The holiest site in all of Islam is a place where millions of pilgrims converge each year and the largest mosque in the world by some considerable way. The Great Mosque of Mecca, or Masjid al-Haram, is a place of staggering proportions capable of holding up to 4 million people at a time – now, just let that number settle in your mind for a moment, because that’s just under half of London’s population in one place at the same time.
The Masjid al-Haram is one of the most dazzling religious buildings in the world that comes with a history that stretches back centuries but also one that has seen a huge amount of expansion over the last 70 years.
The Five Pillars of Islam are a series of fundamental practices considered obligatory for all Muslims. They included the declaration of faith (shahada), prayer (salah), alms-giving (zakat), fasting (sawm) and finally pilgrimage (hajj), which sees pilgrims from all over the world travel to Mecca to take part in several rituals, none more important than walking counter-clockwise seven-times around the black cube building, the Kaaba, which lies at the centre of the Great Mosque. This place is not only staggering in size, for 1.8 billion people it represents the epicentre of their faith.
The Great Mosque
The Masjid al-Haram is a sprawling complex that encompasses 356,000 square metres (3.8 million sq ft) – making it half the size of the enormous Forbidden City in Beijing. This is a building that has seen tremendous change throughout the years and one that will almost certainly see plenty more in the coming years, decades and even centuries.
At the centre of the mosque lies the Kaaba, the most sacred site in all of Islam, towards which all Muslims around the world pray. It wasn’t always like this and during the early Islamic years, Muslims prayed towards Jersusulm instead, but this changed in 624 AD
The Kaaba is a cuboid-shaped stone structure, 13.1 metres (43 ft) tall with sides measuring 11.03 m × 12.86 m (36 ft 21⁄2 in × 42 ft ⁄2 in). The floor inside is made of marble and limestone, with white marble lining the walls.
Surrounding the Kaaba is the mosque itself set over three different levels that today comes with nine minarets, each reaching a height of 89 metres (292 ft), and 18 different gates, though by far the most used is the King Abdul Aziz gate. Inside the mosque, a large area is reserved for those wishing to circle the Kaaba, but when you step back you realise that even this relatively big open expanse is dwarfed by the overall size of the mosque. While the area immediately around the Kaaba is limited, pilgrims can circle it from any one of three different levels with additional large prayer areas further out.
According to Islamic beliefs, the Black Stone was sent by Allah to Abraham as he was constructing the Kaaba and is today set into the eastern corner of said building. The Zamzam Well can be found 20 metres (66 ft) east of the Kaaba and is said to be a miraculous water source sent by Allah to aid Abraham’s son Ismael and his mother when they were left dying of thirst in the desert. The well was dug by hand, perhaps several thousand years ago, and goes down to a wadi below at a depth of 30 metres (100 ft) with a diameter of 1.08 to 2.66 m (3 ft 7 inches to 8 ft 9 in). Each year millions drink the water from the well that is distributed to every water fountain within the mosque and between 11 and 18.5 litres is drawn every second.
The Maqam Ibrahim – or Station of Abraham – is a small square stone, measuring 40 cm (16 in) in length and width, and 20 cm (7.9 in) in height that is said to still have an imprint of one of Abraham’s feet. The rock is kept within a golden-metal enclosure and can be found directly next to the Kaaba.
From here, the mosque expands outwards dramatically with a large western elevated area used for prayer, and an even bigger northern extension that is still under construction.
The Great Mosque as we see it today is relatively modern with the oldest sections dating back to the 16th Century. However, the first structure on the site was a wall built around the Kaaba in 638 AD. There is a slight bone of contention over whether or not this is the oldest mosque in the world, with both the Mosque of the Companions in the Eritrean city of Massawa and Quba Mosque in Medina arguably older. However, with Abraham said to have built the Kaaba, the commonly held view among Muslims is that this is the site of the first true mosque.
