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|
|Dr Sami Anqawi|
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|