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Makkah's popularity: a tale of two cities

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In its quest to cater for pilgrims, Makkah has transformed from modest to grandiose, socially, architecturally and technologically

Last year, the city of Makkah received more than nine million pilgrims: in September, three million congregated for the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage and the fifth pillar of Islam, while the remaining six million arrived for Umrah, an Islamic pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time of year. A mesmerising vision of white and black, members of the densely packed convoy move through the city, inching ever closer to their aim: to circle the revered Kaaba, the cubic structure draped in silk, believed by Muslims to be the House of God. This is an event in which the individual surrenders to the collective feeling of infinity with Muslims of all colours and races. 

The greatest effects of the Hajj and Umrah, however, could be said to be on the city and its economic activity. In its quest to cater for pilgrims, Makkah has transformed from modest to grandiose, socially, architecturally and technologically. Today, pilgrims are able to connect with the imam, who delivers prayers, or their Hajj group’s mutawif (who helps with navigation) through an earpiece, dispensing with the need for physical proximity. That same earpiece simultaneously acts as a tracking system to help organisers manage the crowds. There are even research centres in the peripheries of Makkah, whose sole purpose is to develop crowd management apps, devices and techniques to facilitate the smooth running of the pilgrimage. 


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The Kaaba lies at the heart of the Grand Mosque and is the point on which the Qibla – the direction of prayer for all Muslims – is based

The cyclicality and seasonality of events has shaped urban development in Makkah, but the influx of pilgrims is now constant and capitalising on year-round religious tourism has become a way of diversifying the Saudi economy. The Grand Mosque is arguably the hub but, as a result of the rise in activity, its social and spatial configurations are unfolding beyond its prescribed physical boundaries. As activities filter out to its host environment, it commands a larger footprint, bleeding farther into the city and resulting in greater civic development and an increased need for infrastructural support in the form of an extensive road network and additional accommodation. The city and the mosque have become inextricably linked. 


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Tens of thousands of tents are set up in Mina to host pilgrims to the nearby city of Makkah. Image courtesy of Ozkan Bilgin / Anadolu Agency / Getty


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This photograph of Makkah and the Grand Mosque was taken from the International Space Station and posted to Twitter by astronaut Scott Kelly on 23 September 2015

Despite the convergence, Makkah now presents a tale of two cities: the extremely well-lit, marbled grounds of the Grand Mosque and its surrounding high-rise niche buildings cast shadows over the unplanned settlements and cluster of houses that lie incomplete, draping the hilly terrain a mere 700m away. Glass towers of prototypical hotel rooms built to accommodate the explosion of pilgrims and visitors are progressively displacing an urban and social infrastructure of many communities that once surrounded the Grand Mosque.


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The Abraj al-Bait Towers hotel complex overshadows Makkah’s Grand Mosque. Image courtesy of Fayez Nureldine / AFP / Getty Images

Throughout architectural pedagogical discourse, the study of building types often finds itself limited to the boundary of the structure. However, it is imperative to contextualise a building such as a mosque – and particularly the Grand Mosque – as an urban element that sits among others, to consider it at both the local and the global scale of the city. 

Anthony Vidler put forth the view that architecture takes the construction of the city as an embodiment of history, tradition and culture to engender the formal basis of new typology. ‘We might characterise the fundamental attribute of this third typology as an espousal, not of an abstract nature nor of a technological utopia, but rather of the traditional city as the locus of its concern’, he argued in 1976. With reference to this third typology, the city becomes a product of its past and substance of its present, giving formal coherence to our understanding of the typological subject. In the case of Makkah, this concept resonates strongly: the mosque has developed as a space within a city, the very essence of which is to establish a format with which to fulfil Islamic duty. 

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The Shahnameh shows Alexander the Great paying his respects to the Kaaba, en route from India to north Africa. MS 22-1948, FOL I8V, image courtesy of The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


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Early drawing of the Kaaba

The notion of the mosque as a gathering space was first conceived when the prophet’s mosque establishment in Madinah was used to deliver the Friday sermon (masjid al juma’a, or ‘Friday mosque’) to residents. As such, in its conception, the mosque served as both a place of worship and a community centre, thereby playing a pivotal role in the shaping of society. This is ever present in Makkah’s Grand Mosque, which historically and presently, not only functions as a prayer space but also serves as an extension to the social fabric of the city. It is a place of trade, education, rest and sleep and, in extending out onto the street, also serves as a courtyard of mobility and exchange. Its typological and infrastructural value is immense.

