People walk near dates stands in a food and dates market in Makkah on Thursday. Reuters
In the Saudi Holy City of Makkah, dotted with fast food eateries and stalls selling Chinese-made trinkets, vendors are ready to cash in on the annual Hajj pilgrimage.”Business is going very well,” said Faisal Addais from his stall close to the Grand Mosque — Islam’s holiest site.
“The customers are foreigners and speak all languages,” added the 41-year-old Yemeni, who sells religious souvenirs.
To overcome linguistic challenges, sales are often conducted with the help of a calculator.
Potential customers stroll past the stalls and shops, while pigeons coo at their ankles on the bustling thoroughfare.
Pilgrims gather at the Grand Mosque on Wednesday night, prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Makkah. AFP
Retailer Ali said his sales were expected to “increase five-fold” during Hajj, which this year is expected to attract 2.5 million worshippers from Saudi and across the world between Friday and Tuesday.
Completing Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and every Muslim with the means is obliged to undertake it at least once in their lives.
A salesman shows the Ajwa dates at a local date shop in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Reuters
The pilgrimage draws vendors to the Holy City, the majority peddling religious wares.
They include Chinese-made replicas of the Kaaba, a black structure inside the Grand Mosque towards which Muslims around the world pray, as well as call to prayer alarm clocks and water said to be holy.
“The religious and mercantile dimensions have always been linked in Makkah,” said Luc Chantre, author of several books about the pilgrimage in the modern era.
Malls replace bazaars
“When they had come from far away, pilgrims needed to trade to finance their stays — and some even went home in profit,” Chantre told AFP.
“What’s new is that these vast multi-storey malls have replaced the old bazaars around the Grand Mosque.”
Air-conditioned shopping centres near the Grand Mosque are home to leading luxury brands, which welcome a constant stream of pilgrims — except during prayer times.
Beyond the religious souvenirs, visitors to Makkah can pick up highly-coveted Saudi gold, watches, clothes and more.
Pilgrims shop prayer rugs at a market in Makkah on Wednesday, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. AFP
The city’s restaurants and fast food outlets, either in narrow side streets or on main arteries, are deluged by worshippers around the clock.
As well as the five-day Hajj, Muslims also travel to Makkah year-round to undertake the Umrah, a lesser pilgrimage.
Makkah is unlike Christian pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes in France and Mexico’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe where “trade is linked exclusively to souvenirs and religious offerings,” said Chantre.
Makkah’s nearby city of Jeddah is the traditional home of western Saudi Arabia’s mercantile families, partly owing to its vast port.