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Islamique Magazine Online | July 7, 2020

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Makkah for the rich: Islam’s holiest site ‘turning into Vegas’

Makkah for the rich: Islam’s holiest site ‘turning into Vegas’

Historic and culturally important landmarks are being destroyed to make way for luxury hotels and malls

Behind closed doors – in places where the religious police cannot listen in – residents of Makkah are beginning to refer to their city as Las Vegas, and the moniker is not a compliment.

Over the past 10 years the holiest site in Islam has undergone a huge transformation, one that has divided opinion among Muslims all over the world.

Once a dusty desert town struggling to cope with the ever-increasing number of pilgrims arriving for the annual Hajj, the city now soars above its surroundings with a glittering array of skyscrapers, shopping malls and luxury hotels.

To the al-Saud monarchy, Makkah is their vision of the future – a steel and concrete metropolis built on the proceeds of enormous oil wealth that showcases their national pride.

Yet growing numbers of citizens, particularly those living in the two holy cities of Makkah and Madina, have looked on aghast as the nation’s archaeological heritage is trampled under a construction mania backed by hard line clerics who preach against the preservation of their own heritage. Makkah, once a place where the Prophet Mohamed insisted all Muslims would be equal, has become a playground for the rich, critics say, where naked capitalism has usurped spirituality as the city’s raison d’être.

Few are willing to discuss their fears openly because of the risks associated with criticising official policy in the authoritarian kingdom. And, with the exceptions of Turkey and Iran, fellow Muslim nations have largely held their tongues for fear of diplomatic fallout and restrictions on their citizens’ pilgrimage visas. Western archaeologists are silent out of fear that the few sites they are allowed access to will be closed to them.

But a number of prominent Saudi archaeologists and historians are speaking up in the belief that the opportunity to save Saudi Arabia’s remaining historical sites is closing fast.

“No one has the balls to stand up and condemn this cultural vandalism,” says Dr Irfan al-Alawi who, as executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, has fought in vain to protect his country’s historical sites. “We have already lost 400-500 sites. I just hope it’s not too late to turn things around.”

Sami Angawi, a renowned Saudi expert on the region’s Islamic architecture, is equally concerned. “This is an absolute contradiction to the nature of Makkah and the sacredness of the house of God,” he told the Reuters news agency earlier this year. “Both [Makkahh and Madina] are historically almost finished. You do not find anything except skyscrapers.”

Dr Alawi’s most pressing concern is the planned £690m expansion of the Grand Mosque, the most sacred site in Islam which contains the Ka’aba – the black stone cube built by Ibrahim (Abraham) that Muslims face when they pray.

Construction officially began earlier this month with the country’s Justice Minister, Mohammed al-Eissa, exclaiming that the project would respect “the sacredness and glory of the location, which calls for the highest care and attention of the servants or Islam and Muslims”.

The 400,000 square metre developments is being built to accommodate an extra 1.2 million pilgrims each year and will turn the Grand Mosque into the largest religious structure in the world. But the Islamic Heritage Foundation has compiled a list of key historical sites that they believe are now at risk from the ongoing development of Makkah, including the old Ottoman and Abbasi sections of the Grand Mosque, the house where the Prophet Mohamed was born and the house where his paternal uncle Hamza grew up.

There is little argument that Makkah and Medina desperately need infrastructure development. Twelve million pilgrims visit the cities every year with the numbers expected to increase to 17 million by 2025.

But critics fear that the desire to expand the pilgrimage sites has allowed the authorities to ride roughshod over the area’s cultural heritage. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Makkah’s millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades alone.

The destruction has been aided by Wahabism, the austere interpretation of Islam that has served as the kingdom’s official religion ever since the al-Sauds rose to power across the Arabian Peninsula in the 19th century.

In the eyes of Wahabis, historical sites and shrines encourage “shirq” – the sin of idolatry or polytheism – and should be destroyed. When the al-Saud tribes swept through Makkah in the 1920s, the first thing they did was lay waste to cemeteries holding many of Islam’s important figures. They have been destroying the country’s heritage ever since. Of the three sites the Saudis have allowed the UN to designate World Heritage Sites, none are related to Islam.

Those circling the Ka’aba only need to look skywards to see the latest example of the Saudi monarchy’s insatiable appetite for architectural bling. At 1,972ft, the Royal Makkah Clock Tower, opened earlier this year, soars over the surrounding Grand Mosque, part of an enormous development of skyscrapers that will house five-star hotels for the minority of pilgrims rich enough to afford them.

To build the skyscraper city, the authorities dynamited an entire mountain and the Ottoman era Ajyad Fortress that lay on top of it. At the other end of the Grand Mosque complex, the house of the Prophet’s first wife Khadijah has been turned into a toilet block. The fate of the house he was born in is uncertain. Also planned for demolition are the Grand Mosque’s Ottoman columns which dare to contain the names of the Prophet’s companions, something hardline Wahabis detest.

For ordinary Makkah living in the mainly Ottoman-era town houses that make up much of what remains of the old city, development often means the loss of their family home.

Non-Muslims cannot visit Makkah and Madina, but The Independent was able to interview a number of citizens who expressed discontent over the way their town was changing. One young woman whose father recently had his house bulldozed described how her family was still waiting for compensation. “There was very little warning; they just came and told him that the house had to be bulldozed,” she said.

Another Makkah added: “If a prince of a member of the royal family wants to extend his palace he just does it. No one talks about it in public though. There’s such a climate of fear.”

