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Heard at Mecca: 'Are you single?'

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Saudi historian Omar Tayeb isn't surprised, either. "Matchmakers are everywhere in Saudi. They find brides in supermarkets, malls, and mosques. Why not near the Kaaba?" he asks.

Modern pilgrims have also grown accustomed to seeing a variety of not-so-sacred activities near the sacred Kaaba, the cube that every Muslim on the planet faces during the five daily prayers. Worshipers often scramble and push to touch it. Some even rip off a piece of the kiswa – the black silk cloth with gold-embroidered calligraphy covering the rock – as a religious souvenir.

Other Mecca mementos can be obtained more easily. Local entrepreneurs, for example, have long worked the holy marbled white grounds.

"Scissors! Tissue! Prayer book! Only one riyal [about 27 cents]," cries out a boy of 6 struggling in the white sea of pilgrims. One of the rituals of the pilgrimage involves cutting one's hair. Tissues are used for wiping off sweat from the arduous walks between sacred sites.

The vendor's older brother is not far behind, selling Islamic stickers and passing out leaflets for his father's business – Koranic ring tones and customized prayers rugs.

From the corners of the mosque, sheikhs give public lectures, while religious police roam the crowd in search of "indecent conduct" and pickpockets.

Still, some Muslims see the matchmakers as another facet of the spreading commercialization of Mecca, which comes at the expense of its sacredness.

"There is nothing holy about having Pizza Hut right next to the holiest site in Islam," says Mohammed Abdullah Attar, a religious scholar in one of the all-boys' schools in Mecca.

The recent rise in oil prices is creating a new construction boom, funded mainly by members of the Saudi royal family. Some pilgrims comment disparagingly on the new glass-garbed, Vegas-style towers and glitzy five-star hotels encircling the holy site. Several of the towers are part of the Abraj al-Bait Mall (Arabic for "Towers of the House"), referring to the Kaaba's nickname, "the House of God." The mall is a complex of seven 30-story towers, still under construction but already promising to be one of Saudi Arabia's tallest – and most controversial.

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