New developments tower over Mecca

Several new developments in Mecca threaten to dwarf the holy sites:

Shooting 26 searchlights 10km into the skies, and blaring its call to prayer 7km across the valley, the Abraj al-Bait is also the world’s second tallest building. Encrusted with mosaics and inlaid with gold, it is the most visible (and audible) sign of the frenzied building boom that has taken hold of Saudi Arabia’s holy city over the last 10 years. “It is truly indescribable,” says Sami Angawi, architect and founder of the Jeddah-based Hajj Research Centre, who has spent the last three decades researching and documenting the historic buildings of Mecca and Medina, few of which now remain. In particular, the house of the prophet’s wife, Khadijah, was razed to make way for public lavatories; the house of his companion, Abu Bakr, is now the site of a Hilton hotel; and his grandson’s house was flattened by the King’s palace. “They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment. They’ve even taken away the mountains,” says Angawi…

Along the western flank of the city are the first towers of the Jabal Omar development, a sprawling complex that will eventually accommodate 100,000 people in 26 luxury hotels – sitting on another gargantuan plinth of 4,000 shops and 500 restaurants, along with its own six-storey prayer hall. The line of blocks, which will climb to heights of up to 200 metres and terminate in a monumental gateway building, share the clocktower’s Islamic-lite language: a cliched dressing of pointed arches and filigree grillwork plastered over generic concrete shells…

Another development of repetitive slabs, echoing Jabal Omar’s toast-rack urbanism, is slated for the northern side of the Grand Mosque, at al-Shamiya, while a $10bn plan to provide an extra 400,000 sq metres of prayer halls there is almost complete. Standing like a gigantic triangular slice of wedding cake, this building will accommodate 1.2m more worshippers each year, but it has come at a price…

The Kaaba is the holy black cube in the centre of the Grand Mosque, around which pilgrims walk; proximity to it has become the ultimate currency, allowing hotel suites with the best views to charge $7,000 per night during peak seasons. This unique concentricity, with everything determined by its orientation towards the hallowed centre, has spawned a strangely diagrammatic radial urbanism. From above, like a sea of iron filings pulled by a magnet, the whole city appears to crowd round a core, the vortex of pilgrims giving way to an equally swirling current of tower blocks. It is the axis of prayer writ large in concrete.

The contrast seems stark: a holy site versus ultra-modern development. Is this growth machine development, meaning development primarily about generating profits from pilgrims, run amok? That this is emerging in Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be too surprising. Oil money has to be spent somewhere. Plus, cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi have been getting a lot of attention in recent years for their massive developments and I imagine Saudi Arabia would like to match some of that. Yet, Dubai and Abu Dhabi aren’t also known for being major religious sites.

Also, whenever I see stories like this, I am reminded of the amazing pace of development in some cities (particularly in China and oil-rich Middle East nations) around the world: from populated, primarily low-rise cities to massive, tall, expensive developments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s