The Future is Unwritten: Ahmed Mater, Desert of Pharan

By The United Nations

An Exhibition by The Future is Unwritten & UN75: Artists for Tomorrow

Desert of Pharan by artist-physician Ahmed Mater documents the rapid development of Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, a place in a state of constant transformation. Across hundreds of photographs and films, the shifting urban environment of the city is witnessed and reflected back to society, asking the question: what is the impact of these changes on the sustainable well-being of place and people? The project’s title is derived from the ancient name for Mecca, or the wilderness and mountains surrounding it – the Desert of Paran, or Wilderness of Paran, mentioned in the Old Testament.

Ka'aba (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations


In Desert of Pharan, artist-physician Ahmed Mater merges his vocations to explore the sustainability and health of the city of Mecca. As a hallowed site revered by millions and a point of perpetual immigration, the city in recent years has been recast, reworked and ultimately reconfigured. The speed and breadth of transformation introduce dependent concerns regarding the city’s social mechanics and the ongoing and symbiotic relationship between demolition and construction. Mecca is rarely seen as a living city with its own inhabitants and historical development. Instead, it is almost exclusively seen as a site of pilgrimage, as a timeless, emblematic city. Mecca is a source, shaped by its own narrative which can be traced back to the time of Abraham. At the same time, increasingly significant effects emanate from it as the global Muslim population (the ummah, or community) grows and becomes more connected. Amid a rapidly changing economic landscape, Mecca is re-examining its situation to itself and to the world beyond. Through this project, Ahmed’s work contributes to the health, innovation, infrastructure and sustainability of people and place.

“Photographing the city, in some part, stemmed from a fascination with resolving the timeless, symbolic, nostalgic, remembered city with its physical counterpart – the layers shifted and revealed even more layers. The more I looked, the more Mecca appeared to me like a microcosm of many universal concerns – private development encroaching on public spaces, the fortunes of migrant communities, the tension between urban planning and religion…” - Ahmed Mater

Prognosis (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Innovation and a New Future

In the city of Mecca, a new future is being constructed. 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.

Metropolis (2013) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

A New Landscape

Earlier images of Mecca often depicted the Kaaba surrounded by the low colonnades of the Great Mosque’s main sanctuary and nestled in the folds of mountainous terrain. Today, Mecca has been changed beyond recognition due to the largest transformation in its history.

Artificial Light (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

The Ka’aba stands at the centre of a brightly lit construction zone as workers erect a massive extension of the mosque and other amenities to accommodate a growing influx of pilgrims. The gleaming Makkah Royal Clock Tower complex, with its luxury hotels, shopping mall, residences, and prayer room, dominates the horizon.

Hajj Travel Agency (2011) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Mecca makes the vast majority of its income during the Hajj, when travel agencies (such as the one pictured here), guides and merchants cater to the dramatic increase in pilgrim numbers, which have grown from roughly 200,000 in the 1970s to 3 million in 2016.

Beacon in the Holy City (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

‘Beacon in the Holy City’ Billboard on the road to Mecca.

Road to Mecca (2011) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Entry to the sacred city is exclusively granted to the followers of Islam. The pilgrimage remains the central structuring principle – both symbolically and physically – of all that is Mecca. The rituals of the pilgrimage have been fiercely protected, and devotedly and consistently observed for fifteen centuries.

On the Haramain Highway (2015) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

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.

Jibreel (Gabriel) (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

A construction worker named Jibreel stands atop the highest minaret, one of the six towers used to call Muslims to prayer at the Grand Mosque, during its expansion. The developments throughout Mecca are immense, their ambitions signaled by a frenetic mass of cranes and bulldozers. The landscape of the holy city teems with skyscrapers; cranes and artificial lights clutter the skyline. Even the Ka‘aba is encroached upon, jostled among buildings that vie for space as the Mecca Royal Clock Tower, with its colossal crescent moon, rises above all.

Leaves Fall in All Seasons (2014) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Leaves Fall in All Seasons

A lone figure, hoisted skywards. This is the crescent moon that will crown the clock tower. In Ahmed’s story, Jabril “sits between reality and the impossible cityscapes of the future.” The worker’s mundane task becomes spectacle, as he glides through the air “like an angel bringing a warning.”

