[Reader-list] Mecca's hallowed skyline transformed

arshad amanullah arshad.mcrc at gmail.com
Mon Aug 13 11:33:58 IST 2007

 By SALAH NASRAWI, Associated Press Writer

MECCA, Saudi Arabia - These days it's easier to find a Cinnabon in
Meccathan the house where the Prophet Muhammad was born.

The ancient sites in Islam's holiest city are under attack from both money
and extreme religion. Developers are building giant glass and marble towers
that loom over the revered Kaaba which millions of Muslims face in their
daily prayers. At the same time, religious zealots continue to work, as they
have for decades, to destroy landmarks that they say encourage the worship
of idols instead of God.

As a result, some complain that the kingdom's Islamic austerity and
oil-stoked capitalism are robbing this city of its history.

"To me, Mecca is not a city. It is a sanctuary. It is a place of diversity
and tolerance. ... Unfortunately it isn't anymore," said Sami Angawi, a
Saudi architect who has devoted his life to preserving what remains of the
area's history. "Every day you come and see the buildings becoming bigger
and bigger and higher and higher."

Abraj al-Bait is a complex of seven towers, some of them still under
construction, rising only yards from the Kaaba, the cube-like black shrine
at the center of Muslim worship in Mecca. "Be a neighbor to the Prophet,"
promises an Arabic-language newspaper ad for apartments there.

The towers are the biggest of the giant construction projects that have gone
up in recent years, as the number of Muslims attending the hajj, the
annual pilgrimage
to Mecca, has swelled to nearly 4 million last year. Saudi Arabia is trying
to better serve the growing upscale end of the pilgrimage crowd, while
investors — many of them members of the Saudi royal family — realize the
huge profits to be made.

Saudi Arabia boasts that Abraj al-Bait — Arabic for "Towers of the House,"
referring to the Kaaba's nickname, "the house of God" — will be the largest
building in the world in terms of floor space. Developers have said the
completed building will total 15.6 million square feet — more than twice the
floor space of the Pentagon, the largest in the United States.

Three of the towers, each nearly 30 stories, are already completed, and the
others are rapidly going up. A mall at their base has already opened, where
customers — many of them in the simple white robes of pilgrims — shop at
international chains such as The Body Shop and eat at fast-food restaurants.
Other nearby complexes include upscale hotels.

The building boom is in some cases destroying Mecca's historic heritage, not
just overshadowing it. In 2002, Saudi authorities tore down a 200-year-old
fort built by the city's then-rulers, the Ottomans, on a hill overlooking
the Kaaba to build a multi-million-dollar housing complex for pilgrims.

The holy sites have also been targeted for decades by the clerics who give
Saudi Arabia's leadership religious legitimacy. In their puritanical Wahhabi
view, worship at historic sites connected to mere mortals — such as Muhammad
or his contemporaries — can easily become a form of idolatry. (Worship at
the Kabaa, which is ordered in the Quran, is an exception.)

"Obviously, this is an exaggerated interpretation. But unfortunately, it is
favored among officials," said Anwar Eshky, a Saudi analyst and head of a
Jiddah-based research center.

The house where Muhammad is believed to have been born in 570 now lies under
a rundown building overshadowed by a giant royal palace and hotel towers.
The then king, Abdul-Aziz, ordered a library built on top of the site 70
years ago as a compromise after Wahhabi clerics called for it to be torn

Other sites disappeared long ago, as Saudi authorities expanded the Grand
Mosque around the Kaaba in the 1980s. The house of Khadija, Muhammad's first
wife, where Muslims believe he received some of the first revelations of the
Quran, was lost under the construction, as was the Dar al-Arqam, the first
Islamic school, where Muhammad taught.

At Hira'a Cave, where Muhammad is believed to have received the first verses
of the Quran in the mountains on the edge of Mecca, a warning posted by
Wahhabi religious police warns pilgrims not to pray or "touch stones" to
receive blessings.

In Medina, 250 miles north of Mecca, Muhammad's tomb is the only shrine to
have survived the Wahhabis, and a monumental mosque has been built around
it. But religious police bar visitors from praying in the tomb chamber or
touching the silver cage around it.

"You shouldn't do that," a bearded policeman tells pilgrims trying to pray
at the site.

Outside the Prophet's Mosque, Wahhabis have destroyed the Baqi, a large
cemetery where tombs of several of the Prophet's wives, daughters, sons and
as many as six grandsons and Shiite saints were once located. Grave markers
at the site have been bulldozed away, and religious police open the site
only once a day to let in male pilgrims. The visitors are prevented from

"It is pretty sad that our imams do not even have tombstones to tell where
they are buried," said Indian pilgrim Zuhairi Mashouk Khan, who was weeping
because he was barred from praying at the site. "They deserve a shrine as
monumental as Taj Mahal."

Several Islamic groups, such as the U.K.-based Islamic Heritage and Research
Foundation and the U.S- based Institute for Gulf Affairs, are campaigning to
restore ancient sites. Khaled Azab, an Egyptian expert on Islamic heritage
at the Bibliotheca Alexandria, suggests that the Saudi government should
bring in UNESCO to help.

But after years of campaigning, Angawi is on the verge of giving up.

"I have been saying this for 35 years but nobody listens," he said. "It is
becoming hopeless case."


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