Mecca for the rich: Islam’s holiest site ‘turning into Vegas’-The Independent

September 29, 2011 at 11:06 am 7 comments

Mecca for the rich: Islam’s holiest site ‘turning into Vegas’

Historic and culturally important landmarks are being destroyed to make way for luxury hotels and malls, reports Jerome Taylor

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Behind closed doors – in places where the religious police cannot listen in – residents of Mecca are beginning to refer to their city as Las Vegas, and the moniker is not a compliment.

Click HERE to download graphic: Mecca For The Rich (430.39kB)

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.

Those circling the Kaaba only need to look skywards to see the latest example of the Saudi monarchy’s insatiable appetite for architectural bling. At 1,972ft, the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, opened earlier this year, soars over the surrounding Grand Mosque, part of an enormous development of skyscrapers that will house five-star hotels for the minority of pilgrims rich enough to afford them.

To build the skyscraper city, the authorities dynamited an entire mountain and the Ottoman era Ajyad Fortress that lay on top of it. At the other end of the Grand Mosque complex, the house of the Prophet’s first wife Khadijah has been turned into a toilet block. The fate of the house he was born in is uncertain. Also planned for demolition are the Grand Mosque’s Ottoman columns which dare to contain the names of the Prophet’s companions, something hardline Wahabis detest.

For ordinary Meccans living in the mainly Ottoman-era town houses that make up much of what remains of the old city, development often means the loss of their family home.

Non-Muslims cannot visit Mecca and Medina, but The Independent was able to interview a number of citizens who expressed discontent over the way their town was changing. One young woman whose father recently had his house bulldozed described how her family was still waiting for compensation. “There was very little warning; they just came and told him that the house had to be bulldozed,” she said.

Another Meccan added: “If a prince of a member of the royal family wants to extend his palace he just does it. No one talks about it in public though. There’s such a climate of fear.”

Dr Alawi hopes the international community will finally begin to wake up to what is happening in the cradle of Islam. “We would never allow someone to destroy the Pyramids, so why are we letting Islam’s history disappear?”

Under Threat

Bayt al-Mawlid

When the Wahabis took Mecca in the 1920s they destroyed the dome on top of the house where the Prophet Mohammed was born. It was thenused as a cattle market before being turned into a library after a campaign by Meccans. There are concerns that the expansion of the Grand Mosque will destroy it once more. The site has never been excavated by archaeologists.

Ottoman and Abasi columns of the Grand Mosque

Slated for demolition as part of the Grand Mosque expansion, these intricately carved columns date back to the 17th century and are the oldest surviving sections of Islam’s holiest site. Much to the chagrin of Wahabis, they are inscribed with the names of the Prophet’s companions. Ottomon Mecca is now rapidly disappearing

Al-Masjid al-Nawabi

For many years, hardline Wahabi clerics have had their sites set on the 15th century green dome that rests above the tomb holding the Prophet, Abu Bakr and Umar in Medina. The mosque is regarded as the second holiest site in Islam. Wahabis, however, believe marked graves are idolatrous. A pamphlet published in 2007 by the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, endorsed by Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, stated that “the green dome shall be demolished and the three graves flattened in the Prophet’s Masjid”.

Jabal al-Nour

A mountain outside Mecca where Mohammed received his first Koranic revelations. The Prophet used to spend long spells in a cave called Hira. The cave is particularly popular among South Asian pilgrims who have carved steps up to its entrance and adorned the walls with graffiti. Religious hardliners are keen to dissuade pilgrims from congregating there and have mooted the idea of removing the steps and even destroying the mountain altogether.


Entry filed under: Islam, Makkah.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. nazeer pangod  |  September 29, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    very informative detailes….jazakumullaah khair…..

  • 2. Abdul Majeed Irfani  |  September 30, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    It’s really informative.

    the wahaabi hands will work until they abolish Islam from earth.

  • 3. Abu Hatm  |  October 1, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Very negative Article

    Do you want Arabia like Pakistan or Bangladesh ??

    Full of Mazar ? Or you want it Libya or Syria..?

    Come on the author look like a jew…

    • 4. Ne3matullah  |  October 1, 2011 at 7:32 pm

      Actually Makka, Madinah, Hajj and Umrah are not meant only for a few creamy layer rich people from Canada, U.S or Europe. But it is for the whole Muslim Ummah who may be living in Pakistan, Syria or Libya.

      Anybody can understand who will benefit from the developments there by which small houses and affordable hotels in vicinity of Holy Masjids are smashed in order to construct Manhattan towers to host five star hotels. Nobody is against development or renovation, but the end result should be for the benefit of the Muslim Ummah in general and poor believers in particular.

      Effect of this demolition was obvious in this Ramadan when rent of a single room near Haram hiked to 2000 SR or above per day. Do you feel poor Muslims who dream their whole life to visit the Holy places can afford this?

      In my own experience, 12 years ago I paid as less as SR 35 per day for a hotel room just a few steps away from Haram. That hotel was demolished some years ago. In 2005 I paid SR 50 for a room in a four star hotel near Haram. But last year it was SR 300 for a room in a four star hotel even though it was 500m away from Haram and that also in a less rush season. So imagine the way the rent is growing.

      What one could make out is that the real estate mania has caught the Holy cities like other metropolitan cities. As per one of my colleague, nowadays Hajj has become a luxurious program. Stay in a tall building near Haram! Get out of your room just when Iqama is heard and return as soon as the prayer has finished! For rest of the time watch TV relaxing in cushion sofa in the hotel lobby! Eat at five star restaurants. So on and so forth! What a spiritual exercise it would be! And think how many among two billion Muslims around the world can afford this.

  • 5. Basheer Vellarakad  |  October 2, 2011 at 11:00 am

    Shocking information..:(

    if this continues.. real estate mafia will distroy the whole holy cities in near future !!

  • 6. RAFI AZHARI  |  October 2, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Muslims are long being in a state of oppression ever since Wahhabies erupted as a political power in Arabian Gulf where holiest sites of Islam are located. With their twisted belief they are relating many things done by conventional Muslims to shirk (polytheism), naoodu Billah. In the same vein they give least significance for historical heritage sites which were considered sacred by our ancestors.

    Recent development in Holy cities Makkah and Madina are welcome as it might quell some rush in busy pilgrimage season. But it should not be at the expense of other sacred sites.

    As per hadith of Rasoolullahi (صلى الله عليه و سلم) if anybody happens to see some wrong doing let him stop it by his hand. If not possible stop it by his tongue. Still not possible let him disgrace it by his heart and it is the least count of belief. So at least it is our duty to spread awareness on this destructive nature of Wahhabbies and pull out as much of youth from falling in their trap.

  • 7. mznadz  |  December 28, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    Obviously they don’t know what shirk is. It’s definitely not love and respect for places that are historical and cultural. And, even if their claim would be to remove excessive love, then let’s be honest since when does someone put limitations upon true love? A sad sign that a pillar of faith is being used as a means of commerce.


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