Mecca’s Monuments, Seen through the Eyes of Construction Workers

February 24, 2015

Islam’s holiest city is undergoing extensive development as it tries to accommodate an ever-increasing number of pilgrims. But who can afford to stay in Mecca’s luxury high-rises?

Ahmed Mater, Leaves Fall in All Seasons, 2013 (abridged one-channel version).

A crowd of construction workers stares up at the sky as a crane hoists a giant star and crescent to the top of Mecca’s tallest building, the Royal Hotel Clock Tower. A man in a hard hat triumphantly waves from the edge of the ascending icon, and the crowd goes wild. Ahmed Mater, a Saudi artist based in Jeddah, has for the past several years been documenting the sweeping changes taking place in Mecca through rare, spectacular scenes such as these. As a city that attracts millions of pilgrims from around the world each year, Mecca serves as a lens through which to examine the complex cultural, political and economic relationships that are shaping the Gulf today. In recent decades the number of pilgrims embarking on the hajj has soared as a result of a rapidly growing Muslim population and decreases in the cost of travel, among other factors. The demand for hotels and apartments to accommodate millions of annual pilgrims has necessitated new construction in Mecca; however, renovations to the ancient city have received widespread criticism as a gaudy, destructive makeover catered to a wealthy minority. Entire neighborhoods of modest houses and apartments, some built as recently as the 1980s, have been bulldozed to clear space for luxury high-rises. A hotel room overlooking the Ka’aba, the central point of the pilgrimage, can cost as much as $7,000 per night during peak season.

In Leaves Fall in All Seasons (2013), Mater looks at the booming construction in Mecca from the point of view of the construction workers, who are largely migrant laborers from elsewhere in the Middle East as well as from South Asia. Their cellphone videos capture the city from the perspective of an outsider granted a momentary peek in, focusing not on the loss of local neighborhoods but on the spectacle of demolition, the crowning of new towers and the quotidian moments of the workday. The videos capture the process of globalization as it unfolds in cities across the world—cheap labor is brought in, and glass towers are bought up by the wealthy as poorer residents are forced out of their homes.

This piece was made possible by Edge of Arabia and Art Jameel.