It wasn’t until 692 AD that the site saw its first major expansion. Up until this point, the mosque had been little more than an open area with the Kaaba at its centre, but slowly the outer wall was raised and eventually a partial roof installed. Wooden columns were added then replaced at the end of the 8th Century by marble structures, while the two wings that came out from the main prayer room were gradually extended. This period also saw the construction of the mosque’s first minaret sometime in the 8th Century.
The following centuries saw Islam spread rapidly and with it came a huge increase in numbers wishing to visit the Great Mosque. The building was almost completely rebuilt during this time with three further minarets added and more marble installed throughout the building. By the 16th Century, then under Ottoman rule, the first elements of what we can still see today were installed, and these supporting columns remain the oldest sections within the Great Mosque. In 1570, the mosque’s flat roofs were changed to domes with calligraphy from the Quran added on the inside.
Heavy flooding in the 1620s twice saw the mosque, and the Kaaba, badly damaged. The resulting renovations saw the marble flooring retiled, three more minarets added and a new stone arcade also constructed. Paintings of the mosque from this period show a rectangular structure, now with seven minarets, and the town of Mecca hurdled closely around it. In this form, the mosque didn’t change for the next three hundred years.
By the time the Great Mosque saw its next significant upgrade, everything had changed in and around Mecca. It was now part of a new country, Saudi Arabia, which had been formed in 1932 and around twenty years later the mosque saw the first of three major expansion phases, the last of which is technically still ongoing.
Between 1955 and 1973 the mosque saw considerable alterations as the Saudi royal family ordered much of the original Ottoman structure to be demolished and rebuilt. This included four more minarets, a complete ceiling refurbishment, with the floor also replaced with artificial stone and marble.
This period saw the construction of the completely enclosed Mas’a gallery, in which pilgrims could complete the Sa’i – a walk said to symbolise the path between the hills of Safa and Marwah, where according to Islamic tradition Hagar, Abraham’s wife, travelled back and forth seven times in search of water for her infant son Ishmael. The length of the gallery is 450 meters (1,480 feet), meaning walking it seven times adds up to around 3.2 km (2.0 miles). This gallery now includes 4 one-way pathways, with the two central paths reserved for the elderly and those with disabilities
The Seizure of the Grand Mosque
Without question, the darkest period seen within the walls of the Grand Mosque began on 20th November 1979, when a group of extremist insurgents seized the building looking to overthrow the ruling Saudi royal family who they believed had gone soft on some of the stricter forms of Islam.
When insurgents inside the mosque suddenly removed guns from under their robes at 5 am, there were already 50,000 people in attendance. The 400 to 500 insurgents ranged in age and sex and quickly overwhelmed the unarmed police officers inside. Most of the worshippers were soon released but the gates remained chained shut. An early attempt by Saudi security forces ended in disaster and heavy casualties as they were easily beaten back.
As a second attack was being planned, there was a major hurdle to any actions taking place within the walls of the Great Mosque. Islam forbids any violence within the site, to the extent that plants cannot be uprooted without explicit religious sanction. But these were extenuating circumstances and a fatwa was ordered that allowed for the use of deadly force to retake the Great Mosque. But again and again, the Saudi forces were thrown back.
The seizure came to a head when French commandos arrived in Mecca to aid the Saudis. In a quirky event, each of the Frenchmen was required to temporarily convert to Islam as a way of circumnavigating the long-standing prohibition of non-muslims entering the site. The final battle for the Great Mosque was a bloody one and involved gas being pumped into the underground chambers followed by live grenades. The insurgents that remained staggered into the open where many were picked off by snipers. The siege finally ended on 4th December, though sporadic fighting continued in the city as some insurgents escaped.
Officially the total number of those killed within the Great Mosque was 255, including insurgents, hostages and Saudi soldiers, but most agree it was significantly higher. On 9th January 1980, 63 insurgents were publicly beheaded in eight different Saudi cities, a very public demonstration of what happens to those who challenge the ruling family.
The Second and Third Expansions
The events of late 1979 had shaken the Saudi royal family to the core and the succeeding years saw a tightening of Sharia law across the country. When King Fahd took the throne after the death of his brother King Khaled in 1982, it was followed by the second great expansion.
