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Mecca, the holiest site of islaM, is getting a twenty first century Makeover. but not everyone is happy about it
By OrlandO CrOwCrOft
j a n u a r y 2011
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hotel in downtown Cairo and Sami angawi, the renowned Saudi architect and academic, is struggling to make himself heard over an internet phone line. i’m only able to hear every other word, plus he is obviously angry. “what is going on in Mecca and Medina is wrong,” he says, before the picture again crackles and disappears. “Clock tower,” he says, suddenly re-appearing. “that stupid clock tower.” an hour earlier i was gliding through the heavy Jeddah traffic in an immaculate white SUV with Sami’s son, ahmad angawi. ahmad was also talking about the royal Mecca Clock tower, speaking quickly and gesturing with one hand as he wove the car in and out of lane with the other. every now and then he’d go quiet, as if in thought, use his free hand to flick back the corners of his white guthra headscarf, and then press on. we were on our way to the angawi family home, a beautiful villa on the outskirts of Jeddah, where i was due to meet ahmad’s father, Sami angawi, via a Skype connection. it was what i thought was a fairly innocuous comment about the tower that had started ahmad talking about Mecca, but as he grew more animated he suddenly stopped, glanced at me, and realised i wasn’t really getting it. he quickly turned back to the road. “when you see my house, insha’allah, you will know what i mean,” he said, straightening his headscarf. it is a difficult place to get, Mecca, considering that nonMuslims are not allowed to enter it. Photography, as elsewhere in Saudi arabia, is also frowned upon. as you approach the city,
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“the gigantic royal Mecca clock tower has been the pivotal developMent of the new MillenniuM in Mecca. when it opens at the end of this year it will be the tallest and largest hotel in the world, topping out at 601 Metres and quite literally eclipsing every other luxury hotel in the holy city”
driving east fifty miles from the coastal city of Jeddah, you reach a junction, known as the Christian Bypass. it has separate lanes for Muslims and non-Muslims — the latter are taken on a detour of the city and farther inland to the mountain retreat of ta’if some three hours away. Still, Mecca isn’t short of visitors. there are 1.4billion Muslims in the world today and those who are able-bodied and can afford to travel are abliged to make the hajj at least once in their lives. three million pilgrims now visit every year and the city has become a proverbial cash cow for developers. over the last twenty years, luxury hotels, restaurants and facilities have sprung up on the roads surrounding the Grand Mosque. Starbucks and KFC outlets border Sheraton and hilton hotels, with rates rising every month. But the gigantic royal Mecca Clock tower is the pivotal development of the new millennium in Mecca. when it opens at the end of this year it will be the tallest and largest hotel in the world, topping out at 601 metres and quite literally eclipsing every other luxury hotel in the holy City. Service will be seven star (naturally), providing wealthy pilgrims with
twenty-four-hour butler services, spas and banquets, while the best suites directly overlook the Kaaba, towards which all Muslims pray five times a day. the building will also house a four-story shopping mall, two heliports, parking for a thousand vehicles and a conference centre. it was my comment about the project that got ahmad riled during the drive on that warm summer night in Jeddah. and as he fired up the internet connection to link us to Sami in Cairo, i had the sense that he was indeed his father’s son. on the wall above the sofa was a black and white framed photograph of Mecca taken in the mid-twentieth century. there are no tower blocks or fast-food outlets and the mosque is surrounded by low-level traditional houses, much like those that can now be seen in the al Ballad district of Jeddah’s old town, close to the city’s port. the angawi family home, where ahmad lives with his parents, has become a centre for Saudi arabia’s limited arts, music and social scene, and has hosted dignitaries from all over the world, including two visits by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. at the time of my visit a european diplomat was being
shown around by a well-spoken Saudi, who explained that when Carter had visited they had to close the road outside. as i left he gave me a copy of a poem, written by his eight-yearold daughter, lamenting religious intolerance and violence in surprisingly candid terms, and a Cd of traditional chanting, from the hejaz region, where both Jeddah and Mecca are located. al Makkiyah, as the angawi house is known, conforms to few of the stereotypes i expected to find in Saudi arabia. as i sat on an plush sofa facing a brand new Mac, Sami was talking about the clock tower from hundreds of miles away through a flickering screen. ahmad had been right in the car — in such beautiful surroundings as these, it was easier to understand objections to the development in Mecca. as well as being culturally progressive, al Makkiyah fuses traditional architectural methods from Saudi’s western region, together with modern attributes such as air-conditioning, double glazing and structural concrete and steel. it’s as far from the glitz and glam of today’s Mecca as one can get — glitz and glam that angawi and others argue has come at the expense of the city’s historical heart. “would you allow that tower in rome? or in the middle of london?” Sami said, as the picture faded in and out. “even if somebody now wanted to make Big Ben bigger, you would have all londoners objecting to it. we copy like monkeys, bring our Big Ben tower to be the biggest tower in the world, in Mecca. of course that makes me angry.”
