Posted by: adoseofliberty | January 2, 2010

Extreme Makeover: Mecca

The city of Mecca, located in Saudi Arabia, is the holiest site of the Islamic religion.  It is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the destination of the Hajj, the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, which is the Fifth Pillar of Islam, a religious duty that must be performed at least once in every Muslim’s lifetime, given that they are financially and physically capable of making the journey.  Non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the city.

The Saudi Arabian kingdom, of which Mecca became a part in 1924, has in recent years been at work redeveloping and expanding much of the ancient city, with $13 billion being pumped into reshaping the “look” and “feel” of the city as well as increase visitor capacity which is projected to reach 10 million (the spending is one reason for the $18 billion Saudi budget deficit for 2010).  Now that the time of the Hajj this year has ended, according to Hürriyet, Turkey’s daily English news:

The 350-year-old portico designed by legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan for the Sacred Mosque is to be torn down now that the pilgrims have left. And with its demolition Mecca’s last traces of Ottoman architecture will be dust in the desert wind.

Dr. Sami Angawi, head of the Amar Center for Architectural Heritage in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, “acknowledges that the Saudis have the right to provide modern cities for their citizens, but also noted that many buildings from early Islamic history are being demolished and replaced with high-rise buildings. Angawi said he calculated that over 300 historical buildings in Mecca and Medina have already been destroyed.”

The New York Times published a piece called the “The Price of Progress: Transforming Islam’s Holiest Site” by Hassan Fattah in 2007:

Money is certainly one of the motivators in the building boom. Every year, up to four million people descend on this city during the pilgrimage, while a stream continues to flow through here during the year, spending an average $2,000 to $3,000 to stay, eat and shop.

Billboards along the way to Mecca remind investors of the potential earnings from owning an apartment here; some claim a 25 percent return on investment. Advertisements on Arab satellite television channels remind viewers that “you, too, can have the opportunity to enjoy this blessed view.”

Muhammad al-Abboud, a real estate agent, recounts tales of Pakistani businessmen plunking down $15 million to buy several apartments at a time. Saudi princes own entire floors.

A three-bedroom apartment here runs about $3 million, Mr. Abboud said. One directly overlooking the Grand Mosque can reach $5 million.

Along with the business and financial motivation provided by increasing millions of visitors every year, the Saudis also have safety as one major concern and reason behind the development.

For example, the ramp that leads to the area where the pilgrims “throw stones at the devil” at times was where hundreds could be killed when crowds rushed forward to complete this portion of the pilgrimage. Today, however, the ramp system has been changed and can hold 3 million people and has capacity for as many as 5 million.

The Las Vegas of the East

One of the largest and most controversial developments is the Abraj al Bait Mall, which is being built directly across from the Sacred Mosque (see above picture), surrounding the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam.  The Abraj al Bait Towers, which will house up to 100,000 people and include a prayer hall for 10,000, were built on the razed grounds of a two-century old Ottoman fortress that looked over the Kabaa.  The Abraj al Bait project will include the seventh tallest building in the world.

The mall will be one of the largest in Saudi Arabia and will be “outfitted with flat-panel monitors with advertisements and announcements, neon lights, an amusement park ride, fast-food restaurants and a lingerie shop.”  Not all people believe this Saudi development boom is progress.

“Mecca is becoming like Las Vegas, and that is a disaster,” said Ali al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, a Saudi opposition research organization. “It will have a disastrous effect on Muslims because going to Mecca will have no feeling. There is no charm anymore. All you see is glass and cement.”

In an article published in 2006 in The Guardian, Irfan Ahmed al-Alawi, a historian and co-chair of the Islamic Heritage Foundation, questioned the necessity of these developments with biting criticism:

“The excuse given by the Saudi government is that there’s not enough accommodation, but do you really need to be so close to the Grand Mosque and the House of Allah? ZamZam has facilities that are irrelevant. You don’t need a shopping centre and restaurants when you’re doing hajj. Marble flooring and five-star accommodation will not enhance your pilgrimage or make you a better Muslim. The idea that you can make a profit is especially offensive. Such desecration and disrespect would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.”

Some interesting pictures of the new developments can be found here.  Below is a leaked video of the plans to remodel the Sacred Mosque to accommodate much larger numbers of visitors.

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