Mecca Becomes A Mecca For Skyscraper Hotels

Mecca Becomes A Mecca For Skyscraper Hotels

2:13pm Jun 02, 2015
An aerial view of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca in October 2014.
An aerial view of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca in October 2014.
Muhammad Hamed / Reuters/Landov
  • An aerial view of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca in October 2014.

    An aerial view of the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca in October 2014.

    Muhammad Hamed / Reuters/Landov

  • The Clock Tower Hotel overlooks passersby at the Grand Mosque.

    The Clock Tower Hotel overlooks passersby at the Grand Mosque.

    Leila Fadel / NPR

At the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the booming call to prayer competes with the racket of construction.

The Grand Mosque is the destination for the most sacred Muslim pilgrimage and it holds the Kaaba, the black cube of a building in the center of the mosque known to Muslims as the House of God.

But skyscraper hotels increasingly dominate the skyline, dwarfing the Great Mosque where worshippers gather, and angering those who seek to retain the city's history and traditional architecture.

Cranes fill the sky and soaring above it all is the Clock Tower Hotel, which reaches some 130 stories. To build it, the city literally blew up a mountain that once overlooked the Grand Mosque nestled in the valley between peaks.

This building spree has become a symbol of the transformation and commercialization of Mecca, the birthplace of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Hotel rooms with a Kaaba view are hot-ticket items.

When you enter the marble-covered plaza surrounding the mosque, to the left is the pathway that millions take to get their first glimpse of the Kaaba, an awe-inspiring sight for Muslims. To the right is a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

There are tracts of land around the mosque where hundreds of simple homes once stood but were bulldozed to make room for multi-use construction projects to handle the pilgrims.

The mayor of Mecca, Osama al-Bar, is overseeing the expansion. He says the older structures needed to be destroyed to allow for larger buildings to accommodate the more than 15 million people who come each year, including the 2 million who converge on Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

"We are talking about easing the situation for our Muslim brothers and increasing the capacity and going with the demand, with the high increase of demand for Mecca and the Kaaba," he says in an interview with NPR. To do that, the city must first "demolish."

The city is putting in a metro line and a bus system, and expanding the Grand Mosque. That expansion alone, he says, costs $100 billion.

"There is nothing historical [that] has been demolished," he says. "If we talk about the spiritual nature of the city, that we can rebuild."

What's been destroyed are things that are no longer of use, he says.

And here's how al-Bar describes that mountain that was replaced with the gargantuan buildings: "It is a type of artificial mountain now," he says.

But where the mayor sees development, prominent architect Sami Angawi sees history being lost: Important monuments destroyed to put up skyscrapers.

The architect meets visitors in his home in the coastal city of Jeddah, about 45 miles from Mecca. It features arches and geometric designs built to honor the traditions of Islamic architecture. He gives a slideshow presentation to a tour group.

"I'm a Meccan," he tells them. "And our traditional job is called matawif, we are the pilgrim servants. This is how I grew up serving the pilgrims who came from different parts of the world."

Angawi, who traces his ancestors to the prophet Muhammad, says he hasn't been back to Mecca in years.

"It's hard, I cannot bear it," he says.

His family home was demolished to make room for construction, and like many families originally from Mecca, he chose to resettle in Jeddah.

The Clock Tower Hotel overlooks passersby at the Grand Mosque.

The Clock Tower Hotel overlooks passersby at the Grand Mosque.

Leila Fadel/NPR

Still, he has historic pictures of Mecca throughout his home, and he calls it the Mecca that was.

"Mecca is a sanctuary, not a city," he says.

"It's a zone of peace where the environment is safe, the animals are safe, the human beings are safe," he adds. "Everybody is coming in, at the minimum, to visit the house of God. And everything there grew eventually to become the Mecca which was."

But today that sanctuary is being destroyed, he says.

The new hotels are popular with rich pilgrims willing to pay for luxury Hajj journeys.

"Unfortunately the new way of doing things is absolutely the wrong thing," he says. "It's dynamite and bulldozers. Even the mountains now are being blown up."