angawi spent the best part of three decades researching and documenting historical buildings in Mecca and Medina after founding the hajj research Centre in 1971, but he admits that much of this work has been fruitless. in 2006 the UK’s Independent newspaper reported that there were fewer than twenty structures remaining that date back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUh) 1,400 years ago. demolished buildings include the house of Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet, which made way for public toilets and the house of abu Bakr, the Prophet’s companion and first caliph, which is now the site of a hilton hotel. Some would say it is not just about modernisation. there is an argument to be made that Saudi arabia’s strict brand of islam is responsible for the lax attitude that city planners have adopted towards Mecca’s historical sites. wahhabi islam, which developed from the eighteenth century Muslim thinker, Mohammed ibn abd al wahhab, is strict in its condemnation of shrines, or the worship of religious sites and idols. other strands of islam, including the Saudi minority Shias and ismailis, who live in the far north east and south west respectively, are well known for their reverence of religious sites, particularly those associated with the Prophet Mohammed (PBUh). But these views have been the minority ever since 1744 when Muhammad ibn Saud pledged his support to ibn abd al-wahhab’s reformist project, enabling him to found the First Saudi State –an alliance that holds fast to this day.
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photos: hasan hatrash/ orlando crowcroft/ getty images
Speaking in 2006, irfan ahmed al-alawi, chairman of the U.S.-based islamic heritage Foundation, said that because the wahhabis fear that places of historical or religious interest could give rise to alternative forms of pilgrimage, they have aimed to flatten all evidence of a past that does not agree with their interpretation of islam. the ihF published pictures five years ago that showed the ruins of the grave of the Prophet’s wife, destroyed in the 1950s, and the dynamiting of the 1,200-year old al-oraid Mosque, named after the Prophet’s grandson who was buried there. al-alawi also told the Independent that the case of the grave of amina bint wahb, the mother of the Prophet, discovered in 1998, is typical of what is happening in Mecca. “it was bulldozed in abwa and gasoline was poured onto it. even though thousands of petitions throughout the Muslim world were sent, nothing could stop this action.” But while wahhabism doctrine helps explain the desire to obliterate sites of historical importance, the financial imperitative to modernise Mecca is still hugely significant. Saudi arabia’s government says revenue from tourism will reach $17.6 billion this year and could double by 2015. the number of pilgrims is also expected to rise from twelve million to almost seventeen million by 2025. in the short term this means tens of thousands of jobs in a country with ten percent unemployment. But look further ahead and a bigger picture emerges. religious tourism is a potentially vast industry that could help reduce the country’s unsustainable dependence on oil receipts. this helps explain why a rail line between Mecca and Medina is under construction, with plans to link the holy City to a network eventually covering the entire country — and one day join with similar projects in the Uae. it will be backed up by an expansion of both Jeddah and Medina airports, with the former due to expand its capacity from thirty to eighty million by 2012. it is also fair to say that Mecca is not alone in seeing its heritage eroded for the sake of bigger profits. Cairo has seen vast swathes of the historical area around the Pyramids of Giza destroyed or “modernised”, while areas of the city’s islamic quarter have also fallen into disrepair. equally, numerous other Gulf cities — dubai, Manama and doha among them — have suffered a similar fate. Some of the developments in and around the Grand Mosque have been welcomed — especially given the increased numbers and the ongoing threat of stampedes, traffic accidents and general overcrowding. But critics such as angawi say this is happening at the expense of the city’s cultural identity and something precious is being lost along the way. “they have proven everywhere else in the world that the most valuable parts of the city are the old parts, so there must be something wrong – either with that experience or with our thinking,” he told me.
eda SiJini iS SittinG in the loBBy oF dUBai’S al-QaSr hotel when i arrive to meet him. he is casually dressed and as he rises to greet me i am conscious of two young children hovering a few metres away, pointing and giggling. “they’re waiting to go to the water park,” he says, as if reading my mind. his wife appears, smiles and waves at us, and then hustles the kids into a cab.
