Mecca: ‘Hyper-identity’ of a Sacred City

Volume 47, Issue 3 :: by Karla Cavarra Britton

Building Boom

View of building boom in Mecca approximately four years ago shows construction almost complete on the clock tower (at right in photo). The black cube of the Kabba has since been encircled with an elevated walkway. Photo: Fadi El Benni/flickr

Any discussion of the relationship between the sacred and the city today ought to address the evolving transformation of one of the most influential holy cities in human history—Mecca. Of the world’s major religions and the sacred cities associated with them—Rome, Banares, Kyoto, Jerusalem, Peking, and Canterbury come to mind—Mecca, the city at the heart of Islam, remains the urban environment that is most intensely identified with both the specific obligations and the historical faith of a particular tradition. With a pilgrimage to Mecca being among the Five Pillars of Islam, the city affects the piety of individuals and the identities of Islamic communities in a particularly intense way around the globe, drawing men and women from a great variety of cultural and ethnic identities together in the common experience of the annual hajj. (Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so is obliged once in his or her lifetime to make the pilgrimage to Mecca to participate in the hajj, a set of ritual activities associated with the prophet Muhammad, who was born in Mecca and himself performed the already ancient hajj during his own lifetime.) Other holy cities draw the faithful of their own traditions in a spirit of devotion or perhaps curiosity, yet Mecca has a unique claim upon millions of Muslims from all parts of the world, who come to the city from such disparate places as Indonesia, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and North America, both men and women, rich and poor, young and old. As a contemporary sacred city, however, Mecca also exemplifies a new hyper-inflated urban condition, perhaps driven by its exceptional cosmopolitanism: in a series of major interventions recently carried out by its Saudi overseers, Mecca’s symbolic presence has been reshaped by the insertion of a massive wave of building that has introduced on an immense scale new elements of commercialism, technology, and modernization into the city’s historic fabric.

Mecca, 1907

A view of Mecca from a book on Islam published in 1907 shows the compact nature of the city.

“And remember Abraham said: ‘My Lord make this a city of peace, and feed its people with fruits—such of them as believe in God and the Last Day.’”
Quran 2:126

The explosive expansion and development of contemporary Mecca—once exemplified in an urban plan proposed by Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid in 2008—focuses on accommodating the city’s religious and historical heritage to the realities of modern mass pilgrimage. For the three million Muslims who travel each year to the holy city from around the globe (with 17 million predicted by 2025), Mecca continues to represent in its distinct urban identity the convictions and patterns of life that define Islamic faith, and certain fundamental allegiances with a global reach. Among the sacred cities of the world, the ubiquity of pilgrims’ desire to reach the holy city of Mecca to participate in the annual five days of ritual observances expresses in a uniquely intense manner the ways in which the city’s ancient origins, with its cosmological symbolism, remain for Muslims a potent formational identity marker. Yet many contemporary pilgrims, such as Basharat Peer writing in The New Yorker, describe how unprepared they are to encounter the Mecca of today. Peer observes, “I had not prepared myself for contemporary Mecca, a city of more than one-and-a-half-million people. In my imagination, it was dominated by the Kaaba, the minarets of the Grand Mosque, the stories of Muhammad, and the desert that formed the landscape of the Prophet’s life.”1

Abraj al-Bait

Abraj al-Bait, or Royal Clock Tower Complex. Photo: Gigi-dreams/flickr

Instead, what pilgrims encounter is the recent expansion and rebuilding of the city that has been guided by an inescapable urge toward gigantism, with new buildings many times bigger in terms of surface and height than the original mosque—buildings that now loom as strange objects in the urban center, overwhelming any sense of a coherent architectural identity. The Grand Mosque itself, last enlarged in 1953, is being expanded again by Saudi King Abdullah, increasing its capacity from 750,000 to two million. (Real estate in the area around the mosque is now some of the most expensive in the world, costing some $18,000 per square foot.) The mataf, or open area around the Kaaba, is to be expanded to triple its capacity to 130,000 pilgrims per hour. But to make way for this new growth, the historic center of the mosque will be obliterated. Irfan al-Alawi, executive director of the preservationist Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, says of the proposal: “They want to get rid of the brick vaults and stone columns that have stood there since the 17th century. These are the oldest part of the holy mosque, designed by the great architect Sinan.”2 The plans for the city also include a rail system to connect the principal pilgrimage sites, a high-speed train link to Medina, and an ongoing redevelopment of the city center with additional high-rise hotels and shopping malls—all with an emphasis on technology that will make Mecca “smarter than any other smart city” (to quote Prince Khalid al-Faisal, Mecca’s governor). “Modern Mecca,” observes Peer, “feels like it was built by a people without history or tradition—a sprawling imitation of modernist architecture.”

