"Turning Mecca into Las Vegas"
by Irfan Al-Alawi
Wahhabi extremists and property developers affiliated with the Saudi authorities are furthering plans to demolish the oldest sections of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the location to which all the world's Muslims turn in prayer. They apparently intend to remove features of the site dating back many centuries, such as columns placed in the Grand Mosque during the eighth century CE. Also, porticoes designed by the legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan (c. 1489/1490-1588 CE), whose achievements, and those of his personal disciples, are found at many places in the Islamic culture area, from Bosnia-Hercegovina to India, are slated for destruction.
Public dismay about the proposed wrecking, to be done under the pretext of renovation and modernization, has been notable. In response, the Imam and Friday preacher of the Grand Mosque, Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais, a prominent Wahhabi fanatic and hatemonger, has promised that the areas of the Grand Mosque originating in the Abbasid Arab caliphate (750-1258 CE) and the Ottoman period of rule in Mecca and Medina would not be touched.
Al-Sudais, head of the official Presidency for the Two Holy Mosques, and with the rank of a minister in the royal court, has told the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat [The Middle East] that the remodeling of the Grand Mosque, would be completed over three years, and would be limited to minor expansions intended to make tawaf (circumambulation of the Ka'bah, the sacred structure at the center of the mosque) easier during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. He stipulated that "removal will be limited to (the first Saudi expansion, 60 years ago), without disturbing the Ottoman porticoes, except for arches and lights…maintaining the old area, reduced in proportion to align with the zone of circumambulation." However, some of the Abbasid and Turkish area including the porticoes have already been demolished, and authorities stated that these porticoes will inadvertently have to be removed during expansion work between the two hills of Safa and Marwa.
The Saudi dailies Okaz and Saudi Gazette reported that construction work on the Grand Mosque already commenced in mid-November, with the Saudi Gazette boasting, in the idiom of architectural gigantism favored currently in Saudi Arabia, that the project includes "the two largest tower cranes ever built in the 21st century in the eastern and western parts of the mosque."
A cable-car system has also been proposed to serve old and disabled pilgrims by linking the mataf, at which pilgrims walk around the Ka'bah, with the masa'a, a location where Hajj participants run symbolically between two hills, Safa and Marwa. Again reflecting the Saudi fascination with oversized construction works, the Saudi Gazette asserted that upon its completion the Grand Mosque would accommodate 130,000 pilgrims per hour in the march around the Ka'bah. The current average is 52,000 per hour.
As noted in the Arab News, the top floor of the mataf would be altered to add a moving walkway carrying pilgrims around the Ka'bah. The new plan would provide access to the circumambulation area from outside the walls of the Grand Mosque, without crossing the floor of the mosque. Bridges and pedestrian lanes are to be included in the structure to "reduce crowding" during the Hajj, at the same time as, illogically, the Wahhabis claim they will greatly expand the capacity for pilgrims.
Saudi and other Muslim sources express concern that Al-Sudais and his Wahhabi accomplices are lying about their intentions in the project. Dr. Hatoon Al-Fassi, a female Meccan native, distinguished Sufi, and history professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, who, let it be noted, refuses to cover her face in public with the Wahhabi-imposed niqab or face veil, has accused the Saudi Bin Laden construction conglomerate, which is supervising the rebuilding of the mosque, of seeking to "turn Mecca into Las Vegas." Specifically, Al-Fassi charges that the reconstruction plans include "tearing down the ancient Ottoman-style galleries and rebuilding 'identical' galleries further away." Al-Fassi cites an unnamed official of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj Affairs as the source of this information.
Al-Fassi alleges further that the new galleries would support "new towers… featuring hotels, restaurants, and malls."
The precincts of the Grand Mosque already include new buildings, which house a clock tower and hotel complexes that dwarf the Mosque and the Ka'bah. Saudi plans indicate that commercial ambitions outweigh the protection of the spiritual and cultural legacy of Islam.
In an admission that the grandiose refurbishing of Mecca has harmed the Islamic heritage of the sacred city, Muhammad Abdullah Idris, author of the architectural upgrading study, told the Arab News that demolition blasts during erection of the outsized and overbearing recent structures near the Grand Mosque have undermined the strength of the mosque and, especially, its pillars.
Saudi King Abdullah ordered a halt to a proposed expansion of the Prophet's Mosque in Medina after a major article was published in The Independent (London) by the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, exposing the Wahhabi plans and opposing to the concept. The article was re-published worldwide by other newspapers and generated significant further media coverage. The Medina expansion would have involved serious historical vandalism. It is to be hoped that similar opposition will move the King to halt the defacement of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.