As the most iconic structure of Islam, the cuboid Ka’bah in Mecca is one of striking simplicity. Covered in black material it’s a bold yet uncomplicated structure, with bare walls and a simple interior consisting of lamps and three supporting arches. Over time, however, this simplicity has been undermined by the proliferation of luxury hotels, malls and towering skyscrapers which surround the holy site. You can even start your day with the usual Starbucks coffee if you like or pick up a Macdonalds after prayers.
Now nearing completion, the ‘Royal Mecca Clock Tower’ which is one of the tallest buildings in the world and resembles London’s Big Ben, appears to have delivered the final blow to Mecca’s architectural dignity and the egalitarian spirit of hajj.
Towering Monuments Of Unsustainable Growth
Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, is meant to be an egalitarian experience which is why all pilgrims are required to dress in white plain cloths so that the rich can’t be distinguished from the poor. However, rich pilgrims can now experience an air-conditioned version of hajj complete with a stay at luxury hotels and shopping mall sprees whilst others linger at the sidelines. The latest ‘Royal Mecca Clock Tower’ building includes a massive shopping mall, a 800-room hotel as well as large prayer halls for the pilgrims. Efforts have been made to help the clock ‘fit in’ by decorating it with Arabic inscriptions and placing a crescent on its spire, but it remains a rather gigantic reminder that the egalitarian spirit of hajj is diminishing in favour of capitalist-style luxury.
Whilst some state that the construction boom is simply to help accommodate the growing number of pilgrims, others insist that this is only about one thing: money. “It is the commercialization of the house of God,” Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect who founded a research center that studies urban planning issues surrounding Mecca told the New York Times. “The closer to the mosque, the more expensive the apartments. In the most expensive towers, you can pay millions” for a 25-year leasing agreement, he said. “If you can see the mosque, you pay triple.”
Destruction of Heritage For Economic Gain
Saudi has also been criticized in the past for purposely destroying important historical sites, even Islamic ones, out of fear that they would ‘encourage polytheism and idolatry’. In fact, an Ottoman fortress and the hill on which it stood was bulldozed to accommodate the gaudy clocktower building. Consideration of the ecology, cultural and architectural heritage seems to be low on the agenda but it hasn’t always been that way. In the past more care was taken when contributing to Mecca’s architecture, for example in the 1970, the German architect Frei Otto took inspiration from the nomadic Bedouin tribes when he design the remarkable tent cities. Made of collapsible lightweight structures, these tents protected pilgrims from rain and heat whilst limiting the damage to the delicate ecology of the hills that surround the old city.
This careful consideration seems to have been abandoned for economic gain at the expense of the egalitarian spirit of hajj and also its architectural legacy. The commercial sphere has well and truly invaded mecca. As Mr. Angawi says, “We don’t want to bring New York to Mecca. The hajj was always supposed to be a time when everyone is the same. There are no classes, no nationalities. It is the one place where we find balance. You are supposed to leave worldly things behind you.”