The redevelopment of Mecca is most vividly—and unavoidably—embodied by the city’s new architectural symbol: the Abraj al-Bait, or Royal Clock Tower complex. The complex is made up of a series of interconnecting towers that house five luxury hotels, a shopping mall, a hospital, and a prayer room that can hold up to 10,000 worshippers, all centered around a clock tower vaguely reminiscent of Big Ben’s home, rising almost 2,000 feet. Immediately adjacent to the Grand Mosque, which is the location of the Kaaba and the most sacred site in the Islamic world, the complex is built on the site of the Ottoman al-Ajyad fortress built in 1781 but razed to make way for the new building. The Abraj al-Bait is now the biggest (in terms of area), and the second tallest building in the world. Designed by the German architect Mahmoud Bodo Rasch and built by the Binladin Group, the tower can be seen from 30 kilometers away, glowing even at night, and sends out a call to prayer that reaches seven kilometers across the valley. The tower is encrusted with a pastiche of traditional Islamic elements such as mosaics, and is topped by a gigantic hilal, or Crescent Moon, the potent symbol of Islamic religious and political identity.

From an urbanistic point of view, one of the most interesting effects of the focus on new building near the Grand Mosque is what The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright has called a “unique concentricity, with everything determined by its orientation towards the hallowed centre, [spawning] a strangely diagrammatic radial urbanism. From above, like a sea of iron filings pulled by a magnet, the whole city appears to crowd round a core, the vortex of pilgrims giving way to an equally swirling current of tower blocks. It is the axis of prayer writ large in concrete.” Yet the construction boom that crowds Mecca’s skyline with cranes is not limited to the vicinity of the Grand Mosque. On the western side of the city, for example, is a new site known as the Jabal Omar Development. This extensive complex is intended to house 100,000 people in 26 luxury hotels. Likewise, to facilitate pilgrims’ arrival in Mecca, the King Abdul Aziz gateway airport in Jeddah has been modernized and expanded, with its capacity planned to quadruple to 80 million passengers a year. During the holy month of Dhu al-Higgah, the airport receives an influx of two million additional pilgrims for the hajj. As designers of the airport from OMA (the Office of Metropolitan Architecture) report, no other airport in the world can claim such an overwhelming specificity of use.3 Its unusual programmatic requirements necessitate providing terminals that can accommodate both pilgrims’ physical and spiritual needs, while two grand terminals are reserved for the Saudi royal family.

Unlike many holy cities, therefore, Mecca is not only an important pilgrimage destination, but a politically charged site as well. As the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, the city encompasses more than a spiritual and religious meaning, including within its very character the idea of a theocratic state and a divinely inspired moral order.4 In the tradition of the great ancient holy cities, Mecca is still a place for the concentration of tremendous resources of power, wealth, and culture. Historically, of course, religion and urban form have always been intertwined. The history of the built environment has from the beginning been tied to sites of worship, which are the focal point around which civilizations and city-states developed. What is particularly intriguing in the case of Mecca, however, is the way in which this city has traditionally conjured in the imagination something of the mysterious and enigmatic, with both centralizing and strongly exclusive implications. This city, toward which Muslims throughout the world pray daily, is at the same time according to Saudi law strictly off-limits to anyone who is not part of the Islamic faith. The powerful aura of mystery conjured by this dichotomy is reinforced by the striking images of thousands upon thousands of white-shrouded pilgrims during the hajj season moving ritually in concentric circles around the black granite cube-shaped Kabba. The spiritual force of this experience is perhaps best expressed in the talbiyah, a traditional prayer offered by the pilgrims: “Here I am, O Allah, here I am! Here I am, You have no partner, here I am. Verily all praise, grace, and sovereignty belong to You! You have no partner.” Yet for the nonMuslim, one cannot overlook the fact that the road to Mecca, both figuratively and literally, divides traffic into two lanes: the one marked “Muslims Only” goes to the city center, while the other, marked “NonMuslims,” goes around it.

