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The Tragic and Total Transformation of Mecca

The holiest place in Islam is undergoing an enormous facelift. Not very many Westerners seem to realize, or care.

Basharat Peer writes about the hajj in this week’s New Yorker. What he found in Mecca is at once tragic and awesome. The Saudis, it seems, are eager “to erase all vestiges of the past.” The Saudis Wahhabi faith decrees that “revering structures with ties to the Prophet can lead to idolatrous practices.” So, only days after soldiers of King Abdul-Aziz al-Saud conquered Mecca in 1924, the destruction of buildings associated with the Prophet began, including his presumed birthplace and the house of his wife Khadijah. A 221-year old Ottoman fortress that stood a few hundred feet from one of Mecca’s gates was demolished in 2002. A Turkish minister described this action as “no different from the pulling down of the Buddha monuments in Afghanistan.” Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud is at work on another project that will enlarge the space around the Kaaba by demolishing the Ottoman portico and older pillars surrounding the courtyard of the Grand Mosque, which Peer calls the most beautiful parts of the mosque.

With the destruction of the old comes the construction of the new. Money is no issue. King Abdullah, the current monarch, has overseen the building, at a cost of $2 billion, of the Clock Tower complex, a “cluster of connected towers housing a multistory shopping mall, food courts, a hospital, luxury hotels, prayer rooms, parking lots, and helipads. At almost two thousand feet, the Clock Tower is seven times the height of the minarets of the Grand Mosque.” Hotels on the upper floors can host 65,000 guests, and rooms cost thousands of dollars per night. Numerous other construction projects are under way, most of which involve complexes of hotels, shopping malls, designer outlets, and restaurants. Mobile-phone company trucks distribute sun umbrellas advertising “the superiority of the company’s connectivity and bandwidth.” The location used for the ritual Stoning of the Devil, an important part of the hajj, “looks like a massive parking garage.” It cost the Binladin Group $1.1 billion to construct.

Glass, steel, and cement structures now dominate Mecca’s skyline. The Saudis believe they are creating something for the glory of God; their aim is for everyone who completes the hajj to return home with stories of Mecca’s magnificence. Yet many Muslims decry the modern architecture and rampant consumer culture now on view.

According to the article in the New Yorker, the Prophet Mohammed is said to have given a hint about the end of the world: it will come “When destitute camel herders compete in building tall structures.”

If you have a New Yorker subscription, check out Basharat Peer’s illuminating account of the hajj; it’s worth a read.

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  • eon

    It sounds like The Hanging Gardens of Babylon all over again.

    Somehow, I don’t think the Qu’ran has any Suras calling for Mecca to become a theme park.



  • Walter Sobchak

    And I care because? They will never let me into their play pen. Personally, I would have bombed it into rubble on September 12, 2001. just to remind them that there is a price to be paid for attacking American Cities. Sadly, the moment is gone, but, if they ever try anything like that again …

  • vanderleun

    This entire article is nothing except one extended straight line.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I have always thought that bin Laden showed a certain subtlty in attacking the World Trade Center because it is the real and symbolic center of of ouir modern economy. The Pentagon is more obvious, but just as the criminals on Wall St. Have done far more to destroy that economy than bin Laden, the Wahabbis are destroying Islam at it’s center. Do I care? Not really.

  • J R Yankovic

    If I were a global corporation I think I’d love the Wahhabis. Their extreme iconoclasm regarding visible monuments to the past – and partic. those that conduce to an AESTHETIC enjoyment of the past – is essential for helping citizens focus on the real meat of life, and the real nature of Man. Both of which can be summarized as follows:

    1) PURE worship of “god,” wholly abstracted from any sense of belonging to the visible, geographic, historically continuous community we actually live in, and towards whose members we might otherwise indulge feelings of fellowship, mutual concern, conviviality and civic participation (the denial of which, in – I believe – the historical view of most Hellenists and Christians, is much more likely to result in a mutilation or emaciation of Man’s nature than in its completion or fulfillment – but never mind);

