Pilgrims follow in the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad, but there is little of his legacy left in Islam's holiest city

“The authorities are trying to destroy anything in Mecca that is associated with the prophet's life,” says Irfan al-Alawi, director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, who recently returned from a trip to the city. “They have already bulldozed the house of his wife, his grandson and his companion – and now they are coming for his birthplace. And for what? Yet more seven-star hotels.”

At the foot of the Khandama mountain to the west of the Grand Mosque, an innocuous white building stands alone, cast adrift in a sea of paving and tarmac. This small library was built to mark the site of the house where the prophet was born, known as the House of Mawlid, the remains of which Alawi says still lie beneath its raised plinth. But it is now in the path of bigger plans.

The Grand Mosque in Mecca, teeming with pilgrims for the start of Hajj this week.
The Grand Mosque in Mecca, teeming with pilgrims for the start of Hajj this week. © Amr Nabil/AP - Two million Muslims have flooded into Saudi Arabia's Mina Valley from Mecca for the start of the Hajj pilgrimage this week. Dressed in simple white garments and freed from their worldly possessions, they are following in the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad. But in Islam's holiest city, there is increasingly little sign of the prophet's legacy – or the frugal life he espoused. “The authorities are trying to destroy anything in Mecca that is associated with the prophet's life,” says Irfan al-Alawi, director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, who recently returned from a trip to the city. “They have already bulldozed the house of his wife, his grandson and his companion – and now they are coming for his birthplace. And for what? Yet more seven-star hotels.”

As if to preempt any outcry, the building now bears a sign in five languages declaring: “There is no proof that prophet Muhammad was born in this place, so it is forbidden to make this place specific for praying, supplicating or get blessing.” A booth manned by the religious police ensures that no visitors step out of line.

It is, says Alawi, just the latest move in a series of state-endorsed acts of cultural vandalism, urged on by the hardline wahhabist sect, which perceives historic sites and the veneration of the prophet as encouraging sinful idolatry. ... Earlier this month, senior Saudi cleric Sheikh Saad bin Nasser Al Shathri called on Muslims around the world to support the expansion project. “Co-operating with the expansion of the Grand Mosque is consistent with sharia principles,” he said, “because building mosques is regarded as one of the greatest acts of piety and the best of all mosques is the Grand Mosque.”