Reflecting on the Many Faces of Mecca, the Lived City

June 28, 2019
Rosie Bsheer Mecca keynote

“Mecca is lived, experienced, and documented differently by different people,” began Rosie Bsheer, Assistant Professor of History at Harvard and author of the forthcoming “Archive Wars: Spectacle, Speculation, and the Politics of History in Saudi Arabia,” in her keynote address to the colloquium Mecca: The Lived City, hosted by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in May.

Mecca is characterized by plurality. In two days of lectures, speakers drew on academic, professional, and personal experiences to explore disparate visions of Mecca. The city’s social, architectural, environmental, and political transformation in the modern era reflects changes taking place across the Arabian Peninsula. Yet, the particularities of modernity in the Holy City interact with its unique heritage to yield unexpected challenges for architects of modern Mecca.

Tyler Kynn, Hussam Dakkak, Omer Shah, William Granara, Ali Almajnooni, Drew Wensley, Rosie Bsheer, Gareth Doherty
Tyler Kynn, Hussam Dakkak, Omer Shah, William Granara, Ali Almajnooni, Drew Wensley, Rosie Bsheer, Gareth Doherty


The city’s physical reinvention as a global metropolis accompanies less visible revolutions in its spiritual character. The patterns of change in Mecca reflect global trends—the growth of state bureaucracies, demographic shifts, environmental crises, and technological revolutions. At the same time, reinventing Mecca as a global space raises urgent concerns over the commercialization of Islam’s most sacred spaces. Macro-solutions promise to raise Mecca’s profile on the world stage and ameliorate overcrowding and urban sprawl. Simultaneously, they threaten to sweep aside the hybrid communities and local history that define the character of Mecca. Balancing local concerns with the impetus to remake the city in a global mold takes on tremendous urgency in Mecca for its significance as a pilgrimage destination, the birthplace of Islam, and the site of a local history found nowhere else.

Each year, some fifteen million Muslims travel to the Holy City as pilgrims, with several million arriving during the days of Hajj alone. Hajj is meant to offer a communal experience that flattens social stratification and erases boundaries between believers, leaving only shared faith and collective devotion to God. Individual experiences of worship are naturally subjective, but most pilgrims expect to attain a shared bond that cuts across class and national divisions. Nation building, the expansion of global capitalism, and urbanization have undercut the idealized vision of Hajj by communalism and stratifying the experience of Hajj. Though pilgrim management and shrine maintenance has always represented a source of revenue to Mecca’s managers, the introduction of modern notions surrounding optimization seeks to maximize revenue and pilgrim volume at all costs—including the historic Holy City.

Mecca acquired a reputation for cosmopolitanism as a crossroads for Muslim intellectuals and pilgrims, many of whom chose to settle there after visiting. United by a common desire to reside close to the center of the Islamic faith and drawn to the dynamic atmosphere of the shrine city, pilgrims from all corners of the Muslim community regularly elected to remain and build new lives for themselves in the shadow of the birthplace of Islam. Bsheer recounted the paths through which intellectuals, activists, and rebels all converged on the Holy City as a place to coexist and exchange ideas. The turbulence of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made Mecca an especially attractive destination for innovative scholars and disruptive thinkers.

In a separate lecture, Yale University’s Tyler Kynn elaborated on the transnational linkages that converged in Mecca in the late Ottoman period by exploring data extracted from pilgrim narratives written on journeys to the Holy City. Supplemented with an exploration of Ottoman administrative records, Kynn explored the ways in which settled pilgrims contributed to the reproduction of Mecca as a cosmopolitan urban space in which diverse populations could live side by side. Scholarly discourse abounded among the jurists and preachers who made Mecca and its surrounding environs their home, and the pilgrimage served as a crossroads where intellectuals from far-flung corners of the Islamic community could meet and debate their perspectives.

Successive stewards of the Holy City projected their legitimacy and mastery over the city by overhauling its physical environs. Donating funds allowed rulers to endow foundations and sponsor building projects in the Holy City that left their own distinctive mark on its features. The contemporary Saudi state is no exception, devoting vast resources to remaking the city in its own image. Modern urban overhaul in Mecca began in earnest after the Saud family achieved control over the city in their early twentieth century conquest of much of the Arabian Peninsula. New infrastructure allowed the Saud family to construct a newly homogenous Mecca comprising gleaming, uniform structures instead of the patchwork, winding alleys that characterized historic Mecca. Intended to address the challenges of crowd control, pilgrim management, and urban congestion, large-scale construction projects also have the effect of erasing the prevailing architecture that gave the city its character.

Mecca Colloquium presentation slide

The diversity that became embedded in Mecca’s identity stood increasingly at odds with the imperatives of centralized state management. Ali Almajnooni of SUNY Binghampton focused on the architectural form of the Meccan alley as a form of “architectural vernacular” that flattened social stratification and concentrated daily life in a tight, shared space. Sprawling across the Holy City’s territory, the Meccan alley was capable of containing all aspects of daily life. Although nearly incomprehensible to the outsider, its residents were conversant in its arrangements. By contrast, the modern form of grid organization that typifies global megacities—and the Saud family’s reconstruction project—neatly and inexorably assigns inhabitants places according to socioeconomic status and professional function. Premium spaces are clustered, drawing together wealthy residents while confining the remainder to their own delineated zones. Projecting the impression of organization and efficiency, the grid system accomplishes its work by violently disrupting the prevailing system of social organization. Residents find themselves isolated from one another, and cross-sectional contact becomes increasingly limited. Like the ritual of pilgrimage, modern urban transformation subjects Mecca’s residents to social sorting on an unprecedented scale.

