THE BLOG
09/08/2014 09:30 am ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Meccamorphing - the holy city of Mecca is facing radical makeover

For over a decade, the holy city of Mecca has been going through rapid and radical makeover. The majority of Mecca's ancient-to-millennial architecture has been knocked down and replaced by enormous, ultramodern architecture. The gigantic 3 billion dollars worth Mecca Royal Hotel Clock Tower (constructed by Saudi Binladin Group), a 601-meter-high hotel and shopping mall, now overlooks Al Masjid Al Haram -- the Sacred Mosque and the holiest place to all Muslims of the world. In the centre of the Sacred Mosque is Kaaba -- the sacred house. According to Islamic tradition, it was built by Abraham as the place to worship Allah. All Muslims face Kaaba when praying.

Mecca is perhaps the first melting pot, in the modern sense, among the world's cities. Since ancient times, pilgrims would come to Mecca, and many stayed -- making Mecca one of the first truly multicultural cities. It still happens, as a pilgrimage visa is the easiest way to get into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where people simply overstay as illegal immigrants.

The sacred mosque is in constant expansion so to accommodate an ever-growing number of pilgrims. Just for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, more than 2 million people visit Mecca. Even for the oil-rich Kingdom, this is a huge source of income mounting to near 18 billion dollars a year.

However, this makeover is not happening without controversy. While the destruction of the religious structures associated with the life of the Prophet and his companions began with Saudi conquest of Mecca in early 19th century, the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice says it plans to close dozen historic sites around Mecca -- including the house where prophet Muhammad was born -- so that pilgrims cannot engage in what is considered idolatrous ritual. Yet modern Mecca now offers anything from Kentucky Fried Chicken to Rolex watches that can be purchased in shopping malls some hundred meters from the sacred mosque.

Medina, the second most important city for Muslims, is also going through radical changes. Current plans aim for removal of the prophet Muhammad's body to an anonymous grave and the destruction of the tomb. The tomb is visited by millions of pilgrims every year and is particularly revered by Shiite Muslims.

Some Islamic scholars and academic fear that these changes may stir a new rift between Muslims. Given the recent rise of ultra violent Islamic State (former ISIS) and centuries old animosity between two major muslim sects (Shiites and Sunnis) it may fan the flames of sectarian violence in Islamic world.