Friday 31 December 2010

Meccan Openings? Islam's Holy City at the Mercy of Urban Developers

The New York Times is carrying an article by Nicolai Ouroussoff, with a biting criticism of the architectural monstrosity which is disfiguring the holiest city in Islam. With the blessing of Saudi Arabia's government, an eyesore called Abraj al-Bayt in Arabic and referred to as the 'Mecca Royal Clock Hotel Tower' has been constructed on a hill near the Haram al-Sharif or Great Mosque. According to Ouroussoff:
It is an architectural absurdity. Just south of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Muslim world’s holiest site, a kitsch rendition of London’s Big Ben is nearing completion. Called the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, it will be one of the tallest buildings in the world, the centerpiece of a complex that is housing a gargantuan shopping mall, an 800-room hotel and a prayer hall for several thousand people. Its muscular form, an unabashed knockoff of the original, blown up to a grotesque scale, will be decorated with Arabic inscriptions and topped by a crescent-shape spire in what feels like a cynical nod to Islam’s architectural past. To make room for it, the Saudi government bulldozed an 18th-century Ottoman fortress and the hill it stood on.
Abraj al-Bayt Towers in Mecca
Ouroussoff is not alone in his rejection,  he is joined by Sami Angawi , a Saudi architect who founded a research center that studies urban planning issues surrounding the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and has been one of the development’s most vocal critic. Mincing no words, he has called it  “It is the commercialization of the house of God.” Angawi also features in another piece on this Arabian nightmare.

Dr Sami Anqawi
In Ourousssof's assessment:
The city’s makeover reflects a split between those who champion turbocharged capitalism and those who think it should stop at the gates of Mecca, which they see as the embodiment of an Islamic ideal of egalitarianism. “We don’t want to bring New York to Mecca,” Mr. Angawi said. “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.”
The government, however, seems unmoved by such sentiments. When I mentioned Mr. Angawi’s observations at the end of a long conversation with Prince Sultan, the minister of tourism and antiquities, he simply frowned. “When I am in Mecca and go around the kaaba, I don’t look up.”
Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud
  This from the man who once hitched a ride on the Space Shuttle.....

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