Erecting a centralized state apparatus in the Arabian Peninsula subjected Mecca to similar centralizing and homogenizing influences. The hybrid identities of Mecca’s cosmopolitan heritage clashed with the vision of a unified Saudi identity. The new state needed to project unity and unquestioned sovereignty at home in order to acquire legitimacy on the world stage. State deputies needed to render Arabian Peninsula communities, including Mecca, legible to their system of management in order to claim them as their own. Collecting revenue generated in the city and regulating its residents made asserting central governance all the more urgent. The modernization of the Saudi state led central administrators to become increasingly involved in the daily lives of Meccan subjects through the impersonal mechanism of bureaucratic management.

Practical imperatives reinforced the Saud family’s incentives for remaking Mecca in the twentieth century. Increasing numbers of pilgrims, facilitated by revolutions in transportation technology, triggered feverish governmental initiatives to overhaul Mecca’s roads and transit systems. Preserving the city’s famed rugged environs was and remains a vital concern for architects of the new Mecca, but state initiatives prioritize optimized management over preservationist impulses. The effort to remake Mecca in the image of global megacities like New York, London, and Hong Kong looms equally large in the official mandate to remake the city as the Saud family seeks to establish Mecca as the heart of the global Islamic community in a modern sense as well as a spiritual one. By the late 1960s, demolition initiatives had cleared away historic buildings to make way for modern roads and residential structures. Most recently, the construction of the Abraj al-Bait complex has positioned structures that tower over the Grand Mosque and the Ka’aba.

The tower complex and the hotels it contains purport to address the overcrowding that plague the pilgrimage season. As ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims travel to the Holy City each year, crowd management and hospitality services demand more resources and dedicated attention from Mecca’s managers and the Saud family. The incentives for reshaping ­Meccan infrastructure to streamline the experience of Hajj—­maximizing revenue, ensuring pilgrim safety, and promoting Saud family prestige—are clear. However, the particulars of the modernization strategy raise justified concerns that the experience of pilgrimage is becoming commercialized. Competitively priced hotel rooms and luxury package deals offer wealthy pilgrims a curated experience that sets them apart from their poorer counterparts, enforcing the class segregation that Hajj is meant to erase. The tower complex stands as an inescapable physical symbol of Mecca’s modern transformation. Pilgrims cannot help but throw their attention to the glittering superstructure as they circle the Ka’aba in its shadow. The Saudi state is ever-present in the ritual of pilgrimage, as is its vision for a Saudi Arabia and a Mecca that is modern, globalized, and optimized.

Managing the growing crowds transiting the Holy City each year facilitated a shift in the way Saudi authorities view Mecca. As Columbia University’s Omer Shah explored during his fieldwork at a startup near Mecca, the drive toward optimization grips Mecca’s managers and influences the way they approach the city. As the Kingdom seeks to diversify its sources of revenue by looking to develop areas of economic activity other than the production of oil, Mecca presents itself as a site for building expertise and testing systems for the efficient management of pilgrims. In this way, the Holy City, its inhabitants, and its visitors represent a human resource to complement the natural resources that enriched the Saud family.

Mecca has been a tool for generating revenue since its earliest days. Control over its shrines allowed for the extraction of access and maintenance fees, in addition to the prestige accorded its stewards. The optimization imperative reframes that revenue generating capacity latent within Mecca as a potentially infinite resource, constantly in need of maximization.

The solutions offered for Mecca’s challenges remold the city in its entirety. Although they reduce overcrowding and foster an image of Mecca as a gleaming, modern edifice, changes packaged as solutions exert a proportionately destructive influence on the city’s heritage. Viewing Mecca as a visitation site in need of efficient management centers its status as a shrine, but ignores the rich community that grew out of the city’s historic intellectual and commercial prominence. For those who call Mecca home, viewing the city primarily as a shrine leaves no room for the everyday lives they have built for themselves there. Eradicating the traditional in the name of optimization represents a threat to the organic patterns of life that animate the Holy City as a community.

Mecca is caught at a crossroads, torn between alternative futures. Urban development carries tremendous promise in its ability to solve the problems of overcrowding and high-volume pilgrim traffic. At the same time, top-down solutions centering on large-scale construction projects are highly disruptive to the communities and environmental features that make the Holy City what it is. The architectural styles that typify global megacities—glass towers, concrete edifices, and neighborhoods segregated by function—exert a homogenizing influence on Mecca by sweeping aside its historical diversity. The alleyways and hybrid communities of the old Mecca become a problem to be solved in the eyes of administrators tasked with ensuring the safe passage of the city’s millions of annual visitors. In the name of optimization, social and physical structures that are not immediately intelligible to bureaucratic management must be broken down to make way for more efficient replacements.

Some of this process is unavoidable. Mecca is no stranger to change, and the overhaul it has experienced in the modern era echoes its historical transmutations even as it remakes the city to an unprecedentedly pervasive degree. The colloquium Mecca: The Lived City demonstrated that the scholarly community is adroitly working to explicate the complexities of Mecca’s encounter with modernity. Continued study will shed light on the many Meccas that make up the contemporary Holy City.

—Nicholas Norberg, AM ’19