Angawi says he tried to save the old Mecca. He's an expert in Islamic architecture and founded a research center to study how to restore and build Mecca to preserve the spirituality and architecture of the city. But contractors won out, building a skyline that robs the city of its spiritual nature, he argues.

He hopes the approach to Mecca will change under the new king, Salman, who ascended the throne in January.

"It's too late for saving the past," he says. "Maybe, I hope, I hope I hope I hope, King Salman will change things. That's the only hope."

That, he says, and God.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Millions of Muslims gather in Saudi Arabia's holiest city every year. Mecca is home to what Muslims know as the house of God and also, now, a Hilton that boasts seven panoramic elevators and five elegant restaurants. This and other glitzy buildings in the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad caused much dismay to some of those who seek to reserve the city's history and spirituality. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: So I'm standing maybe a few-hundred yards from the Grand Mosque in Mecca where millions of Muslims come to pray, and really, this is a construction site. I see crane after crane after crane, two bulldozers digging into a mountain and a very new hotel with a clock tower. That clock tower hotel soars some-130 stories and crowns a cluster of skyscrapers. And to build it, the city literally blew up a mountain that once overlooked the central focus of Mecca, the Kaaba, the cube-shaped chamber covered in black cloth that worshippers circle in prayer to God.

That skyscraper is a symbol of the transformation and commercialization of Mecca, the birthplace of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Hotel rooms with a Kaaba view are hot-ticket items. When you enter the marble-covered plaza that surrounds the mosque, to the left is the pathway that millions take to get their first glimpse of the Kaaba, an awe-inspiring sight for Muslims. To the right is a Kentucky Fried Chicken. People wash to purify themselves before entering the mosque. But the call to prayer competes with the constant racket of construction. There are tracks of land all around the mosque where hundreds of simple homes once stood but were bulldozed to make room for multifaceted construction projects to build hotels and space for more pilgrims.

We meet the mayor of Mecca, Osama al-Bar. He's overseeing the controversial expansion, and he says they have to destroy and then build to accommodate the more-than-15 million people who come each year and the more-than-2 million who come all at once during the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

OSAMA AL-BAR: We are talking about easing the situation for those, our Muslim brothers, and increasing the capacity and going with the demand. With the high increase of demand, we have to demolish.

FADEL: The city's putting in a metro line, a bus system and expanding the open air Grand Mosque. But where the mayor sees development, 45 miles away in the city of Jeddah, Sami Angawi sees history being lost. The well-known architect meets visitors in his home of arches and geometric designs built to honor the traditions of Islamic architecture. He gives a slideshow presentation to a tour group.

SAMI ANGAWI: I'm a Meccan, and this is my father. And our traditional job is called matawwif. We are the pilgrim's servant, and this is how we grew up serving the pilgrims come from different parts of the world.

FADEL: He talks about his hometown, Mecca. He's a descendent of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, and he hasn't been back to Mecca in years.

You said you don't go to Mecca anymore. Why?

ANGAWI: It's hard. I cannot bear it.

FADEL: His family home was demolished to make room for construction. And like many Meccan families, he now resides in Jeddah. And throughout his home, he has historic pictures of Mecca. He calls it the Mecca that was.

When we were walking through your house, you kept referring to the Mecca that was, the Mecca that was.

ANGAWI: (Laughter).

FADEL: What is the Mecca that is?

ANGAWI: Well, the Mecca that is is a sanctuary, and it's not anymore.

FADEL: He describes what that sanctuary means.

ANGAWI: It's a zone of peace where the environment is safe. The animals are safe. The human beings are safe - everybody coming in with the minimum to visit the house of God. And everything there grew, eventually, to become what Mecca which was.

FADEL: And now...

ANGAWI: Unfortunately, the new way of doing things are absolutely the wrong thing - dynamite and bulldozers. Even the mountains, now, are being blown up.

FADEL: He founded a research center to study how to restore and build Mecca to preserve the spirituality and architecture of the city. But he says none of it was implemented, and he hopes that Saudi's new king, Salman, will save what's left.

ANGAWI: It's too late for saving the past. Maybe, I hope, I hope, I hope, I hope, King Salman will change things. That's only hope.

FADEL: That, he says, and God. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Mecca. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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