Until the late 20th century, Mecca was a small Ottoman-era shrine city. Saudi oil wealth, easy air travel, and a decision to regulate pilgrimage, led to a massive increase in the number of pilgrims. In 2004, the Saudis began demolishing the old quarters and building hotels and shopping complexes to serve them.
Finished in 2012, the Makkah Royal Clock Tower, next to the Great Mosque, is the second tallest building in the world. Luxury “Kaaba view” rooms cost US $10,000 a night during the Hajj! Mecca increasingly has the feel of a religious entertainment complex. The Great Mosque is now being expanded to accommodate more than 1.6 million pilgrims at a time. All that remains of old Mecca are the Ottoman-era domes and minarets of the mosque.
Mecca is now a rapidly growing, densely populated modern city with two million people. Most people work for what is locally called “the Hajj industry.” It is a very hot, dry city with less than five inches of rain each year.
Mecca is the spiritual heart of the Muslim world. Devout Muslims around the world bow in the direction of Mecca five times a day as they perform their prayers. The fifth pillar of Muslim practice, the Hajj, involves all Muslims making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives.
Muhammad grew up in Mecca and began his prophetic time there. According to Islamic history, Muhammad fled from Mecca in 622 AD. In 630 he returned and conquered Mecca, removing hundreds of idols from the Kaaba. He changed it from a place of pagan pilgrimage into a place of Muslim pilgrimage to honor Allah.
Located inside the Great Mosque, the Kaaba is believed to be the original site of pilgrimage instituted by Muhammad. Every year more than 15 million Muslims make their pilgrimage to visit it. Mecca is a powerful symbol of the unity of all Muslims.
Increasing numbers of Saudis are becoming disillusioned with Islam. Groups of Saudi atheists are communicating anonymously online. Media ministries to Arabic-speaking Muslims are reporting growing responsiveness from Saudis, including people living in Mecca. Some families have come to faith, and there are growing numbers of secret believers. Though the response is still limited, it appears to be steadily increasing.
Only Muslims are allowed entry into Mecca, so there is no way for non-Muslims to live in the city. But God is at work in surprising and often hidden ways. Many internet, satellite TV, and social media ministries are reporting fruit across Saudi Arabia, despite repeated government attempts to block access.
Persecution of believers from family, the community, and local and state officials can be ruthless. The pressure and oppression by family members is the worst. The biggest challenge for new believers is overcoming fear.