A New York Times op-ed today details a conflict within Islam that will resonate with anyone whose hometown has ever been the site of backlash against new construction and sprawl, which is to say, pretty much everyone in the United States who doesn’t live in Las Vegas. The piece by Ziauddin Sardar describes a version of the familiar preservationists versus developers debate taking place in one of the highest-stakes locations imaginable—namely, Mecca, a place so important to hundreds of millions of people that its name is a synonym for “a place that is important to people.” Writes Sardar:
Pilgrims performing the hajj this week will search in vain for Mecca’s history.
The dominant architectural site in the city is not the Sacred Mosque, where the Kaaba, the symbolic focus of Muslims everywhere, is. It is the obnoxious Makkah Royal Clock Tower hotel, which, at 1,972 feet, is among the world’s tallest buildings. It is part of a mammoth development of skyscrapers that includes luxury shopping malls and hotels catering to the superrich. The skyline is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling peaks. Ancient mountains have been flattened. The city is now surrounded by the brutalism of rectangular steel and concrete structures — an amalgam of Disneyland and Las Vegas.
Given the general association between religion and tradition, the number of historic sites that have been demolished in Mecca to make way for development is shocking. The clocktower skyscraper described above is on the site of a 1781 fortress. Houses belonging to one of Mohammed’s wives, one of his closest allies, and his grandson have been torn down to be replaced by bathrooms, a Hilton, and a palace, respectively. Why? Mecca, Sardar explains, is controlled by Saudi interests whose philosophy combines modern materialism with the religious belief that historic sites promote idolatry. (The company performing much of this construction? The Saudi Binladin Group.) Read the whole piece here.