion of the hajj remains the supreme affirmation of faith and search for spiritual rebirth. If they no longer arrive on foot, they come prepared to tolerate inevitable delays and jostling. “It changes people’s hearts,” Wolfe says of the pilgrimage to Mecca. “They don’t appreciate the notion that this is going to be turned into a tourist center like the Vatican.”