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As a child, Osama al-Bar would walk from his home past Islam's holiest site, the Kaaba, to the market of spice and fabric merchants where his father owned a store. At that time, Mecca was so small, pilgrims could sit at the cube-shaped Kaaba and look out at the serene desert mountains where the Prophet Mohammad once walked.Now the market and the homes are gone. Monumental luxury hotel towers crowd around the Grand Mosque where the Kaaba is located, dwarfing it. Mecca is revered by hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide.Mecca's planners are largely catering to wealthier pilgrims by focusing on construction of five-star hotels, surrounding the Kaaba in marble-sheathed luxury.The $60-billion Grand Mosque expansion will almost double the area for pilgrims to pray at the Kaaba. Around half the cost went to buying about 5,800 homes that had to be razed for the expansion, said Bar, the Mecca mayor. The hill – a landmark in the city – was levelled and in its place, construction of around 40 towers is underway, mostly for luxury hotels providing some 11,000 rooms.Mecca's planners didn't have to build so close to the Kaaba, overwhelming the simple cube-shaped structure, said Irfan al-Alawi, a Saudi who heads the London-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.
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