The number of Muslims undertaking the Hajj has doubled in 20 years. How is Mecca coping?

The Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca during the Hajj last September. Image: Getty.

Every year, millions of Muslims from across the world travel to a small city on a patch of land in the Tihamah plain of Western Saudi Arabia. For here, in Mecca, lies the Kabbah, Islam’s holiest site.

As gradual globalisation and cheaper air travel makes the world smaller, more and more of the devout are making the pilgrimage, known as the Hajj, every year. In 1997, around 1.2m visited the city during this period. This year, the largest Hajj to do date, saw 2.35m pilgrims – 20,000 of them British – make their way to the city. Though there is some dispute about the data – some of the visitors are Saudis themselves making it hard to compare figures; in some years, the number of visitors has actually fallen slightly – that looks a lot like the number has doubled in just 20 years.

All this provides the city with unique infrastructure burdens: accommodating the vast sea of worshippers that arrive at Mecca during this short period must give many a Saudi city planner sleepless nights.

The requirements of the Hajj have already shaped the centre of the ancient city. Roads must be cut so the pilgrims can reach the Kabbah; accommodation built for them to sleep in at night; and billions of litres of water desalinated to keep them alive in the hot desert sun. Hotels, carparks, lavatories and expansions of the Great Mosque complex have all been created to ensure the safety of the pilgrims.

There is a lot at stake: the list of disasters during the Hajj is tragically long. Most recently and most severely, in 2015, a crush during the ritual led to the deaths of 2,411 pilgrims. There have been five other such disasters, just since 1990.

Following the 2015 disaster, international calls were made for the Hajj to be managed by an independent pan-Islamic organisation, on the grounds that the responsibility was too much for one state.

But the Saudis cherish their identity as the “guardians of the Hajj” – both ideologically, because of the role it gives them in the life of the world’s 2.2bn Mulsims, and practically, because the money involved is astronomical.

An aerial view of the Grand Mosque. Image: Getty.

Due to the centrality of the Kabbah for the rituals, hotels with the best views can charge $7,000 per night during the pilgrimage season. Consequently, the Great Mosque and the adjacent Abraj Al Bait hotel complex are the most expensive buildings in the world, and the area immediately around them is by far the most expensive real estate. According to the mayor, one square foot now sells for up to $18,000: by way of comparison, the most you would pay in London’s poshest Mayfair neighbourhood is barely a third of that, at $6,500. With this amount of money at stake it is a little wonder that the Saudi Arabian government treasure the Hajj.

So the authorities continue to build: more roads, more accommodation, better systems of crowd control.

But all this comes at a cost. These massive structural changes come at the price of the city’s rich material history. In place of an Ottoman era stone citadel, there now lies a hotel complex. The house of the Prophet’s wife, Khadija, is now the site of public loos. Contractors even flattened the very mountain the old castle lay on. The Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Mecca’s ancient buildings have been demolished in the past two decades, all in the name of accommodating the pilgrims.

As Sami Angawi, founder of the Hajj Research Centre, asked the Guardian in 2012: "Why are we imitating the worst mistakes of 60 or 70 years ago from around the world – only even bigger?"

The Saudi government has sacrificed all these things the ensure the future of the Hajj, to ensure that all those who can are able to take part in this holiest of events. The question it should be asking is, considering the destruction of their very history, is it worth it?

This article was amended on 6 November to reflect some controversy around exact visitor numbers. 

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.