Modernizing Mecca: The Transformation of Islam's Holiest City
October 17, 2011
Islam’s holiest city is emerging as a playground for wealthy Muslims from around the globe. Mecca is known for the Grand Mosque and the religious sites that surround it, yet it increasingly resembles a glitzy haven of oil wealth and consumerism. Completed in August, the nearly 2000-foot tall Royal Mecca Clock Tower features high-end hotels and rows of shops. Development has driven up real estate costs: commercial land prices have increased twenty-fold in the past decade, and apartments near central Mecca cost nearly $3 million.
Pilgrimage crowds increase yearly, and Mecca’s population may double by 2035. Nonetheless, hotels, apartments, and malls have paved over structures such as an Islamic school where the Prophet Muhammad once taught. The house of Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, was destroyed in 2006 to make room for public lavatories. In August the government initiated a $21 billion project that will allow the Grand Mosque to hold over two million worshippers but threatens Abbasid-era mosque sections and the remains of the Prophet’s house.
Overt criticism has been muted. Muslim countries reportedly fear that criticizing the kingdom might invite visa restrictions for hajj pilgrims, while archaeologists are cautious to protect their limited access to ancient sites. Saudi clerics, who have their own delicate relationship with the state, often condone the demolition of ancient structures, which they see either as contributing to prophet-worship or being pre-Islamic.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.