The Tragic Transformation of Mecca

Despite having enough solar power to energize the planet for the next 20 centuries, Saudi Arabia has instead reaped the benefits of its oil reserves for decades. This wealth has spurred a spate of massive developments in Mecca, transforming a small desert hamlet into a thriving metropolis. But this may be a curse for Islam’s holiest city and the 6 million pilgrims who flock there each year.

Last August, the Kingdom unveiled a $21.3 billion plan to upgrade the Grand Mosque in Mecca to accommodate an additional 2.5 million pilgrims a year. 20 Percent of the demolition has been completed, and a new $1.8 billion railway to link all of the holy sites in Mecca is also underway. How does one tap into the divine amidst so much noise and distraction?

Demolition before Ramadan 

The new Haram expansion project will cover an area of 356,000m2, according to Construction Week Online, and is being built around the Kaaba shrine towards which Muslims point while conducting their prayers each day.

In order to accommodate the growth, owners of real estate in the area were displaced, although their compensation is included in the overall price tag.

The addition will be linked to the existing mosque via a series of pedestrian bridges and then entire complex will feature air conditioning systems to relieve visitors from the extraordinary heat.

Saudi Binladin Group are the main contractors carrying out the project and King Abdullah has ordered for the demolition to be completed before Ramadan so that employees can conduct their fast without being subjected to hard summertime construction work without sustenance.

Spiritual epiphany amidst the noise?

Last year Arwa reflected on the change that has occurred in Islamic architecture. She quoted renowned Qatari architect, Ibrahim Mohammed Jaidah, who told the Peninsula Qatar that “the new developments in Islamic cities don’t reflect the Islamic art of architecture as it was in the past.”

“Kaaba, the first building chosen by Ibrahim was reflecting the simplicity of Islamic architecture,” he said.

But now this crucial site is being drowned out by incessant developments. Although the Kingdom should be lauded for making the pilgrimage, during which Muslims fulfill their Hajj and Umra duties, comfortable and safe, and although a green guide has been launched so that this deluge does not completely destroy the earth, the spirit of the pilgrimage is completely lost.

How many epiphanies have you had while standing in the middle of a giant building with the noise of air-conditioning units and escalators and foot traffic drumming in your ear? Most people retreat to a quiet space, either in a mosque or in nature, to find the quiet voice of their conscience or creator.

In 1850, the above wikipedia image depicts, the holy city was a place that could offer genuine sacred appeal. None of the massive glass and steel buildings that now exist were there before. Mecca was a manageable place with organic infrastructure, a place with character and spirit.

But what about now? I hate to be the one to say it, but Mecca is becoming nothing more than another mega urban sprawl.