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Mecca's Makeover

Muslims from around the world have made annual pilgrimages to Mecca for the past 14 centuries. The hajj was formerly an arduous journey, undertaken once in a lifetime, on foot or horseback. It often took years. Fewer than 100,000 people made the trip in 1950. By 1983, the number of pilgrims exceeded 1 million. Today, nearly 1.5 million pilgrims arrive from all corners of the globe.Another half-million are from Saudi Arabia itself, which serves as guardian of Islam's holiest sites.

"They will come to thee on foot and on every lean camel," the Koran proclaims. Nowadays, most pilgrims arrive by jet, traverse the Holy Mosque at Mecca's heart via air-conditioned walkways, pray on floors built of marble, and ascend escalators to upper terraces from which they can view the sacred stone shrine of the Ka'bah.

"This is the largest mass tourism event in the world," says David Long, a former U.S. diplomat who has devoted extensive study to the enormous logistical challenges posed by the hajj. Saudi Minister of Pilgrimage Iyad Madani has likened it to "having twenty Super Bowls in one stadium where two million people...will actually be taking part in playing the game as well." Overcrowding means that deaths and injuries are regular occurrences, even though the Saudi monarchy has spent billions of dollars to fine-tune the five-day religious rite, which originated in the seventh century and remains essentially unchanged in the 21st.

However, Mecca—Muhammad's birthplace—has itself altered beyond recognition in recent decades and is now on the verge of an even greater transformation. The design for a vast new entry into the holy city was made public last summer. It calls for a boulevard nearly three times as long as the Champs-Élysées, to be lined by 32 million square feet of new hotels, shops, apartments, prayer facilities, gardens, and walkways. Selected in an architectural competition judged by Saudi state officials and private construction authorities, it is part of an ongoing effort to convert Islam's devotional epicenter into a year-round destination for Muslims.

All devout Muslims—both men and women—are expected to make the pilgrimage at least once if they are physically and financially able. But with the ease of modern air travel, many now go on the hajj several times in their lives, adding to the crowding. And, with Islam the planet's fastest-growing religion (1.2 billion faithful worldwide), the number of potential pilgrims is on the rise. In response, Saudi Arabia has begun encouraging those who have already made the hajj to make instead what is called the umrah, or lesser pilgrimage, which can be undertaken at any time of year.This change in policy is expected to bring in a total of about 12 million annual visitors to a city with a resident population of 618,000.

Overcrowding spurred the implementation of a quota system limiting the number of hajj pilgrims any one nation can send. The system, administered by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, began in 1988, one year after clashes between Saudi police and Iranians protesting Saudi control of Mecca left 400 dead. To further manage the crowds, the Saudis subsequently limited all residents of Saudi Arabia to one hajj pilgrimage every five years.

To non-Muslims, Mecca is off-limits. If you didn't know this, signs on roads leading into Mecca make it perfectly clear. And anyone may be asked to prove his fitness to enter. In his autobiography, Malcolm X memorably described being barred from the city until his passport could be rigorously scrutinized and a special Muslim high court confirmed the authenticity of his conversion to Islam. He made it in, as did more than 20,000 American Muslims last year, according to the Arab American Institute. (U.S. travel agencies now offer a range of hajj and umrah packages, though the State Department has issued a warning against traveling to Saudi Arabia.)

Outside of hajj season, Saudi Arabia remains one of the world's most closed societies—it was not until the late nineties that the oil-rich kingdom began opening its doors to non-Muslim tourists. Yet, the design for the new Mecca Western Gateway was drawn up by Westerners: the French firm, Architecture-Studio, which worked with Jean Nouvel on the modernist Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Lead architect Marc Lehmann, who happens to have converted to Islam eight years ago when he married a Muslim woman, likens the project to "a machine for taking people to the holy places." Fleets of rapid-transit buses will run continuously along the new boulevard, carrying 12,000 people per hour from one end to the other.

Palm trees and hotels (which could add as many as 30,000 rooms) will line the entire length of the avenue, with pedestrian zones punctuated by tensile-fabric structures providing shade and areas for prayer. Pilgrims arriving from the Red Sea port of Jidda, where the main airport for the hajj is located, will alight at a central bus terminal at the western end. And outdoor mist-spraying devices along the avenue will ensure a relatively cool environment for visitors. This is essential. The timing of the hajj is based on the Muslim lunar calendar (it began in late January this year), and so periodically the event occurs in summer, when temperatures can soar as high as 126 degrees Fahrenheit. It is not uncommon for pilgrims to die of heat exposure and sunstroke.

According to Lehmann, final approval for the project is still pending; Saudi construction authorities have asked for several modifications. Saudi officials declined repeated requests for comment about the plan, the scale of which far outstrips several recent mega-projects undertaken to modernize Mecca.

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