Every year, millions of Muslims from across the world travel to a small city on a patch of land in the Tihamah plain of Western Saudi Arabia. For here, in Mecca, lies the Kabbah, Islam’s holiest site.
As gradual globalisation and cheaper air travel makes the world smaller, more and more of the devout are making the pilgrimage, known as the Hajj, every year. In 1997, around 1.2m visited the city during this period. This year, the largest Hajj to do date, saw 2.35m pilgrims – 20,000 of them British – make their way to the city. Though there is some dispute about the data – some of the visitors are Saudis themselves making it hard to compare figures; in some years, the number of visitors has actually fallen slightly – that looks a lot like the number has doubled in just 20 years.
All this provides the city with unique infrastructure burdens: accommodating the vast sea of worshippers that arrive at Mecca during this short period must give many a Saudi city planner sleepless nights.
The requirements of the Hajj have already shaped the centre of the ancient city. Roads must be cut so the pilgrims can reach the Kabbah; accommodation built for them to sleep in at night; and billions of litres of water desalinated to keep them alive in the hot desert sun. Hotels, carparks, lavatories and expansions of the Great Mosque complex have all been created to ensure the safety of the pilgrims.
There is a lot at stake: the list of disasters during the Hajj is tragically long. Most recently and most severely, in 2015, a crush during the ritual led to the deaths of 2,411 pilgrims. There have been five other such disasters, just since 1990.
Following the 2015 disaster, international calls were made for the Hajj to be managed by an independent pan-Islamic organisation, on the grounds that the responsibility was too much for one state.
But the Saudis cherish their identity as the “guardians of the Hajj” – both ideologically, because of the role it gives them in the life of the world’s 2.2bn Mulsims, and practically, because the money involved is astronomical.
An aerial view of the Grand Mosque. Image: Getty.
Due to the centrality of the Kabbah for the rituals, hotels with the best views can charge $7,000 per night during the pilgrimage season. Consequently, the Great Mosque and the adjacent Abraj Al Bait hotel complex are the most expensive buildings in the world, and the area immediately around them is by far the most expensive real estate. According to the mayor, one square foot now sells for up to $18,000: by way of comparison, the most you would pay in London’s poshest Mayfair neighbourhood is barely a third of that, at $6,500. With this amount of money at stake it is a little wonder that the Saudi Arabian government treasure the Hajj.
So the authorities continue to build: more roads, more accommodation, better systems of crowd control.
But all this comes at a cost. These massive structural changes come at the price of the city’s rich material history. In place of an Ottoman era stone citadel, there now lies a hotel complex. The house of the Prophet’s wife, Khadija, is now the site of public loos. Contractors even flattened the very mountain the old castle lay on. The Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Mecca’s ancient buildings have been demolished in the past two decades, all in the name of accommodating the pilgrims.
As Sami Angawi, founder of the Hajj Research Centre, asked the Guardian in 2012: “Why are we imitating the worst mistakes of 60 or 70 years ago from around the world – only even bigger?”
The Saudi government has sacrificed all these things the ensure the future of the Hajj, to ensure that all those who can are able to take part in this holiest of events. The question it should be asking is, considering the destruction of their very history, is it worth it?
This article was amended on 6 November to reflect some controversy around exact visitor numbers.