Welcoming the world: Islam’s holiest mosque is being expanded to accommodate an increasing number of pilgrims

Pilgrimage forms one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, and performing the Hajj at least once is mandatory for all Muslims who are physically and financially able to do so. The Hajj, however, can only be performed once a year over a specific five-day period. With an estimated 1.6bn Muslims in the world, catering for this requirement thus presents the Saudi government with unique logistical challenges. How to maximise the number of pilgrims able to participate, whilst ensuring their safety and comfort? Nowhere is this issue more pronounced than the centrepiece of the Hajj rites: the Grand Mosque in Makkah, home to the Kaaba, towards which Muslims direct themselves in prayer.

PREVIOUS PROJECTS: The Grand Mosque has been expanded numerous times throughout history, yet until the advent of modern aviation the number of pilgrims always remained manageable. However, in recent years the Ministry of Hajj, which assists pilgrims and regulates the visa procedure for the Hajj and the lesser pilgrimage of Umrah, has been obliged to limit domestic and international pilgrims to around 3m per year. At 356,000 sq metres, the existing Grand Mosque was able to accommodate a maximum number of 770,000 worshippers at any given time. With the government estimating that demand for Hajj pilgrimage would increase to around 7m people per year by 2040, it was decided that steps would need to be taken both to improve the situation for current pilgrims and prepare the Grand Mosque for future generations of Muslims.

BIG PLANS: Beginning in the mid-2000s, the Saudi government embarked on a massive $21bn expansion plan designed to increase capacity within the mosque to between 1.6m and 2.2m pilgrims. The works have involved expanding the total area of the existing mosque by 456,000 sq metres, while with the addition of courtyards and other facilities, including 52 gates and four minarets, total works will come to 1.3m sq metres. The expansion project was initially divided into three phases, with the first phase, involving expansion of the ground and first floors of the mosque, the first and second mezzanines, and the northern, southern and western yards, completed in time for Hajj in 2013. Work on the second phase involved the construction of restrooms, ablution facilities, tunnels and other services to allow the safe movement of pilgrims. Work has now moved on to the third stage of the project, which has two aspects: the addition of utilities such as a district cooling plant, an electricity station and water stations, and the expansion of the mataf, the circumambulation area around the Kaaba, to allow ground-level access to more worshippers. The work will expand tawaf performer capacity from 50,000 to 107,000. Work on this phase of the expansion project is expected to be completed in time for the Hajj in 2015.

Alongside stage three, work is also beginning on perhaps the most complex and ambitious part of the project. The fourth stage involves the expansion of the eastern and western sides of the mosque in an annex that is anticipated to be able to host 1.85m worshippers. This additional phase will involve enlarging the precincts of the Grand Mosque, for which the government has expropriated around 125,000 sq metres of surrounding real estate, paying compensation to owners estimated to be in the region of SR25bn ($6.6bn). Expanding the Muslim world’s holiest site presents its own specific considerations, not least maintaining as much of the site open to pilgrims as possible while works are carried out. Thus far, the government has managed to minimise disruption to pilgrims’ schedules, though total Hajj numbers were limited to 2m for both 2014 and 2015 while works are completed. The current expansion plans are also designed to take into account future growth and needs of the Grand Mosque to prevent further, overly disruptive expansions in the near term. According to local media reports, the government is considering adding an additional four floors to the newly extended mosque building, including a mechanised circumambulation facility for disabled pilgrims, while plans are also under way to provide more than 300 shading canopies to the mataf area.