Why do people visit Mecca and Medina

Construction boom in Mecca and Medina : Religious wrecking balls

Around 3.5 million believers visited Mecca and Medina during the Hajj, the official major pilgrimage, at the end of October. Now that they have returned home, construction work on the Muslim holy places will resume. That this does not necessarily bode well can be seen from the changes that have taken place over the past ten years.

In Mecca today, glittering skyscrapers, luxury hotels and shopping centers surround the Great Mosque, the most important place of worship for Muslims. Historic buildings had to give way. The most ostentatious of the new structures, the approximately 12 billion euro Abraj Al Bait Towers by the Saudi Binladin Group, dominates the square with the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, an oversized imitation of London's Big Ben. To build the high-rise group, an Ottoman fortress from the 18th century was leveled in 2002 - including the hill on which it stood.

The bulldozers hardly stopped at anything else either. The Institute for Gulf Affaires in Washington estimates that 95 percent of the old buildings in the two holy cities have already been demolished in the past 20 years. The royal family justified the procedure with the undisputed immense rush of believers. Around 12 million pilgrims currently visit Mecca and Medina each year, and by 2025 the figure is set to rise to 17 million a year. Some of the buildings that have since been destroyed came from the Middle Ages or were even older. In Mecca, for example, the house where the Prophet Mohammed was born had to give way to a library, while the home of his first wife, Khadijah, gave way to a block of public toilets.

In Medina, the expansion of the Prophet's Mosque, the second holiest site in Islam, is now on the agenda. In September, King Abdullah laid the foundation stone for another new building, which will offer space for prayer up to 1.6 million instead of the previous 40,000. The ruling house apparently accepts that the graves of Muhammad and the first two caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar as well as the green dome that has spanned the tombs since the 16th century are supposed to disappear.

It has a system. As early as 2007, Abdul Aziz al Sheikh - as Grand Mufti the highest religious authority in the kingdom - demanded that the Ottoman dome should be torn down and the graves of the prophet and caliphs lifted. The approach is religiously inspired. The devout Wahabbis, representatives of the Salafist state religion of the absolutist kingdom, are keen to see all Islamic sites that might invite worshiping saints and thus in their eyes idolatry disappear from the scene.

In the work of the pious wrecking ball, spiritual and tangible worldly interests meet. The overnight stays in one of the new luxury hotels in Mecca cannot be had for less than 400 euros - of all places in the city where all Muslims are supposed to be considered equal among equals. The great pilgrimage has been a business for the merchants of Mecca and Medina for centuries. Pilgrims need accommodation and food, they need ways and means to get there and back. Even the current major construction work is not a Saudi invention. "Even under the Ottomans, the mosques were expanded and rebuilt," says Ulrike Freitag, director of the Center for the Modern Orient in Berlin. In addition, a pronounced “modernization mania” can be observed in Saudi Arabia, says Freitag. "A shopping mall with a half-life of 10 years promises more immediate profit than some old clay or stone buildings that nobody wants to live in and in front of which one cannot park."

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page