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Saudi overhaul reshapes holiest city.

Byline: Aya Batrawy

MECCA, Saudi Arabia -- As a child, Osama al-Bar would walk from his home past Islam's holiest site, the Kaaba, to the market of spice and fabric merchants where his father owned a store. At that time, Mecca was so small, pilgrims could sit at the cube-shaped Kaaba and look out at the serene desert mountains where the Prophet Muhammad once walked.

Now the market and the homes are gone. Monumental luxury hotel towers crowd around the Grand Mosque where the Kaaba is located, dwarfing it. Steep rocky hills overlooking the mosque have been leveled and are now covered with cranes building more towers in row after row.

''My father and all the people who lived in Mecca wouldn't recognize it,'' said al-Bar, who is now Mecca's mayor.

As Muslims from around the world stream into Mecca for the annual hajj pilgrimage this week, they come to a city undergoing the biggest transformation in its history.

Decades ago, this was a low-built city of centuries-old neighborhoods. Over the years, it saw piecemeal renewal projects. But in the mid-2000s, the kingdom launched its most ambitious overhaul ever with a series of mega-projects that, though incomplete, have already reshaped Mecca.

Old neighborhoods have been erased for hotel towers and malls built right up to the edge of the Grand Mosque. Historic sites significant for Islam have been demolished. Next to the Kaaba soars the world's third tallest skyscraper, topped by a gigantic clock, which is splashed with colored lights at night.

''It's not Mecca. It's Mecca-hattan. This tower and the lights in it are like Vegas,'' said Sami Angawi, an architect who spent his life studying hajj and is one of the most outspoken critics of the changes.

Critics complain the result is stripping the holy city of its spirituality. They also say it is robbing the hajj of its more than 1,400-year-old message that all Muslims, rich or poor, are equal before God as they perform the rites meant to cleanse them of sin, starting and ending by circling the Kaaba seven times.

Mecca is revered by hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide. They face the Kaaba every day in their prayers. The Grand Mosque is one of the few places in the world where Muslims of all stripes gather -- Sunnis and Shiites, secular Muslims, mystics and hard-liners.

Overseeing Mecca is also a key source of prestige for Saudi Arabia's monarchy. The past two kings -- the current one, Abdullah, and his predecessor, Fahd -- have adopted the further title of ''custodian of the two holy mosques'' to boost their status, referring to Mecca's Grand Mosque and Muhammad's mosque in nearby Medina.

Now Mecca is being molded to a particularly Saudi vision that bolsters the rule of the Al Saud royal family.

Two forces shape that vision. One is raw, petrodollar-fueled capitalism. Mecca's planners are largely catering to wealthier pilgrims by focusing on construction of five-star hotels, surrounding the Kaaba in marble-sheathed luxury. Nearby, pilgrims can shop at international chains, including a Paris Hilton store and a gender-segregated Starbucks.

The other force is Wahhabism, the strict, puritanical interpretation of Islam that the Al Saud rulers elevated to the country's official doctrine. Saudi kings, for example, have given Wahhabi clerics a monopoly over preaching at the Grand Mosque. In return, the clerics staunchly back the monarchy.

One tenet of Wahhabism is that Muslim tombs or sites connected to revered figures -- even the Prophet Muhammad, his family and companions -- should be destroyed to avoid veneration of anything other than God. It's the same iconoclastic zeal that has prompted militants from the Islamic State group to blow up Muslim shrines in Iraq and Syria.

In Mecca, hardly any site associated with Muhammad remains. Many were destroyed in previous expansions of the Grand Mosque in the 1980s and 1990s, and the new development is finishing off much of what remains.
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Author:Batrawy, Aya
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:7SAUD
Date:Oct 2, 2014
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