Mecca In Flux As Historic Sites Are Torn Down

Oct 25, 2012
Originally published on October 25, 2012 5:51 pm
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Today, Muslims around the world will begin celebrating the religious holiday of Eid al-Adha.


CORNISH: As part of the holiday, more than 3 million pilgrims have descended on the city of Mecca to perform the rituals of the Hajj. Those rituals revolve around a simple black building known as the Kaaba, considered the most sacred site in Islam. But many of Mecca's other historic sites have recently been torn down by the Saudi government to make room for more massive hotels, shops and restaurants. Some critics accuse the Saudis of turning Mecca into a kind of Las Vegas.

Oliver Wainwright is an architecture and design critic for The Guardian, and he recently wrote about the development of Mecca. Welcome, Oliver.

OLIVER WAINWRIGHT: Hi, hi. How are you doing?

CORNISH: So begin by describing to us what exactly is happening in Mecca right now. What does it look like?

WAINWRIGHT: Well, to me, it's a kind of cultural vandalism. And the reason I came across it, it's because the second tallest building in the world is now towering over the Grand Mosque. And it's a 600-meter high kind of copy of Big Ben near the - the clock tower that we have in London. It's a project called Jabal Omar, which will accommodate 100,000 people in 26 luxury hotels, sitting on a six-story shopping mall, which I think will have 4,000 shops and 500 restaurants.

And I suddenly realized that the whole area around, you know, this kind of sacred mosque is just being completely obliterated in a kind of endless race to be bigger and better and more glitzy than the last.

CORNISH: Now, this being an ancient city, what's happened to some of the historic sites?

WAINWRIGHT: Well, a lot of sites associated with the prophet, say, for example, where the prophet's wife lived, where his companions lived and his son have now all been obliterated. I mean, the prophet's wife's house is now where the public toilets are. I think his grandson's house is flattened for the king's palace. You know, there seems to be no attempt to preserve any of the historic sites whatsoever.

CORNISH: Is there any cultural reason for that?

WAINWRIGHT: Well, I mean critics in Saudi Arabia say it's all being driven by this state-endorsed Wahhabism, which is a kind of hard-line interpretation of Islam that perceives historical sites as encouraging a kind of sinful idolatry and polytheism. And so, anything that's associated with the Prophet Muhammad, you know, they're desperately trying to wipe out.

The other reason is, of course, a kind of cultural promotion. You know, they're very keen to have the tallest towers in the world and the most expensive shopping malls and hotels as a tool of national pride.

CORNISH: But isn't there an argument to be made that with the mosque enlarged, there's housing and sanitation, facilities have been improved, transportation has been improved, I mean, isn't this helpful to allow more pilgrims to come to the city?

WAINWRIGHT: You're right. I mean, transportation and infrastructure is improving, but that's coming at a great cost to the historic center. I mean, the mosque expansion, it was recently expanded to take, I think, 400,000 more people at a cost of $10 billion. But that completely destroyed the old centers, as with the most historic buildings in Mecca, and also the most historic neighborhoods where people had lived for generations, and they've now been completely displaced, you know, not compensated and living in shantytowns on the edge of the city.

CORNISH: Oliver, you also write about architecture around the world. And how are other governments managing this tension between development and sacred and historic sites?

WAINWRIGHT: Well, there's a pressure all across the world. I mean, the one thing that stands in the way is UNESCO World Heritage, which does an amazing job of trying to keep these places in as close a condition to the original as possible. I mean, the problem with Saudi Arabia is that they've denied UNESCO the power to actually list these sites.

So I think there's three UNESCO World Heritage sites in Saudi Arabia, none of which have any religious connotations. So they're kind of free to do what they like. I think elsewhere, you know, there's keen eyes on anything that happens in Jerusalem. And even if the slightest stone is upturned, there's a kind of national outcry.

But I think with Saudi Arabia, there's a kind of fear of criticism, partly because it's such an authoritarian regime. And also, because it's such a powerful country, I mean, you can't underestimate the power of the petrol dollar and the influence that that has. So I think people are very scared of the ramifications of criticism.

CORNISH: Oliver Wainwright is an architecture and design critic for The Guardian. Oliver, thank you.

WAINWRIGHT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.