Royal Clock Tower

The Abraj al-Bait, or Royal Clock Tower complex, looms over pilgrims at the Grand Mosque. Photo: Shanin Olakara/flickr

Some organizations such as the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation have repeatedly expressed alarm over the destruction of historic sites in Mecca to make way for skyscraper hotels and shopping malls. The demolition of the fortress adjacent to the Grand Mosque, for instance, sparked an international outcry in 2002. The Saudi Islamic affairs minister quickly rejected the concern, however, claiming that, “No one has the right to interfere in what comes under the state’s authority,” and “this development is in the interest of Muslims all over the world.”5 In the end, not only was the fortress swept away, but even the hill on which it stood was removed. Indeed, the King of Saudi Arabia has said it is his religious duty to expend whatever “wealth and effort” are necessary to improve facilities for pilgrims going on the Islamic pilgrimage, in spite of growing concerns about the scale of development. King Abdullah, who also bears the title of custodian of the two holy mosques (Mecca and Medina), has said that Allah had blessed Saudi Arabia with these holy cities, and such a generosity mandates “a duty, prestige, and honor and prerequisite by which his country and its leadership” should abide.

In Rem Koolhaas’s reflections on “The Generic City,” he observes that, “There are so few features [of the city] now that there is a tendency to exaggerate and to amplify whatever feature can be found in any given local condition, almost to the point of hyper-identity. ‘Critical regionalism’ has turned into hyper-regionalism, a fabrication of regional difference after its erasure and disappearance.”6 In reflecting on the contemporary realities of the holy city of Mecca, one can observe a similar evolution in process: historical buildings are torn down to make way for immense new developments that speak almost deafeningly of the city’s hyper-identity as a sacred site. The city thereby becomes, however, a peculiar instance of certain sharp dichotomies that define a continuing distinct identity. There is the dichotomy between its ancient historic roots and contemporary form; its centralizing pull for Muslims and its rigid exclusivity of all others; or its intense effect on individuals’ experience of the sacred within the mass culture of its commercial infrastructure. Even in the midst of these dichotomies, Mecca curiously reasserts the potent significance of place in an era in which virtual realities overwhelm our sense of rootedness. Within the world, there is the unique city of Mecca; and within that city, there is a sacred site, the Grand Mosque; and at the center of that mosque, there is a holy shrine, the Kaaba; and embedded in that small structure there is a particular rock, which is the only vestige of what is traditionally understood to be a building of Abraham’s own construction. Millions of people from around the globe have come, or hope yet to come, to see and even to touch that one stone. There is no identity of place more definitive, or at the same time, as effectually indeterminate.

  1. Basharat Peer, “Modern Mecca: The Transformation of a Holy City,” The New Yorker (16 April 2012),
  2. Quoted in Oliver Wainwright, “Mecca’s Mega Architecture Casts Shadow over Hajj,” The Guardian (23 October 2012),
  3. Office for Metropolitan Architecture, “Jeddah International Airport,”
  4. Malise Ruthven, “The Islamic Optimist,” The New York Review of Books (16 August 2007),
  5. “Saudis Hit Back over Mecca Castle,” BBC News (9 January 2002),
  6. Rem Koolhaas, “The Generic City,” in S, M, L, XL (New York: Monacelli: 1995), 1239-64.

The author is a Lecturer at the Yale University School of Architecture and a frequent contributor to Faith & Form magazine.


  1. Dr. Kahera says

    So sad. A city utterly destroyed by the trappings of modernity and absolute disregard for the sanctity of the Kabah.