I flew in a helicopter over the new hotel complex built near the Grand Mosque. The seven towers of the Abraj Al-Bait are massive, casting their shadows over the whole city; looming and dominant, they dwarf everything around them. The Clock Tower, at 1,972 feet (601 meters), is the third-tallest building in the world and includes a mall that occupies twenty floors. The complex is situated on the former location of the old Turkish fortress known as the Jiyad Fort. Seeing it lit like this, with neon in the early evening light, feels like looking at the future—it’s hard to imagine the many layers of time, of histories, that were until recently all here. —Ahmed Mater
Children making their way to school in a neighborhood that has since been demolished as part of the continued expansion. —Ahmed Mater
Construction workers in their living quarters. Seen in this image is a window salvaged from the old city. I became fascinated by these artifacts and collected them to realize the large installation Mecca Windows, on view in this exhibition. —Ahmed Mater
Pilgrims praying around the Ka‘aba during one of the five daily prayers.
To see and hear the multitude of nearly three million souls—praying around the Ka‘aba, reciting their invocations to Allah, their voices as one as they speak the supreme supplication, ‘‘Labbaika Allahumma, Labbaik!’’ (Here I am, O God, at Thy command, Here I am!)—is an overwhelming reminder of the unifying principles of the hajj, the dense crowd sweeping in an almost impossible, undulating wave. —Ahmed Mater
Building accommodations for pilgrims has dominated the infrastructure changes transforming Mecca’s landscape. There are now more than a hundred hotels, many built right around the Ka‘aba. These are the most luxurious, their rates reflecting their proximity, lavish facilities, and furnishings. Here, rooms cost up to $3,000 a night. Few can afford or justify such expense, although there are extremely wealthy pilgrims who have booked rooms for every night of the year, even though they will stay for only a week.
The division that luxury hotels impose is anathema within the context of the dignified, fundamental leveling principles that are the very basis of the hajj. The core tenets of Islam, eloquently articulated by the rituals of the hajj and protected since the days of the Prophet, were never meant to compete with superluxurious hotels or brand names. —Ahmed Mater
Mecca faces an unprecedented yet abundantly practical problem: how to accommodate the massive, ever-growing transient population of hajj pilgrims? Their number during the week of the hajj has grown exponentially, from between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand pilgrims in the 1970s to more than three million people today—and would be ten times that size without government-imposed regulations. Hotel construction makes a vain effort to keep pace with the impossible capacity demands, while the town of Mina is transformed into a sea of white tents every year, becoming home to pilgrims from around the world for the duration of their stay. —Ahmed Mater
In addition to social and economic problems, safety is a critical issue in the neighborhoods where immigrants and migrant workers live, such as the Burmawi district. Many of Mecca’s illegal inhabitants with low incomes face numerous social issues, and many have found themselves homeless after their dwellings have been destroyed as part of the expansion. Despite the tumult of this relentless development, it is impossible to walk the streets of Mecca without the insistent and enduring awareness that these are the same stones on which the Prophet Muhammad walked. —Ahmed Mater
Gasoline is made into a celebrity at this station. It’s like an advertisement. You can see it from far away, and I always stop here to refuel on my way to and from Mecca. —Ahmed Mater
Acquiring the necessary photographic equipment was fundamental to my project. I had all these shades and layers of Mecca in mind as I put the system together, thinking about the scale, angles, and conditions within which I would have to shoot to convey the plurality of the city. In a sort of scavenger hunt, parts were acquired from all over the world. After this international search, I found the best camera I could have imagined: one that the Saudi Binladin Group acquired in the 1970s to take photographs of its construction projects in Mecca. It had never been used, and it felt so fitting to use it to shoot the city it was intended for, to reclaim something that had lain dormant for almost forty years and apply it to this task. But there was a difference: I was shooting to map, trace, and document stories; the Saudi Binladin Group would have used the equipment to map and document the physical reality of the place. —Ahmed Mater
Entry to the holy city is granted exclusively to the followers of Islam. A road sign on the highway to Mecca states that one direction is for “Muslims Only,” while another is obligatory for “Non-Muslims.” Checkpoints at the turnoffs of the main road prevent non-Muslims from proceeding into the city. This road is lined with billboards that stand as sentinals on either side of your journey. —Ahmed Mater
A construction worker named Jibreel stands atop the highest minaret, one of the six towers used to call Muslims to prayer at the Grand Mosque, during its expansion. The developments throughout Mecca are immense, their ambitions signaled by a frenetic mass of cranes and bulldozers. The landscape of the holy city teems with skyscrapers; cranes and artificial lights clutter the skyline. Even the Ka‘aba is encroached upon, jostled among buildings that vie for space as the Mecca Royal Clock Tower, with its colossal crescent moon, rises above all. —Ahmed Mater
Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys
December 1, 2017–June 17, 2018
Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys takes visitors through the holiest city in the Islamic world. It presents a compelling portrait of the massive urban redevelopment now under way and its effects on residents and the millions of hajj pilgrims who travel there every year. Saudi artist Ahmed Mater has documented this unprecedented expansion for nearly a decade.
The exhibition is anchored by monumental photographs from his project Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, alongside large-scale videos and installations. In addition to showing the influx of wealth, photographs detail the lives of workers on construction sites and of migrant groups.
“I need to be here, in the city of Mecca, now, experiencing, absorbing, and recording my place in this moment of transformation, after which things may never be the same again,” states Mater. “It has become important for me to identify with this place and to understand how this constellation of change, as well as the forces that are shaping it, will affect the community of which I am a part.”
Focusing on Mecca as both a symbolic site of worship and a contemporary urban center grappling with the consequences of unremitting growth, Mecca Journeys presents a portrait of the complex cultural dynamics at work in the city today.
Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys is organized by the Brooklyn Museum in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) and is produced in collaboration with CULTURUNNERS.
This exhibition is curated by Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.