The Growing Pains of the Ancient Hajj

Dan Stone in National Geographic:

Mecca-from-above-990x610For 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.

…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.

More here.