    2) Worship of a god, moreover, whose consuming hatred for the waywardness of his creation often overpowers or runs ahead of his love of the creatures themselves; indeed it often involves, as a disciplinary measure, his devouring the creatures themselves, and by human means (and all at once[!], before they have had any reasonable time or opportunity to repent); which hatred may one day eventuate in his consuming of the creation itself by those same human means;

    3) The duty of his worshipers, when not worshiping, to be prepared at any and all other times to MANIFEST VISIBLY the visitation of god’s consuming wrath upon sinners and the lukewarm, and in a manner, time and degree of god’s (i.e., their) own choosing;

    4) The channeling of all that abundant surplus energy – angry, indignant, future-driven, confident of one’s chosenness and superiority, and incessantly (if not obsessively) self-improving – into exploration of those other paths that reveal the true, pure nature of Man as made in the image of god: Namely, selling and buying (notice my reversal of the customary word sequence).

    All of which iconoclasm, coupled with these factors and rigorously enforced, is bound to create the kinds of hypermodern, ugly, ever-changing, and feverishly exciting urban environments that have always given the widest scope to – and may even stimulate – Man’s commercial impulses. In short, the kind of environment – more or less standardized with superficial local flavors throughout the busy globe – that many corporations THINK they want, and behave as if they want. And maybe, for all I know, the kind they DO want. Seems to me that’s exactly what happens when you allow ANYthing you create to slip from your human grasp – and then watch it start grasping you: the most efficient and productive tail becomes the most insatiably hungry (and least obedient)of dogs.

    But now consider the RESIDENTS of the Iconoclastic City. I mean, if I’m a corporation, I could think of worse foot-soldiers and sergeants – though not necessarily colonels or even captains – for a Global Army of Growth. As for their once-in-a-blue-moon visitations of wrath upon the irreconcilably disobedient, is that something I’m supposed to be afraid of? Is that the sort of thing that’s going to make them rulers of the world one day? Not if all the other busy, angry, ambitious religions of the world have anything to say about it. So then they all counter-balance, and every so often counter-terrorize, each other. Am I supposed to be alarmed? A globe of non-citizens – or even anti-citizens – immersed in their enclosed, essentially private worlds of family, culture, religion and congregational life, varying their routines with agitation to extend the political clout of their co-religionists in the “public” square. And only stepping out of their world’s confines – remember, that’s a LOT of surplus energy – to make, sell and buy. Occasionally the broth seethes, and spills over. That’s why we have (armies of) police, and an ever-burgeoning surveillance/security industry. Besides, are there no lucrative byproducts? Can those who sell EVER know enough about those who buy? All in all, in fact, I’d say a job well done. How’s that for a tough, smart, raised-himself-up-from-nothing dog? And an obedient tail?

  • WigWag

    “With the destruction of the old comes the construction of the new. Money is no issue. King Abdullah, the current monarch, has overseen the building, at a cost of $2 billion, of the Clock Tower complex, a “cluster of connected towers housing a multistory shopping mall, food courts, a hospital, luxury hotels, prayer rooms, parking lots, and helipads. At almost two thousand feet, the Clock Tower is seven times the height of the minarets of the Grand Mosque.”(Via Meadia)

    I am not sure that the Turks are in any position to complain that the Saudis are tearing down Ottoman structures in Mecca to make way for more modern conveniences.

    Speaking of clock towers in particular, in the 16th Century the Ottomans did in Jerusalem precisely what the Turks are complaining that the Saudis are doing in Mecca. They constructed the Jaffa Gate which included a massive clock tower. The clock tower survived until the British tore it down in the 1920s.

    I have no idea whether the Mecca clock tower constructed by the Saudis is supposed to be reminiscent of the clock towers built by the Ottomans all over the ancient land of Israel, but when it comes to massively changing the architecture around holy sites, no one, including the Saudis come in second to the Ottomans. Aren’t modern day Turks familiar with this history?

    For a peak at the Jerusalem Clock Tower built by the Turks go here,

    Just like the Saudis in Mecca, the Ottomans thought that they were improving the neighborhood.

  • Charles R. Williams

    It is amusing when people say Islam needs a “reformation”. In fact, in their iconoclasm and fundamentalism the Wahabbi’s are quite “protestant”.

  • Luke Lea

    With friends like that.

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