A Prayer for Mecca

Against the backdrop of the annual Hajj, Saudi artist Ahmed Mater reveals unprecedented changes to the holy city of Mecca – from flashy new hotels to the loss of priceless neighborhoods. In the third episode of Crossing the Line, our series connecting the US and Middle East, he takes us inside Islam’s urban heart.

Mater explains, "In the city of Mecca, a new future is being drawn up. Its contours are becoming visible amidst a landscape teeming with initiatives - from the most public to the most private - aimed at developing and reinventing seemingly fixed rituals, states and assumptions; culminating, perhaps, in the re-imagining of life at the centre of the Islamic world. Like few other 21st century cities, Mecca is rooted in a complex and highly emotive context in terms of its historical, geopolitical and religious symbolism. It is both one of the most visited places on earth and one of the most exclusive, and yet it is in flux, it moves, grows and invents itself again."

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Release Date

September 2016

Project Artists


Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Washington DC, United States


On the Harimain Highway, 2014

"About three miles beyond the Shumaisi checkpoint, where Muslims are separated from non-Muslims, stands the Mecca Gate, which features a monumental sculpture of the Qur’an made by artist Dia Aziz Dia in 1975."

Ahmed Mater

Neon Cafe, 2012

"This cafe is in Al‘Awali, outside Mecca, on the road to Taif. I’ve spent na lot of time here, and many people gather together to relax, watch soccer, and drink tea."

Ahmed Mater

Metropolis, 2013

"Acquiring the necessary photographic equipment was fundamental to my project. I found the best camera I could have imagined in Mecca: one that the Saudi Binladin Group acquired in the 1970s to take photographs of its construction projects in the holy city. It had never been used, and it felt so fitting to use it to shoot the city it was intended for, to reclaim something that had lain dormant for almost forty years and apply it to this task."

Ahmed Mater

Ka'aba, 2015

"Pilgrims praying around the Ka‘aba during one of the five daily prayers. To see and hear the multitude of nearly three million souls – praying around the Ka‘aba, reciting their invocations to Allah, their voices as one as they speak the supreme supplication, ‘Labbaika Allahumma, Labbaik!’ (Here I am, O God, at thy command, Here I am!) – is an overwhelming reminder of the unifying principles of the hajj, the dense crowd sweeping in an almost impossible, undulating wave."

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater

Clock Tower (Mecca Time), 2015

"I flew in a helicopter over the new hotel complex built near the Grand Mosque. The seven towers of the Abraj Al-Bait are massive, casting their shadows over the whole city; looming and dominant, they dwarf everything around them. The Clock Tower, at 1,972 feet (601 meters), is the third-tallest building in the world and includes a mall that occupies twenty floors."

Ahmed Mater

Walking to Mina, 2012

"This is the bridge of passage to Mina where one of the rites of the pilgrimage take place, the stoning of the Jamarat. This place has been transformed utterly in the past few decades, with massive new bridges constructed to carry the ever-expanding number of pilgrims. Mecca faces an unprecedented yet abundantly practical problem: how to accommodate the ever-growing transient population of hajj pilgrims? Their number during the week of the hajj has grown exponentially, from between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand pilgrims in the 1970s to more than three million people today – and would be ten times that size without government-imposed regulations."

Ahmed Mater

Worker's Camp II, 2015

"Living quarters for construction workers employed by the major contractors overseeing the development of the Grand Mosque and the redevelopment of the city."

Ahmed Mater

From Dream to Reality, 2013

"Besides the millions of pilgrims that visit annually, Mecca is home to more than a million inhabitants, making it the third-most populous city in Saudi Arabia. It also has a long history as a site for domestic trade. Here is one of the many billboards in the older city that mask construction sites. Dreams surround this city, a belief that Utopia can be created here. Yet time and again, as with every age of renovation, we live within a reality of drills, demolition, and destruction."

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater

Featured Artist

Ahmed Mater 2 Culturunners

Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater trained as a community doctor on the Saudi/Yemeni border, before rising to become one of the most significant Arab artists of his generation. Born in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, then moving at an early age to the mountainous Asir region in the South, Mater's life and work have been shaped by seismic changes and unprecedented social shifts across the Arabian Gulf. He uses photography, film, sculpture and performance to map, document and analyse these rapid developments, considering their psychological impact on the individual, the community, urban environments and society at large. Entwining expressive and politically engaged artistic aims with the scientific objectives of his medical training, his artistic practice embraces the paradoxes of science and faith. Employing broad research-based techniques, Mater mines and preserves forgotten narratives and unofficial histories to map the Kingdom's past, present and future. As a cultural producer and educator, Mater is dedicated to discourse and social activism as a means to tangibly influence the wider civil society.

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