This excerpt is from Ahmed Mater’s 2014 film, ‘Leaves Fall in All Seasons’ and is made up of mobile phone footage shot by immigrant workers on building sites in and around Makkah between 2008 and 2013. Most of the footage was shot for the benefit of these workers’ families. The files were transferred to the artist’s phone using Bluetooth, while other materials were originally uploaded to YouTube. Some contributors have asked to remain anonymous.

Clock Tower (Mecca Time) (2015) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

“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.

The complex is situated on the former location of the old Turkish fortress known as the Jiyad Fort. Seeing it lit like this, with neon in the early evening light, feels like looking at the future – it’s hard to imagine the many layers of time, of histories, that were until recently all here.”

Golden Hour (2011) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

“In Mecca, difference becomes the only constant. Today is different from yesterday and, by tomorrow, it will have altered again. There are seismic changes that stagger even the casual observer – the massive development of the Haram Al-Sharif being the most iconic. It’s a place loaded with historical significance, yet there isn’t any infrastructure left there that is more than 100 years old. It amazes me that for so many around the world today, especially non-Muslims who do not know the significance of the city, Mecca has become synonymous with impossibly tall buildings, the looming clock tower and the teeming cranes. What happens to the symbolic identity when the physicality is altered beyond recognition? The ‘difference’ between the potent invested symbolism of the place and the complete physical transformation is the most charged – how can it be so historically, religiously, symbolically robust while also being physically obliterated and changed beyond recognition?” - Ahmed Mater

Walkway to Mina (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

The bridge of passage to Mina is 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 these massive new bridges constructed to carry the ever-expanding number of pilgrims. Mecca faces an unprecedented yet abundantly practical problem: how to accommodate the massive, 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.

Prlt Him! (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Pelt Him!

Returning toward Mina, the pilgrims stop to throw small stones at three massive walls, an act symbolically recalling the three occasions when Abraham threw stones at the devil, who tempted him to disobey God’s command to sacrifice his son. Again, order trumps tradition here, with massive walkways recently constructed to allow safe passage for the masses. The murmur of crowds and the continuous rhythm of pebbles striking a wall gently draw us into Mecca, one of the most restricted yet highly visited cities in the world. At several different points during the hajj, pilgrims perform this stone-throwing ritual, symbolizing stoning the devil or casting away temptations.

Human Highway (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

High above the entrance to the Jimarat, we can sense both the significance of this rite and the considerable risk posed by the overwhelming mass of people funnelling in. Hundreds have died trying to make their way across Jamarat Bridge.

Concrete Lamination (2013) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Moving east to west, pilgrims re-enact Abraham’s hajj by throwing seven pebbles against each of three pillars, known collectively as Jamarat. The area around the Jamarat pillars, located in an encampment east of Mecca, has been redesigned repeatedly to facilitate pilgrims’ progression during the stone-throwing ritual.

Hajj Season (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

The week of the hajj is the busiest time of the year in Mecca and when the commercial stores facing the main entrance of the Grand Mosque make the majority of their earnings.

Neighborhood - Stairway (2015) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

This is one of the earlier photos from the collection, a route to the narrative history of the old neighbourhoods and settlements that no longer exist, demolished to clear the way for the expansion of the mosque and the construction of new hotels.

Stand in the Pathway and See (2011) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

As the sketched outline of a new city is overlaid onto the demolished infrastructure of the past, the older city is eradicated. The city is recast, dominated by a more technologically advanced, materialist, consumer-driven understanding of urban space. What is not yet clear is the impact this will have on the emotional and psychological well-being of the inhabitants of the physical and symbolic city.

Neighborhood - Kids (2015) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Children playing in the Burmese area of Mecca.

Neighborhood - Religion Class (2015) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Children on their way to religious class in one of the outer neighbourhoods of Mecca.

Neighborhood - Pedestrian (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

A neighborhood that has since been demolished as part of the continued expansion.

