Sunday, December 7, 2008

"Mecca is being blown into pieces"

Irreplaceable buildings in Mecca have been destroyed. The city that's close to every Muslim's heart has lost:
  • The house of Muhammad's first wife Khadija
  • The Dar al-Arqam
As a historian, I'm very sorry to learn that the house where Muslims believe the Prophet received some revelations of the Quran; and the first Islamic school, where Muhammad taught, have been destroyed. I'm pretty sure that Muslims feel the loss even more.

From the sounds of it, more of Mecca's treasures will soon be gone.

"Mecca is being blown into pieces," is the way that Islamic architecture Sami Angawi put it. (TimesOnline (December 6, 2008))

Rebuilding Mecca

Americans call this sort of thing 'urban renewal,' and it can get messy.

But sometimes rather important. About 1,3000,000 people live in Mecca year-round. Many more come each year, for the Haj: around 2,000,000, more than doubling the population. Make that 3,000,000. Any time you have that many people in one place, there's going to be trouble. Particularly if streets, walkways, and the rest of the city isn't really built to handle the crowds.

Saudi Arabia has avoided a repeat of the 1990 disaster, when 1,426 died, but I get the impression that Mecca's infrastructure still has problems. Body counts are still pretty high:
Year Event Deaths
1997 Fire 343
1998 trampling 118
2004 stampede 251
2006 stampede 363

(TimesOnline (December 6, 2008), BBC (March 5, 2001))

That may be why the House of Saud has decided to do a whole lot of remodeling in Mecca. I could be cynical about members of the royal family owning contractors who will be involved, but this is Saudi Arabia. That territory seems to be run the way places were in Europe, back in the feudal period. Whoever was sat on the throne, owned the territory. So, it would be a little odd if a major construction project didn't involve a member of the royal house.

Sensitivity Training for the House of Saud?

Islamic architecture expert Sami Angawi says that he's not against Western influence, but that local experts should be involved in re-building a mosque. I see his point.

Particularly since none of the architects are Saudi, and some aren't Muslim - and so won't be allowed to enter Mecca. I understand that many architects believe that buildings should fit their environment. I'd think that a person would learn more about a place by going there, rather than relying on photographs and maps made by someone else.1

I was quite impressed that Foster & Partners - headed by Lord Foster - is part of the team that will be working on the northern expansion of the Haram mosque. I'm not sure what to think. Maybe King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, wants to show how global-minded he is. Or maybe he figures there aren't any Saudi architects who can handle the job.

Mr Angawi said that this isn't the Saudi Arabia of the fifties: " 'There is a lot of expertise right here in Saudi Arabia. It is not 50 years ago. We have the knowledge to do this ourselves.' "

Sounds to me like the Saudi king isn't quite in touch with his subjects' feelings - or that he's looking at more important things.

Coming Soon to Mecca: Hajorama!

Mecca already has Top Shop and Starbucks. When King Abdullah's project is finished, four years or so from now, Mecca will have 130 new skyscrapers, including a complex with seven towers and:
  • A hotel with 2,000 rooms
  • A convention center for 1,500 people
  • Heliports
  • A four-story shopping mall
The Abraj al-Bait Towers will be one of the biggest buildings in the world.

In a way, it's nice to see that Dubai isn't the only place in the Middle East where the leaders think big. And I think there's some sense to plans for catering to wealthy Muslims who want to visit Mecca. Saudia Arabia's oil won't last forever, and developing alternative sources of revenue is prudent.

And, I don't have a problem with businesses that provide goods and services to people engaged in religious pursuits. Although some of the 'Jesus junk' I've seen is amazingly tacky.

On the other hand, I think that some Muslims won't be entirely happy about Mecca's projected commercial and retail developments.

Terrorists Targeting: Mecca?!

I know: it's hard to imagine terrorists who claim to be defending Islam blowing up buildings and killing people in Mecca. But I wouldn't be all that surprised if it happens in the next decade.

It wouldn't be the first time that outfits like Al Qaeda or the Taliban hit a holy place that was in the way of their vision of Islam. Remember Samarra's Golden Dome mosque? the 2006 bombing of the Askariya Shiite shrine pretty much destroyed the Golden Dome, another attack in 2007 took out two minarets. (International Herald Tribune (June 13, 2008))

I've gotten the impression that it's mostly Shiite targets that get hit, like the one last month in Peshawar (BBC (November 24, 2008). That would seem to give Mecca, which apparently is in Sunni territory, a sort of immunity.

But, once in a while, it's a Sunni mosque, that gets bombed. Like the one in Zubair. (ABC News (June 15, 2007)) From what I've heard and read, the attacks on Sunni targets sometimes happen after a Shiite target is hit - which may be a response to an earlier attack on a Sunni site: And so on. You get the idea.

Given the Middle East's history of using bombings, beheadings, and shootings as a medium of communication, I think it's quite possible that some self-styled lions of Islam will voice their displeasure with economic development in Mecca with explosives, or something else lethal and indiscriminate.

In the news: Background: 1 This won't be the first time that outsiders have had to deal with Mecca's special requirements. Ten years back, a Los Angeles company, won the bid to rewire the sound system in Mecca's mosques. Most of the project was done in a California warehouse, by American engineers. They put the sound system together and tested it there, because they weren't allowed to enter Mecca. A team of Muslim mosque technicians went to Los Angeles, where they learned how to install and run the system. On top of that, since the system mustn't handle any sound except an imam reading from the Quran, someone invented a way of testing the speakers - without sound.(TimesOnline (December 6, 2008)

The TimesOnline article leaves it vague, which set of technicians invented a soundless sound system check.

Mecca Maps

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Anonymous said...

"'s hard to imagine terrorists who claim to be defending Islam blowing up buildings and killing people in Mecca..."

Not that hard, unfortunately. Remember the events of 20 November 1979.

Brian H. Gill said...


I think you're referring to the takeover of Mecca's Grand Mosque by Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif, a Sunni, and his followers.

As if to demonstrate that Saudi Arabia is run by good Muslims, the Sunni kingdom had all men involved in that embarrassing takeover beheaded.

Those beheadings were, under the circumstances, the pinnacle of compassion and gentleness. One of the dissidents had shot and killed a guard, thereby defacing this very holy Islamic place.

That sort of offense warrants crucifixion, I understand: much less pleasant than a nice, quick, beheading.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.