‘Makkah’s Grand Mosque not only functions as a prayer space but also serves as an extension to the social fabric of the city’

Historically, the boundary of the Grand Mosque was defined by a protective high wall punctured only with gates dispersed along its length to allow people to enter the sacred space. This solid boundary wall diffuses to form a colonnade, leading to the open-air courtyard that houses in its centre the Kaaba. The colonnade not only provided shade during prayer time but was an educational space where scholars and their students would congregate before or after prayers. The holy mosque was therefore an active hub throughout the day, home to both spiritual worship and education. 


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Charles Nicolas and Joseph Varin’s 1791 engraving, Ka’bat Allah Aleuliya ‘The Supreme Ka’aba of Allah’

Extending from the boundary wall into the city, several madrasas surrounded the mosque, along with markets, depicted as far back as 1791 by Charles Nicolas and Joseph Varin in their engraving, Ka’bat Allah Aleuliya (The Supreme Kaaba of Allah), schools and the houses of powerful or ruling tribes. In essence, this boundary wall could be considered a ‘living’ wall, housing the religious, political and economic activities that would influence the city’s development and shape its society. Although defined, with gates that have become larger and more grandiose over time, the interface between city and mosque is simultaneously becoming increasingly blurred. Prayer spaces spill onto the courtyards and streets, while commerce, trade and dwelling filter into the mosque, thereby challenging any formal prescription of usage and championing the notion of city as mosque and mosque as city. The two have become one. 

‘Architecture takes the construction of the city as an embodiment of history, tradition and culture to engender the formal basis of new typology’

By examining these interfaces more closely, however, tensions become manifest and the cracks visible. At a civic or infrastructural level, the city fails: traffic signals tend to be ignored, pedestrian activity trickles onto the roads and prescribed rules are ignored. Socially, the disparities of extreme wealth and poverty are not, in themselves, problematic but their proximity and interaction with one another are unsettling. Ibrahim Al Khalil Road (a central artery through the city) not only serves as a key infrastructural channel, but forms a social border: on one side the lofty towers that surround the mosque soar, while on the other lies Al Sharashif, one of the largest unplanned settlements in Makkah. 

As a universal centre of worship, Makkah will undoubtedly welcome the rich and poor, as it has done through centuries, but the development is brutal. Narcissistic and introverted, it blindly disregards its context, leaving in its wake a social distinction that is ever more pronounced, reflecting a tale that is as old as time – towering castles overlook their surrounding dominions. 

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Development is rife to the south-west of Ibrahim Al Khalil Road, which stems from the foot of the Grand Mosque

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The mountain of Al Misfalah lies directly to the south of Makkah’s Grand Mosque

The city whose soaring enclaves sit at the very foot of the Grand Mosque – theoretically in the service of the pilgrims – is, in fact, home to a privileged elite of extremely wealthy individuals with direct access to the religious centre via an underground maze of private roads. Housed in a microclimate of comfort, they witness Makkah from dizzying heights of exclusivity; physical interaction with the common man is unnecessary. Meanwhile, the common man – local inhabitants of Markazia, the area surrounding the mosque – are being forcibly removed from their community. The growing influx of religious visitors is generating greater pressures on land use and a dramatic increase in land value, so much so that the area has now made the transition into a district almost exclusively aimed at servicing pilgrims. 

From the blurred diffusion between city and mosque, a crude, uncomfortable truth is spawning: Makkah, in operating mainly for its visitors, is paralysed in its ability to function as a city for its own inhabitants. It is becoming a city within a city. While serving as a microscope with which we can observe the inherent link between city and mosque, it also acts as a prompt to the pernicious macro and micro scales of social distinction that can emerge. Much like the Grand Mosque, Makkah, as a city, is sacred. But that sacrality is proving to be a double-edged sword. 

Lead image: Every Muslim aims to complete the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. It takes them to Islam’s most important mosque, Al-Masjid Al-Haram, in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, at the centre of which sits the Kaaba, which they must circle seven times. Image courtesy of Images & Stories / Alamy

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy.