CAIRO – It is a different Makkah.
This is how pilgrims saw the holy city which accommodates millions of Muslims from across the world seeking the ultimate spiritual journey of hajj.
“The whole area is unrecognizable,” Mukhtar Nadwi, a pilgrim from Saharanpur, India, told the English-language Saudi daily Arab News.
Nadwi was in Makkah for hajj in 2005 along with his wife and mother.
“We used to stay at a hotel just opposite Bab Al-Umrah, which is one of the many imposing gates leading into the Holy Mosque.
“I went there last night to see if I could find the place, but there is no trace of it,” Nadawi said. “Everything has changed in five years.”
Syed Ashfaq Muscati, another pilgrim, was sharing Nadawi’s amazement.
The Pakistani national of Yemeni origin was surprised by the speed with which Makkah’s skyline has changed.
“I was here six years ago, and our group of pilgrims was staying in an old building located behind Ibrahim Khalil Road,” he said.
“The whole area is now part of the massive Jabal Omar project.”
He still recalls the tiny Pakistani eatery where they would go to have their meals
“All that is gone. We are told that huge buildings will be coming up here.”
Muslims from around the world pour into Makkah every year to perform hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Hajj consists of several ceremonies, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.
Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.
Developers assert that the massive ongoing development projects in Makkah will bring the holy city on a par with some of the most advanced cities in the world.
“Property developers and builders are forging alliances capable of undertaking huge projects in the most modern of ways,” Waheeb Al-Sulaimani, president of real estate company Al-Sulaimani Investment Group, told Arab News.
There has been massive reconstruction in Makkah, especially near the areas around the Grand Mosque.
According to Saudi officials, there are $20 billion of projects underway.
“Most of the old properties standing in the way of development have been razed after their owners were reimbursed billions of riyals.”
There are so many other aspects of development in the holy city.
During this year’s hajj, pilgrims will be able to use the first stage of the first monorail in Makkah, dubbed as the “Holy Rituals Train”, that links Makkah with the holy sites of Mina, `Arafah and Muzdalifah, all visited by massive tides of pilgrims.
Riyadh has completed a five-storey hi-tech Jamarat Bridge to ensure a smooth flow of millions of pilgrims during the pelting ritual of the annual hajj.
The Makkah Clock Tower, a clock with four glimmering 46 metre-across (151 feet) faces of high-tech composite tiles, some laced with gold, started ticking in the first week of the fasting month of Ramadan.
Pilgrims Nadwi and Muscati are staying in Aziziah district, one of Makkah’s renovated areas.
The district, which is being promoted by Saudi authorities as a planned hajj township, features comfortable accommodation and a road network leading straight to the Holy Mosque through a tunnel reserved for pilgrims.
It is quite a distance from the Holy Mosque, but a shuttle service, operating through the tunnels, moves pilgrims between Aziziah and the Holy Mosque.
“They drop us at the basement of the Makkah Clock Tower, and in a matter of minutes we are in the courtyard of the Holy Mosque. We take a similar route going back,” Nadawi said.
“It is an excellent service.”
Makkah not New York
Not everyone is happy, however.
Many Saudi intellectuals are disturbed by the government’s building frenzy.
“One cannot help but feel sad seeing al-Kaaba so dot-small between all those glass and iron giants,” novelist Raja Alem told Reuters.
Alem, whose recent novel exposes destruction of historic areas, says that even long before Islam, Arabs didn’t dare live in the circle of what Muslims call “al-haram”, which is the sacred area of the holy mosque.
“They spent their days in the holy city and moved out with nightfall. They thought their human activities defile God’s home.”
The rites of pilgrimage reinforce this sense of humility before Allah, with men and women wearing only simple pieces of white cloth.
Now, the first thing that strikes the faithful eyes in the area is the new Makkah Clock Royal Tower Hotel which boasts two top-notch spas.
Many old houses have been torn down in Makkah, making way for towering shopping malls, Vegas-style five-star hotels and huge underground parking areas.
Wherever pilgrims can look, there are glittering billboards of famous trademarks, like Cartier, Tiffany and H&M. Starbucks cafes and western-style restaurants are no strange too.
“The replacement of the old city has taken with it centuries-long preserved traditions in academic, social, and cultural systems and mechanisms” said Saudi columnist Mahmoud Sabbagh.
“The whole cultural paradigm has been damaged.”
Irfan al-Alawi, an Islamic theology professor based in London, said the Vatican would never sanction such work in its own sacred precinct.
“Makkah doesn’t have to look like Manhattan or New York.”