A glowing green disc hovers high in the night sky, casting an eerie glow over a forest of minarets, cranes and concrete frames that seem to stretch endlessly into the dusty distance, like a vast field of dominoes. The disc is the largest clockface in the world – and not only does it adorn the tallest clocktower in the world, it also sits atop a building boasting the biggest floor area in the world. Visible 30 kilometres away, this is the Abraj al-Bait, which towers some 2,000 feet over the holy mosque of Mecca in the spiritual heart of the Islamic world.
This thrusting pastiche palace houses an array of luxury hotels and apartments, perched above a five-storey slab of shopping malls. Completed last year at a cost of US$15 billion, it stands on a site formerly occupied by an Ottoman fortress. A stone citadel built in 1781 to repel bandits, the Ajyad fortress’ demolition sparked an international outcry in 2002, but this was quickly rebuffed by the Saudi Islamic affairs minister. “No one has the right to interfere in what comes under the state’s authority,” he said. “This development is in the interest of all Muslims all over the world.”
The fortress wasn’t just swept away – the hill it sat on went, too.
Shooting 26 searchlights 10 kilometres into the skies, and blaring its call to prayer seven kilometres across the valley, the Abraj al-Bait is also the world’s second-tallest building. Encrusted with mosaics and inlaid with gold, it is the most visible (and audible) sign of the frenzied building boom that has taken hold of Saudi Arabia’s holy city over the past 10 years.
“It is truly indescribable,” says Sami Angawi, architect and founder of the Jeddah-based Hajj Research Centre, who has spent the past three decades researching and documenting the historic buildings of Mecca and Medina, few of which now remain. In particular, the house of the prophet’s wife, Khadijah, was razed to make way for public toilets; the house of his companion, Abu Bakr, is now the site of a Hilton hotel; and his grandson’s house was flattened to make way for the king’s palace.
“They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment. They’ve even taken away the mountains,” says Angawi.
Geological features have proved no match for dynamite and concrete, which are being liberally deployed to pave the way for a burgeoning number of visitors. More than three million Muslims arrived in Mecca last month for the annual haj pilgrimage, an event that has mutated from a simple, spartan rite of passage, in which pilgrims give up their worldly goods, into a big-bucks business worthy of Macau – with the overblown architecture to match.
Along the western flank of the city are the first towers of the Jabal Omar development, a sprawling complex that will eventually accommodate 100,000 people in 26 luxury hotels – all sitting on another gargantuan plinth of 4,000 shops and 500 restaurants, and incorporating a six-storey prayer hall. The line of blocks, which will climb to 200 metres and terminate in a monumental gateway building, share the clocktower’s Islamic-lite language: a clichéd dressing of pointed arches and filigree grillwork plastered over generic concrete shells.
The developers have somehow transformed a type of architecture that evolved from dense urban tracts of low-rise courtyards and narrow streets into meaningless wallpaper: an endlessly repeatable pattern for the decoration of standardised slab after standardised slab. Flimsy rows of concrete arches hang above swaths of blue mirror glass, punctuated by stick-on timber trellis screens. These are modelled on traditional mashrabiya panels, those beautiful latticework openings designed as ventilating veils, but here they become meaningless applique.
“If we are imitating, why can’t we imitate the best?” asks Angawi, in a tone of desperation. “Why are we imitating the worst mistakes of 60 or 70 years ago from around the world – only even bigger?” Another conglomeration of repetitive slabs, echoing Jabal Omar’s toast-rack urbanism, is planned for the northern side of the Grand Mosque, at al-Shamiya, while a US$10 billion project to provide an extra 400,000 square metres of prayer halls there is almost complete. Standing like a gigantic slice of wedding cake, this building will accommodate 1.2 million more worshippers each year, but it has come at a price.
“This was the most historic part of the old city,” says Irfan al-Alawi, executive director of the Britain-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, who has worked in vain to raise the profile of his country’s historic sites. “It has now all been flattened.” Residents were evicted, he says, with one week’s notice, and many have still not been compensated – a common story in Mecca’s urban makeover. “They are now living in shanty towns on the edge of the city without proper sanitation. Locals, who have lived here for generations, are being forced out to make way for these marble castles in the sky.”
Alawi describes the imminent arrival of yet more seven-star hotels even closer to the mosque than the al-Bait clocktower, as well as proposals to develop Jabal Khandama, on the hills to the east, which will likely see the erasure of the site where the Prophet Mohammed was born. Alawi says this wilful destruction of Islamic heritage is no accident: it is driven by state-endorsed wahhabism, the hardline interpretation of Islam that perceives historical sites as encouraging sinful idolatry. So anything that relates to the Prophet could be in the bulldozer’s sights.
