Nearly three million Muslims crowded for Haj at the holy sites this year and almost no major problem arose this time. Virtually every pilgrim is going home with cherished memories of that experience.
Haj has not been without its problems over the years, owing mostly to the fact that the growing numbers of visitors have made the area too small to accommodate everyone. I still remember the tragedy in 2006 when more than 300 people died in a stampede.
It appears, though, that such disasters are now a thing of the past as the newly-built high-tech four-level SR4-billion Jamrat Bridge has the capacity to accommodate up to 300,000 people per hour and up to 5 million pilgrims in total. This new modern bridge has eliminated congestion problems. Space to store pilgrims’ luggage nearby was allotted that reduced congestion and safety issues experienced in the past.
The new Jamrat Bridge shows the foresight of King Abdullah to ensure that Makkah becomes modernized enough to comfortably accommodate the growing number of Haj pilgrims. Makkah is Islam’s most important venue and such a massive infrastructure project suits, though cannot equal, its worth.
Consider that under King Abdullah’s direction more than 40,000 fireproof tents have been established at Mina, along with 42,000 air-conditioners, hundreds of thousands of electric lamps and thousands of fire extinguishers.
And that is just to accommodate the pilgrims. It’s been reported that approximately US$7 billion have been invested in infrastructure that includes an elaborate network of tunnels for water and electricity, and fly-overs to ease traffic congestion.
Another ambitious aspect of the modernization efforts is the plan to build a SR5 billion monorail that would link Makkah, Mina, Muzdalifa and Arafat by 2010.
The ongoing project is expected to be the world’s largest renovation scheme that includes luxury hotels, and commercial and residential towers. The residential towers will house most of the pilgrims. Project planners are said to be courting top architects Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid to head the design renovations.
To give an idea of the breadth and scope of the project, consider that Hadid, the 58-year-old Iraqi-born architect, is probably the top-ranked building designer, next to American architect Frank Gehry and Foster, who is being considered for the job.
Hadid is the first woman to win the Pritzker Price for Architecture, given annually to an architect who performs significant achievements, and is known for her extreme approach to building design.
She is responsible for designing the Contemporary Arts Center in Rome, the Guggenheim Museum in Taiwan, the Glasgow Museum of Transport, the Marseilles Museum in France and the Abu Dhabi Bridge in the United Arab Emirates.
Even if Hadid fails to win a commission, the fact that an Arab woman is in the running for such a prestigious project speaks volumes of King Abdullah’s vision to bring greatness to Makkah; a greatness that is not limited to buildings and infrastructure but extends to the people who will make a modern Makkah a reality.
By the end of this decade Makkah will rise to a level that will easily accommodate the ever growing number of Muslims worldwide. Like other planned tourism infrastructure projects throughout Saudi Arabia, the holy city will become much more than a venue to perform Haj. It is, as it always has been, the guiding beacon for all Muslims. But now it will be a holy city with modern amenities.
— The writer can be reached at [email protected] and she blogs at www.saudiwriter.blogspot.com