A building boom in the city’s sacred center has created a dazzling, high-tech 21st-century pilgrimage.

In recent years Mecca, the spiritual centre of Islam, has become one of the most sought after and luxury destinations in the world.

The soaring economic growth of Muslim countries has exponentially increased the number of people who want to, and can afford to visit Mecca, both for the grand Hajj pilgrimage and, above all, for the minor Umrah pilgrimage, which is a less demanding, year-round occasion for visits to the holy sites and for general family entertainment. The pressing demand for visas has stimulated the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to invest millions and millions of dollars on improving and increasing the infrastructure and hospitality of the religious centre. And this has transformed the sacred city into a sacred metropolis.

The 1,970 feet high Bell Tower complex detains several world records: the highest hotel in the world, the highest clock tower, the clock with the biggest face and the largest surface area of skyscrapers in the world. In 2011, Hotel Tower became the 3rd tallest building in the world, exceeded only Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Shanghai Tower in China. Roads, health centres and public transportation have been added to the large construction sites for renovation of the Great Mosque and for building super luxury hotels with five stars and above. These luxurious new buildings will complement the more than 500 shops that already exist in the area surrounding the Kaaba, where they sell top Western brand names such as Rolex, Ferrari, H&M, Burger King, Starbucks, and many more can be purchased in the shopping centres near the Masjid al-Haram (the largest mosque in the world) and the Kaaba, the most sacred Muslim site in the world.

But this is just the beginning. The combined business turnover of Mecca and Medina is considered to be 120 million dollars a year, a figure which is destined to grow even more. Twenty billion dollars will be invested over the next ten years on projects already underway, causing a real estate market explosion that has pushed the average price up to 15,000 dollars per square meter, with record peaks for locations with a view of the Kaaba. If you still think Muslims arrive at Mecca on the back of a camel, you'd be as disappointed as you would be suprised to see a Christian pilgrim arriving in St. Peter's square on horseback. By the same token, anyone who imagines Mecca to be the epicentre of Islamic terrorism would be disappointed to discover the peaceful family picnics and copious scent of flowers that pervade the square in front of the Great Mosque.

What we find at Mecca is precisely what we can find in any other major religious centre around the world: souvenirs, impressive architecture, museums with endless queues to get in, and classy restaurants alongside the common rites and practices of a religion whereby spirituality, humanity and the needs of our consumer society peacefully coexist.

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This project was commissioned by The New York Times Magazine under the title Mecca Goes Mega.  A Virtual Reality component also ran later