Old Mecca falls, luxury hotels rise
by Anny Shaw
Jeddah. The Saudi government has drastically reduced the number of pilgrims travelling to Mecca for the Hajj this month (13-18 October), owing to construction work in and around the holy city, including the £690m redevelopment of the Grand Mosque. The number of Saudi pilgrims has been halved, while the number of foreign Muslims has been cut by 20%. The restriction is temporary, according to the Hajj minister, Bandar Hajjar, although building work is not expected to finish for another two to three years.
The controversial multi-billion-pound expansion of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, which is being overseen by the Saudi Binladin Group, is intended to meet the demands of the 12 million pilgrims who visit every year. This figure is expected to increase to 17 million by 2025. But critics say that the new skyscrapers, shopping malls and luxury hotels built in Mecca are turning it into a city for the few, rather than a place for the masses—the reason for expansion in the first place.
Development has also come at a cost. Archaeologists estimate that the building boom has destroyed more than 95% of the 1,000-year-old heritage sites and buildings in the cities, with the few remaining sites facing imminent destruction. "Muslims need to make their voices heard now," says Irfan Al Alawi, the executive director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, who describes Mecca as the new Las Vegas. "We haven't got years or even months—it's a matter of days," he warns. "As we speak, the Grand Mosque looks like a salvage yard," he says.
Al Alawi says there are proposals to demolish the library that was built on top of the Prophet Muhammad's birthplace. Any new building would put paid to future excavations. The Grand Mosque's 500-year-old Abbasid columns, which are inscribed with the names of the Prophet's companions, have recently been torn down.
The rapid construction—and damage to heritage sites—has been backed by Wahhabi clerics, who oppose idolatry. Abu Abdul Rahman Muqbil bin Hadi Al Wadi, one of the most senior Wahhabi clerics in the kingdom, has called for the demolition of the seventh century green dome in Medina, where the Prophet is buried.
Few in the Muslim world have voiced their concerns, for fear of reprisals, but the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater is speaking out. In August, he finished his film "Leaves Fall in All Seasons", which workers shot on their mobile phones while working on building sites in Mecca between 2008 and 2013. "History is being twisted at the moment," Mater says. "This [film] is about the real people of Mecca." The video is due to be shown as part of the Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam this month (10-13 October).
For Al Alawi, the expansion, which includes the second tallest building in the world as well as seven-star hotels, runs counter to the spirituality of the city, as well as the sense of equality fostered during the Hajj. He says: "In a few years' time, it will be too expensive for normal people to perform the Hajj."
According to Ahmed Mater, a view overlooking the pilgrims' destination, the Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque), can push the price of a hotel room to $3,000 a night. The Saudi Embassy in London could not be reached for comment about the development of Mecca and Medina.
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