During my fieldwork in Mecca, live stream broadcasts of worship at the Grand Mosque played incessantly. On flat screen TVs, the dense movement of the crowd around the ancient house interrupted the banality of a trip to the gym or the barber.
Through my research, I was starting to understand how broadcasting the Meccan sanctuary was not merely pious mediation—but rather tied to a range of modern logistical practices of optimization. In the 1970s, researchers used film and aerial photography to determine the number and speed of worshipers in the mosque. More recently, crowd scientists at Mecca’s university used live-stream broadcasts to train algorithms to read abnormalities in the crowd.
With the onset of the pandemic, images of the Grand Mosque emptied of its crowds communicated the crisis. While Mecca maintained a strict 24-hour curfew, broadcast prayers from mosque continued to be transmitted. The cameras are always on.
I began watching these live streams while writing under forms of lockdown in New York. In the first months of the pandemic, only employees of the Grand Mosque offered prayers there. I found confused comfort in the repetition of this highly mediated ritual action. My mind stumbled and stuttered—everything had changed. Nothing changed at all.
By the end of summer, residents and citizens of the kingdom could arrange to visit the sanctuary once again. Pilgrims are to schedule their ritual, their approval determined by a set of interlocking web applications. The mass of worshippers returns as a manicured queue. Color coded lines determine movements. The livestreams are now overlaid with graphics, information, and slogans about the new logistical procedures of mosque visitation. Informing viewers about new web applications, mandatory shuttle services, the individually packaged holy water, and new field workers that will maintain social distancing measures.
The once submerged logistics are now on full display.
Omer Shah is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University. He writes about crowd management, smart technology, and expertise in the holy city of Mecca.