Mecca-hattan’: Aerial Photos Reveal Vastness of Islam’s Holiest City

Old neighborhoods in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca have been erased for hotel towers and malls being built right up to the edge of the Grand Mosque (at center, above). The world's third tallest skyscraper, the 1,972-foot Clock Tower, dwarfs Islam's holiest site.

"It's not Mecca. It's Mecca-hattan. This tower and the lights in it are like Vegas," said Sami Angawi, an architect who spent his life studying hajj and is one of the most outspoken critics of the changes. "The truth of the history of Mecca is wiped out ... with bulldozers and dynamite. Is this development?"

Mohammed Al-shaikh / AFP

An aerial view shows tens of thousands of tents hosting pilgrims in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, on October 5.

The urban renewal is necessary, Saudi officials say, to accommodate hajj pilgrims whose numbers are expected to swell from around 3 million currently to nearly 7 million by 2040.

Mohammed Al-shaikh / AFP

Walkways lead to the tents where pilgrims perform the Jamarat ritual, in which they throw stones at pillars symbolizing the devil.

Mohammed Al-shaikh / AFP

Decades ago, this was a low-built city of centuries-old neighborhoods. Over the years, it saw piecemeal renewal projects. But in the mid-2000s, the kingdom launched its most ambitious overhaul ever with a series of mega-projects that, though incomplete, have already reshaped Mecca.

Mohammed Al-shaikh / AFP

"My father and all the people who lived in Mecca wouldn't recognize it," says Osama al-Bar, the city's mayor. When he was a child Mecca was so small that pilgrims could sit at the cube-shaped Kaaba (at center, above) and look out at the serene desert mountains where the Prophet Muhammad once walked.

Steep rocky hills overlooking the mosque have been leveled and are now covered with cranes building more towers in row after row. The $60-billion Grand Mosque expansion will almost double the area for pilgrims to pray at the Kaaba.

Muhammad Hamed / X02365

Tens of thousands of tents constructed for pilgrims. The Grand Mosque is one of the few places in the world where Muslims of all stripes gather — Sunnis and Shiites, secular Muslims, mystics and hard-liners.

Mohammed Al-shaikh / AFP

The roughly five-day hajj is meant to cleanse the faithful of sin and all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform the pilgrimage once in their lives.

-- The Associated Press

Khalid Mohammed / ASSOCIATED PRESS