Mecca for the rich: Islam’s holiest site ‘turning into Vegas’
Over the past 10 years the holiest site in Islam has undergone a huge transformation, one that has divided opinion among Muslims all over the world.
Once a dusty desert town struggling to cope with the ever-increasing number of pilgrims arriving for the annual Hajj, the city now soars above its surroundings with a glittering array of skyscrapers, shopping malls and luxury hotels.
To the al-Saud monarchy, Mecca is their vision of the future – a steel and concrete metropolis built on the proceeds of enormous oil wealth that showcases their national pride.
Yet growing numbers of citizens, particularly those living in the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have looked on aghast as the nation’s archaeological heritage is trampled under a construction mania backed by hardline clerics who preach against the preservation of their own heritage. Mecca, once a place where the Prophet Mohamed insisted all Muslims would be equal, has become a playground for the rich, critics say, where naked capitalism has usurped spirituality as the city’s raison d’être.
Few are willing to discuss their fears openly because of the risks associated with criticising official policy in the authoritarian kingdom. And, with the exceptions of Turkey and Iran, fellow Muslim nations have largely held their tongues for fear of of a diplomatic fallout and restrictions on their citizens’ pilgrimage visas. Western archaeologists are silent out of fear that the few sites they are allowed access to will be closed to them.
But a number of prominent Saudi archaeologists and historians are speaking up in the belief that the opportunity to save Saudi Arabia’s remaining historical sites is closing fast.
“No one has the balls to stand up and condemn this cultural vandalism,” says Dr Irfan al-Alawi who, as executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, has fought in vain to protect his country’s historical sites. “We have already lost 400-500 sites. I just hope it’s not too late to turn things around.”
Sami Angawi, a renowned Saudi expert on the region’s Islamic architecture, is equally concerned. “This is an absolute contradiction to the nature of Mecca and the sacredness of the house of God,” he told the Reuters news agency earlier this year. “Both [Mecca and Medina] are historically almost finished. You do not find anything except skyscrapers.”
Dr Alawi’s most pressing concern is the planned £690m expansion of the Grand Mosque, the most sacred site in Islam which contains the Kaaba – the black stone cube built by Ibrahim (Abraham) that Muslims face when they pray.
Construction officially began earlier this month with the country’s Justice Minister, Mohammed al-Eissa, exclaiming that the project would respect “the sacredness and glory of the location, which calls for the highest care and attention of the servants or Islam and Muslims”.
The 400,000 square metre development is being built to accommodate an extra 1.2 million pilgrims each year and will turn the Grand Mosque into the largest religious structure in the world. But the Islamic Heritage Foundation has compiled a list of key historical sites that they believe are now at risk from the ongoing development of Mecca, including the old Ottoman and Abbasi sections of the Grand Mosque, the house where the Prophet Mohamed was born and the house where his paternal uncle Hamza grew up.
There is little argument that Mecca and Medina desperately need infrastructure development. Twelve million pilgrims visit the cities every year with the numbers expected to increase to 17 million by 2025.
But critics fear that the desire to expand the pilgrimage sites has allowed the authorities to ride roughshod over the area’s cultural heritage. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Mecca’s millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades alone.
The destruction has been aided by Wahabism, the austere interpretation of Islam that has served as the kingdom’s official religion ever since the al-Sauds rose to power across the Arabian Peninsula in the 19th century.
In the eyes of Wahabis, historical sites and shrines encourage “shirq” – the sin of idolatry or polytheism – and should be destroyed. When the al-Saud tribes swept through Mecca in the 1920s, the first thing they did was lay waste to cemeteries holding many of Islam’s important figures. They have been destroying the country’s heritage ever since. Of the three sites the Saudis have allowed the UN to designate World Heritage Sites, none are related to Islam