“It is the end of Mecca,” says Alawi. “And for what? Most of these hotels are 50 per cent vacant and the malls are empty – the rents are too expensive for the former souk stall-holders. And people praying in the new mosque extension will not even be able to see the Kaaba.”
The Kaaba is the holy black cube at the centre of the Grand Mosque, around which pilgrims walk. Proximity to it has become the ultimate currency, allowing hotel suites with the best views to charge US$7,000 per night during peak seasons. This unique concentricity, with everything determined by its orientation towards the hallowed centre, has spawned a strangely diagrammatic radial urbanism. From above, like a sea of iron filings pulled by a magnet, the whole city appears to crowd round a core, the vortex of pilgrims giving way to an equally swirling current of tower blocks.
It is the axis of prayer writ large in concrete.
The road to Mecca funnels traffic into two lanes: the one marked “Muslims only” goes to the holy city; the other, marked “Non Muslims”, bypasses it, since the latter – myself included – are forbidden entry to Mecca (and Medina) under Saudi law. Now this year’s haj is over, work will start soon on the expansion of the mataf, the open area around the Kaaba, to triple its capacity to 130,000 pilgrims per hour. But to achieve this, the historic centre of the mosque will be obliterated.
“They want to get rid of the brick vaults and stone columns that have stood there since the 17th century,” says Alawi. “These are the oldest parts of the holy mosque, designed by the great architect Sinan. The pillars are inscribed with stories and the names of the Prophet’s companions, so the wahhabis want them bulldozed.”
The desperation to be, or feel, as close as possible to the Kaaba has forced buildings to become ever higher, ever more ridiculously tapered, so everyone can have a view, however notional, of the sacred centre. This has given the sanctified “mother of villages” the most expensive real estate in the world: a square foot around the Grand Mosque now sells for up to US$18,000, mayor Osama al- Bar said last year. By comparison, the latest housing development to heat the Hong Kong market, Causeway Bay’s Park Haven, is selling for an average US$2,700 a square foot.
As the influx of pilgrims increases, land values will continue to rise: 12 million visit the city every year, a figure expected to swell to 17 million by 2025. They will be eased on their way by a new highspeed rail link that will connect gateway city Jeddah with Mecca and Medina. Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz international airport is itself undergoing expansion to quadruple its capacity to 80 million passengers a year.
Fuelled by petrodollars, all of these vast projects are now either completed or well under way. So it seems strange that King Abdullah should only now be ordering the creation of a masterplan for Mecca and its surroundings, covering buildings, transport and infrastructure – given that most of the city’s holy mountains have been dynamited into dust, and all but a handful of its ancient monuments buried beneath soaring structures.
As Angawi says: “There is no other place in the world where development starts with bulldozing before planning [residents of certain New Territories villages may disagree]. But it is not too late if we stop now. Otherwise, we risk the sanctity of Mecca being gone for ever.”
Guardian News & Media
HAJ PILGRIMAGE - WALK OF LIFE
A Bosnian Muslim who left - on foot - for Mecca last December, arrived on October 20, ahead of this year's haj, having passed through seven countries, including war-torn Syria.
"I am not tired; these are the best days of my life," Senad Hadzic (right), 47, said when reached by phone on a Saudi mobile number. He said he had covered some 5,700 kilometres in 314 days of walking through Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria and Jordan as his pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city in southwestern Saudi Arabia, and carried a backpack weighing 20kg.
He charted his progress on his Facebook page, where he posted a picture apparently of an entry/exit card for foreigners issued by the Syrian interior ministry.
"I passed through Syria in April. I walked some 500 kilometres in 11 days. I went through Aleppo and Damascus and passed dozens of check-points held by pro-government and rebel forces alike, but I was never detained," Hadzic said. "At a check-point held by [President Bashar] al-Assad's forces, the soldier ordered me to empty my backpack … When I showed them my Koran and explained I was making the pilgrimage on foot, they let me go."
"I walked in the name of Allah, for Islam, for Bosnia-Herzegovina, for my parents and my sister," he added. On his Facebook page he said God had shown him the way in dreams, including instructions to go through Syria instead of Iraq.
During the pilgrimage, Hadzic faced temperatures ranging from minus-35 degrees Celsius in Bulgaria to as hot as 44 degrees in Jordan.
He said he had to wait in Istanbul, Turkey, for several weeks to get permission to cross the Bosphorus Bridge on foot and two months at the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia to obtain an entry visa.
The haj is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken at least once in a lifetime by all Muslims who are able to. AFP