The erasure of Mecca

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 And wrong way around – they hang onto the outdated cruel laws and exclusions, while ditching the beautiful objects and built environment.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.


  1. iknklast says

    Living only for the world to come is responsible for a great many of history’s worst moments. It is much easier to erase people, as in the various holy crusades and inquisitions, if you believe that this world doesn’t matter. It is much easier to pollute the water, the sky, and the soil if you believe that this life doesn’t matter. And it’s easier to accept the oppression of groups of people, whether by race, gender, or color, or simply by less education and income, if you believe that the last will be first in heaven.

    Too many of my liberal friends think the anti-materialist creed is wonderful. I think that’s because we so often use materialism as a synonym for consumerism that the other meaning, that of being grounded in the material world, has gotten lost.

  2. arthur says

    Adam Curtis made a mesmerizing film for the BBC, shown earlier this year, about the spread of radical Islam from Saudi and its devastating impact on modern Afghanistan. It’s called Bitter Lake, named after the place where FDR met Saudi leaders to hammer out a deal for oil at the end of WWII.

    Part One here:

  3. rjw1 says

    What a strange paradox, a theocratic culture that’s also extremely materialistic, I doubt that the Saudi oligarchy, unlike the Puritans, is considering the ‘Beyond’ at all.


    Neither the Crusaders nor the the Inquisitors were living ‘only for the world to come’, their agendas were purely material— for the Crusaders conquest and plunder and for the Inquisitors, the protection of the theocracy they belonged to and its material benefits.

    Those who live for the ‘Beyond’ usually retreat to a cave somewhere.

  4. iknklast says

    rjw1 – I realize that one of the motivations behind the Crusades and Inquisitions was material; however, not everyone was in it for material reasons, and like with any other war, having that “doing God’s work” can bring in a lot of people who don’t really benefit materially.

  5. rjw1 says

    @4 iknklast

    “not everyone was in it for material reasons,”

    Agreed, however regardless of the pious Christian sentiments they expressed, I doubt that spiritual concerns were really a consideration for the great majority of those Europeans who participated in the invasions and conquests around the world after 1500. Also Islam was essentially a theological justification for Arab imperialism, in the final analysis, except for a few ‘holy fools’, it’s all about money.

    I’ll bet that the Kaaba survives, it’s a nice little earner for the Saudi oligarchy.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    No wonder the hardcore Islamists don’t understand the fuss about their destruction of Bamiyan, or Timbuktu, or Palmyra, or …

  7. guest says

    Thank you arthur! I really admire Adam Curtis’s work, and I hadn’t seen this one (just sat and watched it this afternoon)–he really is a genius at putting the pieces of the story together, and his found footage is amazing. The Afghan hound clip was inspired.

  8. johnthedrunkard says

    Wahhabism would be an historical footnote, an obscure 18th century heresy, except for its unholy alliance with the Saud clan/gang/’family;’ the flood of oil money; and its control of the holy city.

    To sustain their idolatrous obsession with the Quran, the Wahhabis are compelled to make war on the whole concept of time and history. They are perfectly satisfied to destroy every achievement of all humanity, in order to preserve their bizarre dream-world.

    In one of Warraq’s books, I can’t recall which without some digging, after quoting a number of Muslim scholars dismissing of Wahhabism in its early years, he gives an illustration: During the Serb war against Bosnian and Albanian Muslims, ‘help’ arrived at several villages in the form of teams of Saudi thugs. Their FIRST action in the face of imminent military threat, was to destroy the tombstones in each town.

    For the local Muslims, these markers were hugely important, a record of their presence on that land for many centuries. For the Wahhabis, they were idols to be erased. According to Warraq, the local people were outraged and put a stop to these capers.

    But the example speaks volumes about what really counts to the ‘Islamic’ elite in Saudi Arabia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *