Mecca's sacred mosque is undergoing renovation. Photo by Marwène Grira.
The mosque at Mecca, which is the largest in the world, is currently under renovation. According to the Saudi authorities, the mosque needs to be expanded to accommodate larger numbers of Muslim pilgrims. However, the destruction of ancient parts of the mosque by the Bin Laden family company is stirring up resentment in Saudi Arabia.
The ongoing construction is the sixth renovation undergone by the mosque since the Al Saoud family came into power in the 18th century, and it is also the most ambitious one to date. In order to increase the mosque’s surface area, the Bin Laden construction conglomerate, which was hired to carry out the renovations, plans to tear down ancient Ottoman-style galleries and rebuild “identical” galleries further away, according to an officer for the Saudi institute in charge of pilgrim affairs. These galleries, which were built in the 16th century, include columns that date back to the 8th century.
Construction cranes tower above the Ottaman galeries slated for destruction. Photo by Hatoon Al Fassi.
The news of this destruction has caused outrage in Saudi Arabia, and many Saudis have vented online about the destruction of their historical and cultural heritage.
A Saudi Arabian Twitter user writes: "In Europe and in developed countries, people preserve their historical sites, while here, we bury them #ottaman_galeries"
The mosque in Mecca is Islam’s most important spiritual site. Devout Muslims travel to the sacred mosque as a pilgrimage. This pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam.
"This is not the first destruction of ancient buildings in Mecca"
Hatoon Al Fassi is a Mecca native and a history professor at King Saud University in Riyadh.
The ongoing construction is officially supposed to widen the esplanade where pilgrims walk around the Kaaba [the cube in the middle of the sacred mosque] to be able to accommodate a larger number of pilgrims [the mosque can currently fit 28,000 pilgrims per hour, but would be able to hold 220,000 per hour after the renovations]. However, on top of the new galleries, new towers would be built, featuring hotels, restaurants, and malls.We already know what the mosque will look like when the construction is finished. In 2010, mosques dating back to the Prophet’s times were destroyed to allow for the construction of the Royal Mecca Clock Tower. [Editor’s Note: This clock tower, which is the second largest in the world, is located amidst a hotel complex with buildings ranging from 42 to 48 stories high].A hotel complex overshadows Mecca's sacred mosque. Photo by Hatoon Al Fassi.We are currently sounding the alarm, because unfortunately this is not the first destruction of ancient buildings in Mecca. During the last three decades, construction work to expand the mosque has already destroyed about two thirds of the sacred mosque’s historical buildings. The Ottoman galleries are the greatest treasure of the remaining third. We have already lost the houses of the Prophet’s companions, as well as smaller mosques around the main mosque that dated back to the earliest years of the Islamic era. And, while the house in which the Prophet was born has been transformed into a library, other sites have suffered worse fates: for instance, the house of Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife and the mother of his children, was destroyed in order to build public toilets!The Ottoman galeries. Photo by Hatoon Al Fassi.
I understand the desire to widen the mosque, given the high number of devout Muslims who travel to Mecca [about 3 million pilgrims per year], but this destruction has gone too far, especially because Mecca will never be large enough to hold everyone who wants to go there. It would be more reasonable to limit the number of visas delivered, as many pilgrims to Mecca go there not just once but every year.Furthermore, the sacred mosque is a holy site that does not belong to the Saudi state. This cultural heritage belongs to all Muslims, who have the right to request the conservation of such a precious piece of their history.I believe that the companies in charge of the construction have much sway with the Saudi authorities. They are focused only on profit, especially given that the cost of a square metre in Mecca is one of the highest in the world [100,000 euros per square meter]. Building towers around the mosque is consequently a very profitable investment. They want to turn Mecca into Las Vegas!
One of the galleries' columns.
Pilgrims at Mecca. Photos taken by Hatoon Al Fassi.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Sarra Grira.