Saudi Arabia Modernizes Mecca For Muslim Pilgrims
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Today is Eid ul-Adha. It's a holiday marking the end of the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. And 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.
RIAZAT BUTT: 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.
BUTT: 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?
BUTT: 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?
BUTT: 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.
BUTT: Thank you for having me.
MONTAGNE: Riazat Butt is the religious affairs correspondent for the British newspaper the Guardian. And she spoke to us from Mecca, where she is covering the Hajj.
INSKEEP: Go online, look at a picture. It is a really big clock.
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