x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Bushra Alkaff Al Hashemi examines the alterations that have been made in Mecca for this year’s Haj, the annual largest gathering of Muslims on Earth.

The new raised walkway installed around the Kabba  so people with disabilities can circle around the holy shrine, as pilgrims perform evening prayers in Mecca's Grand Mosque. Fayez Nureldine /  AFP
The new raised walkway installed around the Kabba so people with disabilities can circle around the holy shrine, as pilgrims perform evening prayers in Mecca's Grand Mosque. Fayez Nureldine / AFP

“Our feelings about Mecca do not start only when we stand in front of it, but long before, when we enter the city and see the old buildings from afar. It’s then that the feeling of sacredness starts.” Moza Al Khaeili Um Hareb is reflecting on the changes to the most sacred of Islamic cities, and, in particular, to a striking development for this year’s Haj: an elevated walkway that entirely circles the Kaaba.

Um Hareb is a recent graduate from Zayed University with an MA in art and contemporary Islamic studies. She has nine children and three grandchildren — and has performed the Haj pilgrimage so many times that she has lost count.

For millions of pilgrims, this year’s Haj will be the first sight of the changes to the Masjid Al Haram that they have only glimpsed before on TV broadcasts.

The new walkway has an entirely practical purpose, adding an additional 3,000 square metres of space for worshippers around the Kaaba. Giving priority to the elderly and infirm, it’s connected to the mosque exterior by three bridges, including one leading to the twin hills of Al Safa and Al Marwah.

Officially known as the “mobile floor for Mataf expansion”, the structure has been built by the Saudi Binladin Group and was completed over the summer. It has an outer dimension of 94 metres and is several metres taller than the Kaaba, which is 13.1 metres high. Worshippers are free to pass under the structure, which is supported by pillars.

Its construction is part of a much larger plan to redevelop the city and the Masjid Al Haram that has already seen the demolition of a section of the old mosque wall to enlarge the structure and has required the kingdom to reduce the number of pilgrims this year.

The cost of this enterprise is huge (the kingdom is reported to have spent 40 billion riyals just to buy existing buildings on the site), but the intention is to allow a much greater number of pilgrims to safely attend both Haj and Umrah.

Announcing the expansion, King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz said: “This has happened by the grace of Allah. This is by no generosity of ours. This is God’s generosity. This has been done for honest and proud Saudi people and for Muslims in the entire world.”

While the spiritual essence of Haj has remained unchanged for more than 1,000 years, the city of Mecca and the mosque that surrounds the Kaaba have been constantly evolving, into what we see today.

Today, the city of Mecca is divided into two distinct parts. Al Haram includes the massive area of the Masjid, as well as the older buildings that surround it. Also included are the hotels and shops to serve worshippers. Beyond that is Al Hel, which extends to the city’s outer suburbs, whose population of three million doubles during the pilgrimage.

At the heart of all this is the Kaaba, according the Quran built with the help of angels, circling the building as do worshippers to this day. It was rebuilt by Adam and remained unchanged to the flood of Noah’s time, when its location was lost.

Revealed by Allah to the Prophet Ibrahim, between the 19th and 20th centuries before the birth of Jesus, it was rebuilt with the help of Ibrahim’s son Ismael on the spot where it sits to this day. Allah said in the Quran: “Behold! We gave the site, to Abraham [Ibrahim], of the (Sacred) House, (saying): “Associate not anything (in worship) with Me; and sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or stand up, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer).” (22:26) The exact location is important because the Quran teaches that this is the centre of the Earth.

Yet even the Kaaba as it is now differs from the structure built by Ibrahim. That structure was curved at one end, four metres in height, and with two corners, El Aswad, with the black stone, and Al Yamani. The building had no ceiling and had a door at ground level, rather than the current 2.13m from the ground.

Over time, the Kaaba has been rebuilt. It’s been inundated by flood waters several times, most seriously in the 17th century, but more recently in 1941 and 1969, and suffered major damage. Wars and sieges in the seventh century caused damage, and the Black Stone was removed and later restored in the 10th century. The Kaaba as it is today has remained unchanged for nearly four centuries.

“The Kaaba stays as a deep, meaningful, sacred place, regardless of the building,” says Muna bint Sheikh Um Rayyan, from Mecca.

“When the worshippers came in their journeys, whether for Umrah or pilgrimage, whether in the olden times on camels or by planes, that feeling of connection as the base of what is felt is exactly the same and what connects all comers to one.”

Um Rayyan was born in one of the old buildings in Al Haram closest to the Masjid and which was demolished for the expansion of the mosque by King Fahd. A mother of seven and now a grandmother, according to family tradition, her father took his new born to the Kaaba, leaving her with the guard while he circled the building seven times in gratitude for his newborn daughter, naming her Muna, after Mina, where pilgrims camp.

In the decades that have passed since then, she has witnessed many changes, but her feelings remains the same. In the past, she recalls, the location of where they used to drink from the well of Zamzam and wash with its waters was different than where it is today. But the water is unchanged: “Drink it now, it has the same taste, and it is as it was since it came out from between Sayyedna Ismael’s feet.”

She recalls a poor Chinese woman that she once met during Haj who had saved for 60 years to make the pilgrimage and who had thought every day about the journey. Now, she says, money and modern transportation have made the journey possible for growing numbers every year.

“Only 60 years ago, our elders came on camels. It used to take them from six to seven months altogether. Three months going, one month there, and three coming back.

“We are blessed for it to take five days now. Who wouldn’t go if they were able to?” she says. “Emirati pilgrims know that these changes were done to make the whole journey easier for Muslims.”

The new walkway, she says, is a good thing for the old and disabled: “Because, with the crowds, people would bump into each other with the wheelchairs.”

Um Hareb recalls earlier times: “When we used to enter the door of Al Haram, we would see the holy Al Kaaba straight a head of us.

“Then, later after the expansion it would take us longer to walk into Al Haram until reaching the holy Kaaba.”

When she first saw the new walkway on TV, she says: “Yes, I felt a bit of unease, because it is another change. However, that sacred feeling was never less or different.”

Coming from an Emirati culture and way of life, she says that as it gets older, it becomes more precious.

“Imagine with me this,” Um Hareb explains: “If you have a mother and you loved her dearly, then she grew up and changed – in the way she looks, or had an accident where her face was burnt – will you at all love her less? If anything, she will be more dear to you then ever. Anything that becomes older, becomes dearer.”

balhashemi@thenational.ae