Mecca, thronged by pilgrims, builds to accommodate more worshippers

The holy city hosted a record-breaking 14 million pilgrims in 16 days, a 40 percent increase in pilgrims compared to the same period in 2014. 

Khalid Mohammed/AP/File
In this Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014 photo, Muslim pilgrims circle the Ka'aba, the black cube inside the Grand Mosque, during the annual pilgrimage, known as the hajj, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

This year’s Ramadan, a Muslim holy month devoted to fasting and praying, attracted a record-breaking 14 million pilgrims to Mecca within its first 16 days, Arab News reported. The holy city saw a 40 percent increase compared to the same period in 2014.

Located in the Sarawat Mountains of central Saudi Arabia, Mecca is considered the holiest city in Islam. Its Grand Mosque houses the Ka’aba, a cubic structure draped with a black cloth which Muslims around the world turn to face when they pray.

This Ramadan, worshippers arrived to perform Umrah, a minor pilgrimage to Mecca that can be done any time of the year (as opposed to the Hajj, the major pilgrimage made in the last month of the Muslim calendar).

According to Arab News, Issa Mohammed Rawas, undersecretary at the Ministry of Haj, said approximately five million foreigners have performed the Umrah so far this month. In a recent meeting hosted by the Central Haj Committee, Salah Saqr, the secretary of the committee, said the city needed more than 650,000 vehicles to bring in the devout pilgrims. 

Since the 1980s, the Saudi government has been refurbishing Mecca and its surrounding areas to accommodate the soaring pilgrimage numbers, the Associated Press reported.

In 2008, developers demolished the house of Abu Bakr, the Prophet Muhammad's successor as leader of the Muslim community, and replaced it with a Hilton hotel. In 2012, a seven-tower complex that houses the sky-high Mecca Royal Clock Tower, was erected on top of the Ottoman Ajyad Fortress. The fortress was built around 1780 to protect the city from bandits and invaders. 

The following year, the Saudi government announced the development of the Al-Sharashif Mountain, an unplanned area of slums populated with migrant workers. The neighborhood will be transformed into a major urban center, consisting of hotels, commercial and residential buildings, educational and health facilities, and other supporting services, according to the Saudi Gazette. 

While ample space is necessary for such a revered site, recent expansions have been met with mixed reactions.

Critics point to the fact that developers have not only been obliterating ancient sites, they’ve been replacing them with five-star hotels and commercial centers that only the elite will enjoy. 

"There is nothing holy about having Pizza Hut right next to the holiest site in Islam," Mohammed Abdullah Attar, a religious scholar in one of the all-boys' schools in Mecca, told The Christian Science Monitor.  

On the other hand, officials working to develop Mecca speak with pride about the holy city, claiming an overhaul of the Great Mosque only reaffirms its significance to Muslims worldwide.

In 2014, Saudi Arabia’s top religious official, Grand Mufti Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheikh, told The Associated Press that he supported the demolitions in 2013, saying "the removal of such things within the expansion is necessary."

Whether or not Mecca will witness more developments and high-end hotels, devout Muslims will keep making pilgrimages to the holy city. By 2017, some will be able to stay in Abraj Kudai, slated to become the world’s largest hotel. With 10,000 rooms, 70 restaurants, and 12 towers, the multi-service complex will stand roughly a mile south of Mecca’s Great Mosque. 

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