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The Destruction of Mecca
How Saudi Arabia’s construction rampage is threatening Islam’s holiest city.
On Sept. 11, amid heavy winds and stormy conditions, a red-and-white Liebherr construction crane — one of the tallest in the world — smashed into the Grand Mosque of Mecca, Islam’s holiest house of worship. At least 107 people died in the accident, which injured more than 200 others. Most of the victims were pilgrims, gathering in the mosque ahead of the evening prayer. Social media videos reveal scenes of graphic chaos: a sudden crash, followed by panicked worshipers running for safety. Images of the aftermath show blood-spattered marble and stained carpets among the wreckage.
The cranes ringing the Grand Mosque and the Kaaba, Islam’s central monument, are part of Saudi Arabia’s aggressive campaign of construction and development in the holy city. Over the past two decades, as the number of worshipers flocking to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage ballooned from 1.2 million in 1997 to 2.9 million in 2011, the kingdom brought in the heavy machinery, building opulent new hotels, roads, and vast expansions to the mosque complex. But as this year’s Hajj gets underway this week, the latest tragedy raises new questions about Mecca’s preparedness for the influx of pilgrims, as well as the integrity of Saudi Arabia’s grand plans and the steep cost — material, cultural, and now human — at which they’re being realized.
Roughly 100 cranes still surround the Grand Mosque as part of the expansion project, according to local sources. They stand unmoved in the face of the recent disaster and the prospect of over 2.5 million pedestrian pilgrims massing at the shrine. “The cranes are still there, situated in an area that’s accessible to the public,” said Irfan al-Alawi, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation and a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s construction plans. “What happens if bad weather comes again?”
The holy sites have been host to senseless tragedy before. In years past, stampedes have led to hundreds of pilgrims’ deaths. Some of those incidents motivated Mecca’s current expansion projects. But whatever their intention, these developments — estimated to cost over $26 billion, not including a reported $35 billion for the real estate alone — have generated controversy and even outrage from many quarters of the Muslim world.
The mosque expansion project, intended to accommodate an additional 1.6 million worshipers in the Grand Mosque, is just one element of this upgrade. The lavish Abraj al-Bait Towers, a hotel complex featuring shopping malls, a helipad, luxury residences, and the world’s largest clock face, is another. Its centerpiece, the Fairmont Makkah Clock Royal Tower hotel, is the third-tallest building in the world, the size of six Big Bens, built at a cost of $15 billion. A new 10,000-room mega-hotel, set to become the biggest in the world when it opens in 2017, is Mecca’s next expansion target.
Despite these multibillion-dollar efforts, essential services in Mecca remain dangerously inadequate. The Ajyad Emergency Hospital adjacent to the Grand Mosque has only 52 beds. The slightly larger Al Noor Hospital is four miles away. Neither has a dedicated blood bank. Similarly, according to the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation’s Alawi, during a recent fire at a construction site, Mecca’s fire department had to call for assistance from the city of Taif, over an hour away, when its engines couldn’t handle the blaze. With 2.5 million people descending on the holy city, these facilities are shockingly insufficient.
The additional cost of Mecca’s construction campaign, besides billions of dollars, has been what observers refer to as an assault on the city’s aesthetic and cultural character: Development has displaced or destroyed dozens of historic sites and shrines around the holy city — and incensed critics around the Muslim world.
The Ajyad Fortress, a sprawling stone citadel built in the Ottoman era, once overlooked the Grand Mosque from the crags of Mt. Bulbul south of the shrine, a bulwark for more than 200 years against threats of invasion and banditry. When construction crews leveled both the fortress and Mt. Bulbul in 2002, Turkey’s then-culture minister called the act a “cultural massacre.” The Makkah Clock Royal Tower now stands in their place.
Within the mosque complex, pillars dating back to the Abbasid era, many marking traditionally significant sites, have been torn down, ostensibly for being in the path of construction. As Sami Angawi, founder of the Hajj Research Centre, told the Guardian in 2012: “They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture, and no natural environment.”
Other historical sites relevant to the life of the Prophet Mohammed have also been demolished or built over in recent decades. A Hilton Hotel and a Burger King now stand over the house of the Prophet’s closest companion and Islam’s first caliph. The home of the Prophet’s wife, Khadija, is now the site of 1,400 public lavatories.
These actions, critics say, are the realization of the ultraconservative Salafi ideology of Wahhabism endorsed by the Saudi monarchy, in which historical and cultural trappings are gateways to the sin of associating divinity with anything other than God. The prescribed solution to those trappings in Wahhabi Salafism is, frequently, obliteration. “The plans could have been easily implemented and worked around the historical sites,” Alawi said, calling the destruction of traditional landmarks and historic sites “a deliberate cost.”
This demolition impulse can be found in Saudi Arabia’s origins: The Saudis leveled the long-standing mausoleums of the Prophet’s family and companions soon after they took control of Mecca and Medina in the 1920s, and their targeting of tombs and relics has scarcely abated since. Echoes of this iconoclastic compulsion reverberate in the Taliban’s demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas and, perhaps even more perniciously, the recent destruction of Palmyra and Assyrian antiquities by the Islamic State.
But unlike those demolitions, the Saudi actions have not targeted so-called “foreign” or “pagan” religions — they’ve targeted Muslim landmarks and Islamic history. As an ideology, Wahhabism is unblinkingly dismissive, even contemptuous, of the desires of many Muslims around the world to commemorate history and preserve context in the holy city. The imperious peak of the Makkah Tower — a gargantuan clock face capped by the word “Allah” — suits that philosophy, broadcasting its awareness of only two things: God and the present.
The cranes that have for years loomed over the Grand Mosque in the name of enhancing the safety and comfort of pilgrims to the holy city have now taken a human price on top of their financial and cultural toll. As worshipers gather for the Hajj just days after crews mopped blood from the mosque’s marble floor, Saudi Arabia continues to at once build and destroy, leaving Mecca’s history and heritage uncertain — and leaving pilgrims to wonder what this year’s pilgrimage will hold.
In the shadow of the 1,972-foot tower’s luxury suites, the black-draped monolith of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, sits like a pebble in the rocky desert landscape.
Photo credit: MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images