x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Foreign designs on Mecca's makeover

Dr Sami Angawi has dedicated his life to preserving the architectural history of the haj, and indeed Mecca, against a massive modernisation drive.

Pilgrims gather at the Haram Mosque during this year's haj with construction cranes towering in the background.
Pilgrims gather at the Haram Mosque during this year's haj with construction cranes towering in the background.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA // Strewn across the desk of one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent experts of Islamic architecture is a kaleidoscope of slides. Each one captures a moment in the history of the haj. There is the massive cloth tent city that was prone to catching fire, the Arab women who in the 1960s walked unveiled through Islam's holiest city and the dozens of traditional homes where the pilgrims stayed.

Dr Sami Angawi has dedicated his life to preserving the history of the haj, and indeed Mecca, against a massive modernisation drive that appears to have the backing of the Saudi royal family. Dr Angawi's Jeddah home is a testimony to his architectural work. It is an exquisite representation of a traditional Mecca house, including a 350-year-old arched stone entrance that he rescued from a house destined for demolition.

"Houses in Mecca were once like this," he said somewhat wistfully. Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam holds that maintaining historic monuments or objects may give rise to shirk - polytheism - and so should not be preserved. Over the years the Saudi government has destroyed the house of the Prophet Mohammed as well as those of some of his wives. Many of the traditional pilgrims' homes have been replaced with tower blocks and demolition crews are already dynamiting their way through Mecca's mountainous surroundings to make way for new buildings.

"Soon Mecca will have no history, if we continue like this," said Dr Angawi, whose family roots go back as far as the Prophet Abraham. "Every bit of the mountain has a story and layers of history are disappearing with each bombing." The government says the redevelopment is necessary to allow more people to go on the haj; this year, a record four million people were estimated to have taken part. Dr Angawi explains passionately how for thousands of years Mecca has been a hub for commerce and pilgrimage, giving rise to a city that will be unrecognisable to future generations.

Already, just a few steps from the Haram Mosque, a Starbucks coffee shop competes with the House of Donuts for pilgrims who just a few years ago would have snacked on dates and other local produce. But perhaps more worrying for Dr Angawi and other Arab architects is the government's plan to completely overhaul Mecca - without, it seems, the input of a single Saudi. The British architect Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi, as well as 10 other international firms and architects have been asked to submit proposals for a new city plan.

The multibillion-dollar renovation - which reportedly has the king's stamp of approval - is expected to include an unprecedented number of luxury hotels and residential skyscrapers and an expansion of the area around the central Haram Mosque to more than triple the site's current capacity - from 900,000 to three million - making it the largest public gathering space in the world. "I don't want to be a critic, I want to participate as do many other talented Saudis in one of their country's most important projects," Dr Angawi said.

"We can't treat Mecca like just any other city; it is a sanctuary. Yes, the number of pilgrims is increasing and yes, we have to find ways to accommodate them, but that is a far too simplistic view." Dr Angawi established the Haj Research Centre in 1972 as a means of studying and documenting one of Saudi Arabia's most critical traditions - both religiously and economically. With a doctorate of philosophy in Islamic architecture from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and several honorary degrees from abroad, Dr Angawi understands the rush towards modernism, but stresses everything is better when balanced.

He said he has spent hours waiting outside the offices of prominent officials hoping to discuss his ideas. "We have to go back to the original point of what is haj. It is a ritual; the place you perform haj is supposed to leave you with a feeling, not just accommodation." Dr Angawi is not against western participation, he just wants Saudis to have a say, particularly since most of the architects contacted about the expansion are not Muslim and will not be allowed to even enter the site.

"Part of design is the feeling of the place," he said. Other architects agree that the modernisation of Mecca risks robbing the haj of its traditional feeling of pilgrimage. "When I walk out of the Haram and see these towering buildings surrounding the house of God, it takes away the sanctity of the place," said Hisham Youssef, an Arab architect and president of the UAE Architecture Association. "You don't have to be a Muslim to design in Mecca but then again, something will be missing in the design if you don't understand the meaning behind the Islamic rituals."

He said there was a concern that without real understanding or access, the architects would "parachute" their western designs on Mecca. "Mecca in some ways is now like Las Vegas, where everything there is now hotels, shops and restaurants ? like haj is one major conference." Mr Foster, who is better known for stamping his identity on buildings such as London's Gherkin and the industrial-looking Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong, and Ms Hadid, have both declined to comment on their reported participation in the project. Mr Foster has been quoted as saying his designs respect the existing urban landscape, but most of his previous projects have been commercial.

The proposals are still being presented and a final decision has yet to be made by the ruling family. Nevertheless, a campaign is growing on the internet against the loss of Mecca's history. "Wahaabism believes that anything that isn't actually Allah is not worthy of veneration, as it becomes polytheism," one blogger wrote. "It's amusing, in a way, that the construction of modern hotels and luxury shops in Islam's most sacred city is being defended by" the same clerics who rail against the influence of the West.

"It helps illustrate the eternal and torturous contradictions of both religion and politics." Another blogger, a former American diplomat married to a Saudi, likened Mecca to Dubai with its plethora of cranes. "It is not a sight one would readily associate with Mecca and particularly to see these large cranes surrounding the Grand Mosque itself." There are also calls for Unesco, the United Nations' culture and heritage agency, to step in and protect sites in Mecca and Medina. But the UN agency said it was helpless to intervene as the Saudi government had not put the cities forward for UN protection.

"We are not a law and enforcement entity, we can't intervene unless there are some grounds to interfere," said Véronique Dauge of the Unesco World Heritage Centre. "It is up to the country to decide and propose what site is to be inscribed on the World Heritage list." It was not until this year that Unesco named the first world heritage site in Saudi Arabia: the ancient Nabataean city of Madain Saleh.

"The fact that Saudi Arabia even proposed a site is a clear indication there is more consciousness of the importance of preservation," she said. "Countries in the Gulf are now realising that national identity is preserved through the perseveration of their heritage." Two more sites are on the tentative list: Jeddah and the Turaif Quarter in Al Diriyyah. It may come too late for Dr Angawi, though. "I am tired. I have been trying for decades and because I speak out, I am being more and more isolated," he said, hinting that he might leave soon for the United States.

"I am in my own country, but I can't do anything." rghazal@thenational.ae