This is something I didn’t know – the Saudis have demolished most of Mecca in order to put up shiny new modern boxes. Ziauddin Sardar wrote it up for the New York Times last year.
WHEN Malcolm X visited Mecca in 1964, he was enchanted. He found the city “as ancient as time itself,” and wrote that the partly constructed extension to the Sacred Mosque “will surpass the architectural beauty of India’s Taj Mahal.”
Fifty years on, no one could possibly describe Mecca as ancient, or associate beauty with Islam’s holiest city. Pilgrims performing the hajj this week will search in vain for Mecca’s history.
The dominant architectural site in the city is not the Sacred Mosque, where the Kaaba, the symbolic focus of Muslims everywhere, is. It is the obnoxious Makkah Royal Clock Tower hotel, which, at 1,972 feet, is among the world’s tallest buildings. It is part of a mammoth development of skyscrapers that includes luxury shopping malls and hotels catering to the superrich. The skyline is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling peaks. Ancient mountains have been flattened. The city is now surrounded by the brutalism of rectangular steel and concrete structures — an amalgam of Disneyland and Las Vegas.
Startling, isn’t it. And wrong way around – they hang onto the outdated cruel laws and exclusions, while ditching the beautiful objects and built environment. Next time do the opposite of that!
The initial phase of Mecca’s destruction began in the mid-1970s, and I was there to witness it. Innumerable ancient buildings, including the Bilal mosque, dating from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, were bulldozed. The old Ottoman houses, with their elegant mashrabiyas — latticework windows — and elaborately carved doors, were replaced with hideous modern ones. Within a few years, Mecca was transformed into a “modern” city with large multilane roads, spaghetti junctions, gaudy hotels and shopping malls.
Oof it makes me flinch to think of it.
The few remaining buildings and sites of religious and cultural significance were erased more recently. The Makkah Royal Clock Tower, completed in 2012, was built on the graves of an estimated 400 sites of cultural and historical significance, including the city’s few remaining millennium-old buildings. Bulldozers arrived in the middle of the night, displacing families that had lived there for centuries. The complex stands on top of Ajyad Fortress, built around 1780, to protect Mecca from bandits and invaders.
I would think Islamic history would be important to Islam and to Muslims, but Sardar explains.
The only other building of religious significance in the city is the house where the Prophet Muhammad lived. During most of the Saudi era it was used first as a cattle market, then turned into a library, which is not open to the people. But even this is too much for the radical Saudi clerics who have repeatedly called for its demolition. The clerics fear that, once inside, pilgrims would pray to the prophet, rather than to God — an unpardonable sin. It is only a matter of time before it is razed and turned, probably, into a parking lot.
Ah, so it’s the Puritan thing. Never mind anything material, just focus on
the non-existent the Beyond. Ignore the stuff, embrace the abstract. Forget about this world, care only for the dream world.
Mecca is a microcosm of the Muslim world. What happens to and in the city has a profound effect on Muslims everywhere. The spiritual heart of Islam is an ultramodern, monolithic enclave, where difference is not tolerated, history has no meaning, and consumerism is paramount. It is hardly surprising then that literalism, and the murderous interpretations of Islam associated with it, have become so dominant in Muslim lands.
What a depressing and saddening state of affairs.