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Saudi Arabia Modernizes Mecca For Muslim Pilgrims

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Saudi Arabia Modernizes Mecca For Muslim Pilgrims

Religion

Saudi Arabia Modernizes Mecca For Muslim Pilgrims

Saudi Arabia Modernizes Mecca For Muslim Pilgrims

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The hajj, or annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, is attracting nearly 3 million people this year. Riazat Butt, religious affairs correspondent for the Guardian, describes to Renee Montagne some of the more modern aspects of the ancient religious tradition.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today is Eid ul-Adha. It's a holiday marking the end of the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.´┐ŻAnd the Hajj is quite possibly the largest organized movement of people in the world. This year, nearly three million people have descended on Mecca and surrounding towns in Saudi Arabia. Riazat Butt is the religious affairs correspondent for the Guardian newspaper. She's been observing this extended religious journey. She says it involves a series of rituals, like prayers near the site of Muhammad's last sermon and the symbolic stoning of a pillar.

Ms. RIAZAT BUTT (Guardian): In olden times they used to sacrifice animals. Now they have animals sacrificed on their behalf. And all of these symbols and rituals and traditions date back thousands and thousands of years. And they have to be performed in a certain order and in a certain manner. The rules and regulations surrounding the Hajj are quite strict.

MONTAGNE: Well, then with that many people gathered, logistics must be something of a nightmare. I mean, I know the Saudi government has tried building some new facilities to ease congestion, because in past years we've heard about stampedes and even deaths. Tell us what they're doing there.

Ms. BUTT: Well, they've actually completed a mass transit system. And that will shuttle people between these key locations. And the idea is to take 72,000 people an hour in each direction to relieve some of the congestion on the road, because you've got two and a half, maybe three million people. There's no concept of personal space. There's no concept of privacy. You probably won't eat properly either or sleep properly.

As for the Saudi government, you're right. They are doing what they can to modernize the Hajj. The mass transit system is one of them. They're also building a 440 kilometer rail link between the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina. Now, currently, that journey takes four or five hours. They want to reduce it to 30 minutes.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about Mecca itself. In the last couple of years it's transformed itself into a sort of real estate gold rush with all these luxury hotels sprouting up. What does it look like now?

Ms. BUTT: It's pretty amazing. If you get high up enough you can see the scale of the construction projects that are going on. There are cranes circling the Grand Mosque. As for the real estate gold rush, you've got to think, well, the religious tourism industry in Saudi Arabia is recession proof. You cannot perform your Hajj anywhere else in the world. You can't say, well, I'll do it in Istanbul or, you know, I'll do it in Marrakesh.

And I think the Saudi government realizes and they want to maximize the potential of the city. And that means building things at breakneck speed.

I had a look at some of these amazing five star hotels. I mean, one of the royal suites in the new (unintelligible) costs something like $6,000 a night. That's a huge amount of money. But people are prepared to pay it, because it offers a level of comfort and luxury that wasn't previously available in Mecca.

I don't see many pilgrims complaining about it. And that's something, when you consider how much the economy has suffered in the last couple of years. People still have money to spend. So they think, well, you know, it's good for me to invest in the Hajj, because then I might enjoy it more.

MONTAGNE: Well, there's also this extraordinary new clock tower in Mecca that people have been talking about. I'm just wondering about how people feel about all of this luxury around them. Is there any concern that that might overshadow the spiritual side?

Ms. BUTT: I mean, you can see it from about 20, 25 miles away. And it looks exactly like Big Ben, except of course it has the gold crescent on the top and it has Arabic calligraphy all over it.

And I think there's more of an effort to bring Mecca up to speed with the 21st century. Mecca has - it's held in such high esteem by so Muslims around the world. And I think what the Saudi government wants to do is to reflect that in the way the city is presented. And if that means building five star hotels and fantastic clock towers of 485 meters high, then so be it.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. BUTT: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Riazat Butt is the religious affairs correspondent for the British newspaper the Guardian.´┐ŻAnd she spoke to us from Mecca, where she is covering the Hajj.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Go online, look at a picture. It is a really big clock.

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