A room with a View ($3000/Night) (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Building accommodations for pilgrims has dominated the infrastructure changes transforming Mecca’s landscape. There are now more than a hundred hotels, many built right around the Ka‘aba. These are the most luxurious, their rates reflecting their proximity, lavish facilities, and furnishings. Here, rooms cost up to $3,000 a night. Few can afford or justify such expense, although there are extremely wealthy pilgrims who have booked rooms for every night of the year, even though they will stay for only a week.

From Dream to Reality (2011) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Workers stand before a hoarding showing the plan for the restoration of the Grand Mosque area. 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.

Nature Morte (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

With the growing religious tourism industry, hotel rooms in the Makkah Royal Clock Tower complex have come to dominate the skyline above the Great Mosque’s main sanctuary. Here, inside the quiet luxury of a private room, Mater’s framing becomes a subtle commentary on how political and spatial changes are reinventing the center of the Islamic world.

Pilgrims' Tent (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Pilgrims inside tents on Mount Arafat.

Social Fabric (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

This aerial photograph was taken from a helicopter flying above the Holy City of Makkah. This work is part of a wider project called Desert of Pharan, which explores the current transformation of one of the most visited yet exclusive cities on earth.

From the Real to the Symbolic City (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Mass, and more specifically scale, are important to the project. Most obviously, the swarming mass of pilgrims that come each year, like a wave, to the city – but also the scale of the individual human body in relation to the urban – and how this speaks of the scale of one life among the multitude of lives, stories and unofficial histories. There are interior scenes and aerial shots, images of vast echoing construction sites and crowds thronging holy sites. More than being merely read as a commentary on Islam, or religious experience, the ranging ideas prompted by Desert of Pharan engage with a global dialogue about urban development: pristine symbolic cities vs. their more knotty and complex lived realities; tensions between private and public space; the individual vs. the multitude.

In this way, the action of this project has resolved into a prayer for both the real and the symbolic city, the past, the present and the future. A monumental documentation of flux, Ahmed tries to fix fleeting moments, and track the threads of disappearing histories, before they are obscured forever beneath the rubble.

Worker's Camp I (2015) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Construction workers in their living quarters. Seen in this image is a window salvaged from the old city. Ahmed became fascinated by these artifacts and collected them to realize a large installation entitled Mecca Windows.

Worker's Camp II (2012) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

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

Pilgrims in front of Twitter Advert (2014) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Phone screens document and track every moment of the pilgrimage, streamed across Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.

A Prayer for Mecca (2016) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

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 The Guardian’s Crossing the Line video series connecting the US and Middle East, he takes us inside Islam’s urban heart.

Ahmed Mater in his Studio in Jeddah (2015) by Ahmed MaterThe United Nations

Ahmed Mater Biography

Ahmed Mater’s life and work have been shaped by seismic changes and unprecedented social shifts across the Arabian Gulf. Born in 1979 in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, Ahmed moved at an early age to the mountainous Asir region in the South and trained as a community doctor on the Saudi/Yemeni border before becoming one of the most significant Arab artists of his generation.

As an artist, Ahmed uses photography, film, sculpture and performance to map, document and analyse societal developments, considering their psychological impact on the individual, the community, urban environments and society at large. Entwining expressive and culturally 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.

Credits: Story

Artists for Tomorrow is organised by The Future is Unwritten in collaboration with UN75 and curated by Stephen Stapleton and Danielle Sweet. The exhibition is presented in partnership with the Open Mind Project.

The Future is Unwritten (TFIU) is an initiative by CULTURUNNERS and the World Council of Peoples for the United Nations (WCPUN) Arts & Culture Advisory Council, launched in 2020 in collaboration with UN75. As 2020 marks the beginning of the UN’s Decade of Action, TFIU facilitates urgent cooperation between the international Arts and Culture sector and the United Nations in order to accelerate implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Special thanks to Jahan Rafai and Lisa Laskaradis, UN75; Arif AlNomay and Mahmoud Sami, Ahmed Mater Studio; Asya Gorbacheva and Saheer Umar, Production Department; and Kuba Rudziński, Art Department.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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