Dr Alawi hopes the international community will finally begin to wake up to what is happening in the cradle of Islam. “We would never allow someone to destroy the Pyramids, so why are we letting Islam’s history disappear?”

Under Threat

Bayt al-Mawlid

When the Wahabis took Makkah in the 1920s they destroyed the dome on top of the house where the Prophet Mohammed was born. It was then used as a cattle market before being turned into a library after a campaign by Makkahs. There are concerns that the expansion of the Grand Mosque will destroy it once more. The site has never been excavated by archaeologists.

Ottoman and Abasi columns of the Grand Mosque

Slated for demolition as part of the Grand Mosque expansion, these intricately carved columns date back to the 17th century and are the oldest surviving sections of Islam’s holiest site. Much to the chagrin of Wahabis, they are inscribed with the names of the Prophet’s companions. Ottomon Makkahh is now rapidly disappearing

Al-Masjid al-Nawabi

For many years, hardline Wahabi clerics have had their sites set on the 15th century green dome that rests above the tomb holding the Prophet, Abu Bakr and Umar in Medina. The mosque is regarded as the second holiest site in Islam. Wahabis, however, believe marked graves are idolatrous. A pamphlet published in 2007 by the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, endorsed by Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, stated that “the green dome shall be demolished and the three graves flattened in the Prophet’s Masjid”.

Jabal al-Nour

A mountain outside Makkah where Mohammed received his first Qur’anic revelations. The Prophet used to spend long spells in a cave called Hira. The cave is particularly popular among South Asian pilgrims who have carved steps up to its entrance and adorned the walls with graffiti. Religious hardliners are keen to dissuade pilgrims from congregating there and have mooted the idea of removing the steps and even destroying the mountain altogether.

By: Jerome Taylor


  1. Shams

    This is so true. I can’t bear to look at the clocktower which is visible from the mataf. When in and around the haram there is this everpresent sense of discomfort and the feeling that something is not right.

  2. Mamnun Khan

    Very good article reminding us of the sadness of all of this, which is happening in our lifetime – we are truely the unfortunate. I think it’s a fine balancing act, that requires a proper understanding of a term that I try to develop in my book called “trans-historical coherence”. I have copied and pasted below an excert where I look at the effects of brute modernisation in my approach to build the understanding of modernity in the reader:

    “Take for example the modern Hajj experience to directly relate to Muslim experience. Over the last twenty years, the Grand Mosque in Makkah, the Ka’ba, has been substantially re-developed to make the experience safer and more orderly, as well as to allow up to four million pilgrims to congregate on one place. Surrounding the Mosque is a canopy of luxurious hotels that accommodate pilgrims and a giant clock tower that can be seen from over ten miles away. The sheer scale and magnatitude of this built environment can overwhelm many Muslims. Indeed, the constant reminder of consumerism and commercialisation intrinsic to luxury hotels, shopping malls and transportation links, often obscure the simplicity and spirituality of the Hajj experience. In pre-modern times the built environment was much less pronounced because less people congregated and forms of commercialisation, which existed for sure, but to a lesser extent to accommodate and facilitate Hajj, was consciously subordinate to spiritual goals.

    Is this an example of modernity, modernisation or globalisation? The modern Hajj experience is an example of how modernisation can be so intense in places that it can unwittingly transform historically held experiences of tradition and sentiment. This condition requires Muslims to evaluate how the necessity to advance the built environment to bring ease to life can be achieved without compromising the fundamental integrals and meaning of tradition. For Muslims who can make this connection in their minds they can begin the mental process of detaching themselves from the built environment to concentrate on spiritual matters. But for many Muslims who fail to make this connection, they cannot, as a result, avoid being sucked into a culture of commercialisation and sense of amusement and fascination with the urban environment to the extent that it lessens their spiritual experience of Hajj” – from “Muslims in the Age of Modernity: Dislocation and Renaissance”


    This is really sad.Substituting luxury and modernity for spirituality and sacredness.It is time something urgent is done to avert the already started mischief of our leaders.In my opinion,I think the west has a hand in all the hapenings to erode the islamic heritage completely.

  4. Abdul Mumin Choudhury

    Thanks, your article touches upon some very important issue that generally is generally done injustice in Muslim countries – preserving our rich historical artefacts and sites so that future generations too can experience, learn and enjoy!

    I wish the authorities in Saudi would disable all incoming and outgoing mobile calls (except those to emergency services) within the perimeter of the sacred masjids.

    There’s a new eco-village being built in our local area. One of the design briefs was to ensure the new development enhanced the local environment and its surrounding. The design ensured no buildings obstructed a view to a local hill! We have a lot to learn!

  5. Shams

    amazingly, all this destruction is taking place while the narrative in historicity is that things are only historical if their remnants exist. So we are providing ammunition for the enemies of Islam to be able to say, that Islamic sites are not historical sites as no remnants of their history exist. what a travesty!

  6. Zhen

    I know this is late, but I wanted to give my two cents. I’m all for building within the holy city of Mecca, provided that all building goes at least a radius of at least 5 km away (about 3 miles) from the Kaaba in every direction, and the space in between the new constructed buildings and the Kaaba be for the pilgrims of now and the future. The current buildings in its vicinty will be pushed back too, BUT still in front of the newer skyscrapers.
    Two, all historical sites are left untouched.
    Three, any other ideas?

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