Entertainment·Audio

High-end development threatens historic Mecca

Architectural and cultural critics are sounding the alarm over massive development in central Mecca, destroying important sites of the holy city in Saudi Arabia.
An aerial view shows some of the construction cranes surrounding the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca on October 27. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

Architectural and cultural critics are sounding the alarm over massive development in central Mecca which is destroying important sites of the holy city in Saudi Arabia.

According to an estimate, by 2025 the number of devout Muslims expected to make the annual holy pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj, could rise to 17 million.

Because of this, the government has approved a swath of high-end developers, who have focused their efforts on the historic city centre surrounding the Grand Mosque — home to the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site. Today, the world's second tallest building — a replica of London's Big Ben — looms over the Grand Mosque and there are about 400 hotels slated to be built in close proximity.

"The Hajj pilgrimage has always been about giving up your worldly goods and going down to the absolute minimum and here we have the second tallest building in the world sitting on a six-storey shopping mall. Apparently now when you come out of the [Grand] Mosque, the first thing you see is Starbucks and McDonald's. The whole process has become incredibly commercialized," Oliver Wainwright, architectural and design critic for The Guardian, told CBC's Q cultural affairs show from London.

"The hotel rooms facing the Mosque now go for up to $7,000 US a night, so not only is it destroying the heritage, it is making the whole process of the pilgrimage an incredibly exclusive pastime for only the richest people."

According to Wainwright, the towers rising across from the Grand Mosque are basically concrete high-rises superficially embellished "with a pastiche of Islamic architecture." Key historic sites and sacred landscapes are disappearing under these new buildings.

"In order to make the clock tower, they destroyed an 18th century Ottoman fortress, which was one of the most important historic buildings in Mecca. Not only did they destroy the fortress, they removed the hill on which it sat," he said.

"The house of the Prophet's wife has now been turned into a toilet block and the house of one of his companions is now the site of a Hilton hotel...All of these important sites, which in other countries would be UNESCO World Heritage [sites], here they have been obliterated."

Wainwright talked to Q's Jian Ghomeshi about exactly how vast the new development is, why there hasn't been more outcry against it and the more culturally and environmentally sensitive alternative that's been suggested — and dismissed.

The Grand Mosque, seen at top left, in the historic city centre of the holy city of Mecca, is surrounded by construction cranes working on vast high-end developments of pricey hotels, restaurants and shops. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters )

now