A makeover for Mecca
by Interview with Irfan Al-Alawi
KATY CLARK: Whatever their hardships, many Afghans manage to make the annual haij or pilgrimage to Mecca each year. But the sheer number of pilgrims has made safety at the event difficult to ensure. So Saudi Arabian authorities are now in the midst of a multi-billion dollar makeover of the area around Mecca's grand Mosque. A variety of top international architects including Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid have submitted proposal for a make-over. As you might expect, the plans are controversial. Traditionalists are horrified, but other say modernization is necessary. Kieran Long, editor of the magazine Architecture Review, has had a glimpse of Mecca's possible future.
KIERAN LONG: So we've seen some early images of the Foster and Hadid plan. Zaha Hadid has done some work, which appears to be kind of around the Mosque itself, expanding it, adding to it, not actually demolishing too much of the Mosque that exists. Now the Foster, part of the plan appears to be a series of very large scale towers, which will presumably accommodate hotel accommodations, temporary accommodations for pilgrims.
CLARK : These changes are tantamount to vandalism, according to Irfan Al Alawi. He's the founder of the London-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.
IRFAN AL ALAWI: I think it's the end of Mecca. I clearly believe it's a Manhattanization. Of course, there's a need for expansion, but not these ugly skyscrapers overlooking the Grand Mosque, and certainly you don't have buildings, huge buildings, looking over the Vatican, over the White House. My main concern is the historical monuments of Mecca are being demolished, wiped away. The very well known mountains of Jabal Kaba'a, Jabal Omar, Jabal Khandama at one time were historical mountains mentioned in the Koran. These mountains have been dynamited; they have been blown up into pieces to make way for these huge skyscrapers.
CLARK : The proposed hotel and apartment towers haven't yet been built, and Al Alawi argues there's a religious reason for not permitting them to be built.
AL ALAWI: When the Grand Mosque was expanded under the Ottomans, the spiritual aspect of it, the brick work, the color, dimension, the minarets were kept within the Islamic architecture. When one visits Mecca, you are trying to get close to God, not way into what we call dunia, the world and, of course, these big buildings are going to cater for wealthier pilgrims.
CLARK : That's important says magazine editor Kieran Long. This is a business venture, too. He points out that the land surrounding the Grand Mosque in Mecca is extremely valuable.
LONG: And when you have this many people meeting and needing to stay somewhere, and needing to buy things, needing to just exist in the city for a couple of days, this clearly is a lot of money at stake. I would say the more important aspect of these buildings is probably their architectural identify even though the Saudi Royal Family isn't in need of a massive amount of income from this project. But, of course, there will be hotel operators and their commercial outfits looking at this project and looking for a way in.
CLARK : Irfan Al Alawi doesn't object to hotels and the like in principle. He just doesn't want them anywhere near to the Grand Mosque.
AL ALAWI: Mile and a half, two miles away. You can build huge buildings if you like but not close to the sanctuary. If Mecca is not preserved now, then historically we will not have anything to give to our future generation. It will be a legend.
CLARK : Kieran Long says even the Saudi Royal Family will likely not be able to railroad through any plans, and when a final plan is agreed to, the scale of the project means Mecca is completed makeover could be decades away. One other thing, if Norman Foster's plans are adopted, he'll have to send assistants to work on the site in his stead. Non-Muslims are not allowed in Mecca, even if they're building it.
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