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reda was born in Mecca, but lives and works in Jeddah, where he runs a small architecture practice. he was one of those who wrote to me during an email exchange called “Voice from the eastern Shore”, which was provoked by a piece i had written for Middle East Architect [published by itP Business] criticising the royal Mecca Clock tower. over the following few days the replies came in droves, each raising new points about the recent development, and written by a broad cross-section of of writers, artists and architects. i was surprised to see such a debate, particularly about a subject as contentious as Mecca, so i contacted some of the writers to find out more about their thinking. a few weeks later, when reda had the opportunity to travel to dubai for a dental conference (his wife is a dentist), he suggested we meet in person to talk. he speaks like an architect, unsurprisingly, but for reda there is something personal in his criticisms of the kind of development that is taking place. as someone who is used to looking at the minutiae of design, the profitability of projects and the organisation of urban hubs, he is all the more keen to stress that Mecca is different to cities elsewhere in the world. “we have been both arrogant and naïve in thinking it would be acceptable to apply in Mecca, which is a sanctuary, that which is applicable in other urban centres,” he explains.
Mecca-born architectReda Sijini is concerned about the preservation of the Holy City. “Mecca — a city which has witnessed all these droves of pilgrims throughout the centuries — is the way it is for a reason.”
“they have constantly shown that the solution to large problems need not be only via major construction interventions, but could also be achieved through simple schemes that tackle the smaller details,” he says. the broader point, as the people who replied to the “Voice from the eastern Shore” email pointed out, is that Saudi arabia is in danger of letting one of its greatest assets suffer. while Mecca is undoubtedly of commercial importance to the Saudi government, it needs to be treated sensitively — something that has been lacking so far. “there are monuments of far lesser importance around the world that have been treated with much more sanctity, sensitivity and respect than we’re treating the haram [Grand Mosque],” one person tells me anonymously via email. “in my mind this Clock tower is tantamount to criminal negligence.” this kind of backlash, albeit limited, is surprising given the fear among many Saudis of speaking critically about their government. this is all the more pronounced when discussing Mecca, ownership and control of which is integral to the legitimacy of the Saudi state. (King abdullah’s full title is “Custodian of the two holy Mosques King abdullah bin abdulaziz”, meaning those in Mecca and Medina.) that said, many of those who live on Saudi arabia’s west coast feel that the time has come to speak out and the internet has given them the opportunity to do so. “the erection of high-rise commercial structures at the footsteps of the haram, as well as the destruction of the surrounding hills to create such developments, is in serious
“deMolished buildings in Mecca include the house of khadijah, the wife of the prophet [pbuh], which Made way for public toilets and the house of abu bakr, the prophet’s coMpanion and first caliph, which is now the site of a hilton hotel”
“to assume that economic models, urban planning and infrastructural design methods that have been successful elsewhere would simply work, without highlighting the uniqueness of Mecca and the hajj, is not just ignorant, it’s reckless.” he pauses to take a sip of his coffee, and then looks across the table. Unlike many of the pilgrims that travel to the holy City once or twice in their lives, Mecca is the city of his birth, his home, and it is changing fast. “the aura of sanctity evaporates once you enter on the congested highway, with its exhaust fumes,” he explains. “all this amidst overbearing stacks of concrete with cheap marble and granite cladding.” lastly, reda adds, the hajj itself cannot be boiled down to a tick-list of activities sandwiched in between luxury meals. “the hajj is not only about a set of rituals to be carried out in a pre-ordained period of time. it is a spiritual journey connected with the location and its sense of place,” he says. “the geography and the topography of Mecca — a city which has witnessed all these droves of pilgrims throughout the centuries — is the way it is for a reason.” Given the growing number of visitors, few would deny the necessity for making the city more user-friendly. however reda thinks the hajj research Centre findings showed that knocking down swathes of the city is not the only way to modernise Mecca. conflict with this fundamental concept. this opportunistic tendency must be halted immediately,” says hisham Malaika, a Jeddah-based architect. “the relevant authorities should treat developments surrounding the Mecca haram and its vicinity with the caution attributed to world heritage sites — even if it isn’t yet designated as such officially.”
aMi anGawi, For hiS Part, iS not holdinG oUt MUCh hoPe For the City oF hiS Birth. as the dilapidated merchant houses of Jeddah’s al Ballad district show, historic buildings continue to suffer as Saudi arabia presses forward on its march into the twenty-first century. whether it is for ideological or commercial reasons — or both — the situation looks like it will get worse before it gets better. he doesn’t say it, but the sound of defeat in his voice gives you the feeling that for Sami, the Clock tower was the final straw. “all we are showing to God and to the people who come in the future is that we have money, and we will spend it,” Sami said, sadness now more prevalent than anger. “we could have used at least part of our money to do something for the world — to serve humanity, not only ourselves. how are we advancing humanity with what we are doing in the Middle east?”
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