This included another wing, which could be reached through the King Fahd Gate, and an additional outdoor prayer area. Throughout the king’s reign, up to 2005, the Great Mosque began to take on a more modern feel with heated floors, air conditioning, escalators and a drainage system all added. Further additions included an official residence for the king which overlooks the mosque, more prayer areas, 18 more gates, 500 marble columns and of course, more minarets.
In 2008, the Saudi government announced a massive expansion of the Great Mosque with an estimated cost of $10.6 billion (around $13.4 billion today). This included appropriating 300,000 square metres (3,200,000 sq ft) public land to the north and northwest to build an enormous extension. Further renovations included new stairwells, tunnels beneath the structure, a new gate and two more minarets, while the area around the Kaaba was increased and air-conditioning added in all closed spaces – something that I think would have been very welcome in a city with an average summer temperature of between 40 and 44 C (104 – 111F).
The Mecca Crane Collapse
The second major tragedy to befall the Great Mosque occurred on 11th September 2015 when a crane collapsed onto the building when it was full of people. In total, 111 people died making it the deadliest crane collapse in modern history, with a further 394 injured, many of whom remained trapped for hours amid the rubble.
An investigation found the cause to be a combination of human error and high winds that were whipping through Mecca at the time. The following year, 14 individuals stood trial over the accident, but it was certainly noticeable that those higher up in the Bin Laden family, who were leading the construction process, were well shielded.
The accident led to some stating that Saudi Arabia’s manic expansion program was not only damaging the historic structure but also now putting lives at risk. But with the Saudi plan to increase the number of people who can take the Hajj each year from 5 million to 30 million still seemingly on course, it’s unlikely there’s going to be any let-up.
But these kinds of numbers of course come with some very real and very dangerous possibilities. Mere weeks after the crane collapse at the Great Mosque, a stampede at Mina in the outskirts of Mecca killed more than 2,000 pilgrims and sadly this is just the latest in a long line of major tragedies that have occurred during the Hajj.
For 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, there is nowhere more important than the Great Mosque and in particular, the Kaaba that it surrounds. With the rapid expansion of Islam and the ease of modern travel, more people than ever can travel to the hallowed city of Mecca.
And the Great Mosque now reflects this. It has become a sprawling expanse capable of accommodating an extraordinary 4 million at one time, and while there may be a few larger buildings, you can bet that nothing larger than the Great Mosque ever accommodates numbers anywhere near that. But who knows where things go from there. Saudi Arabia seems determined to boost annual Hajj numbers to 30 million and considering this period accounts for just over a month, it would be an unbelievable undertaking if they could pull it off.
And you wouldn’t bet against them. Construction work around the Great Mosque has been manic for well over a decade. Right next to it now stands the Abraj al-Bait, a group of 7 skyscraper hotels that includes the third tallest building in the world, the Makkah Clock Royal Tower, with a height of 601 metres (1,972 ft), and a clock face that certainly gives it a bit of a Big Ben feel. These glittering pillars of modernity were built exactly where an Ottoman fort once stood if there was any doubt of Saudi Arabia’s thirst for contemporary over history. The Mosque, and the immediate buildings around it, recently ranked at the top of the most expensive buildings in the world, with a quite extraordinary figure of $100 billion.
But it’s far from finished. From here, the plan is to build even further north, giving Mecca’s skyline more of a Dubai-esque appearance. This has now become some of the most expensive real estate in the world with the 2012 price per sq ft of anything up to $18,000. To put that into perspective, Monaco was around $4,000 per sq ft at the time. What’s clear is that in the coming decades, the Great Mosque, and the city that surrounds it, will see some of the most dramatic changes anywhere on the planet.
The Great Mosque is one of those spectacular Megaprojects that unfortunately we can’t all visit because only Muslims can enter this particular holy site – and yet it’s one of those places that even through images and video, not to get a sense of this remarkable structure and the intense power that pulls millions to it every year.