MECCA, Saudi Arabia — A dozen glittering skyscrapers tower over Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, boasting hotel rooms with 24-hour butler service and luxury marble bathrooms. Below, throngs of Muslims perform the annual hajj pilgrimage, many of them impoverished, sleeping in the streets.
Saudi authorities have transformed the look of Mecca, Islam's most sacred city, and are planning even more dramatic change in years to come. But much of the change has catered to high-end pilgrims, and critics say what is supposed to be an austere spiritual ritual bringing Muslims closer to God has turned into a luxury expedition for some.
Samir Barqah, a guide who runs tours of the historic city in Mecca, says luxury towers are turning Mecca into Manhattan.
"The fast urban development managed to remove all the character from Mecca," Barqah said. "Mecca as our parents and grandfathers knew it no longer exists ... Mecca is now becoming a layer of glass and cement sheets."
The skyscrapers, sporting towering glass facades and luxury shopping malls, have sprouted up around the esplanade in front of the sprawling, multilevel Grand Mosque. The mosque surrounds the Kaaba, the cube-shaped shrine that Muslims around the world face during prayers and pilgrims circle seven times during the hajj rites.
Until recently, Mecca, the homeland of Islam's seventh century Prophet Muhammad, was a rather ramshackle city, built up with little planning over several desert hills with low, often dilapidated buildings. It could barely handle the burden when the numbers of pilgrims descending on it every year were only in the hundreds of thousands.
Now those numbers are in the millions, making the hajj one of the biggest annual events in the word. And it's only growing — officially nearly 3 million participated n this year's pilgrimage, which was ending Friday, not counting hundreds of thousands of "unofficial" pilgrims who sneak into Mecca without hajj permits required by Saudi authorities.
So Saudi Arabia is launching a massive project to upgrade Mecca and nearby shrines over the next 10 years. The goal is to accommodate five times the current number of pilgrims.
"Don't be surprised by anything in the next decade," the governor of Mecca province, Prince Khaled al-Faisal told journalists Thursday, promising the most advanced technology to "make things comfortable for the pilgrims." He wouldn't give the cost, but said it was "unimaginable."
The plan includes removing slums and old buildings around Mecca and replacing them with a new generation of housing and hotels. Authorities also plan to build new hospitals and improve transportation and communication infrastructure, said the governor's deputy, Abdulaziz al-Khedheiri.
The housing will have a "a diversity of levels, from one-star to seven star hotels," he said. For this hajj, Saudi authorities unveiled a train line that carried pilgrims to one of the ritual sites in the deserts outside Mecca although that was reserved for Saudis and citizens of other Gulf nations until it becomes fully operational next year.
Already, buildings are being removed from hills on the northern side of the Grand Mosque to allow an expansion adding room for 1 million more people to pray. So far the expansion has cost $10 billion, al-Khedheiri said.
Management of the hajj is a major way for Saudi Arabia's ruling family to tout the Islamic credentials central to its legitimacy. Saudi King Abdullah includes among his titles "the guardian of the two shrines" — Mecca and the nearby holy city of Medina.
Over the five days of hajj, the pilgrims trek simultaneously between a string of sites, from the Kaaba to Mount Arafat, a desert hill 12 miles (19 kilometers) away in the desert.
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