Future development of Mecca aims to fit heritage, limit skyscrapers

November 9, 2011

(Skyscrapers overshadow the Grand Mosque, with the Mecca Clock in the background, August 12, 2010. REUTERS/Hassan Ali)

Future development in the Muslim sacred city of Mecca will be more in tune with traditional architecture, the mayor says, but for now residents worry that Islam’s holiest sites are disappearing behind skyscrapers. The historic city, the birthplace of Islam, is studded with dozens of yellow and red cranes and metal scaffolding aimed at increasing hotel space and improving facilities to make the annual haj pilgrimage safer and easier.

As more than 2.5 million Muslims from across the world flood Mecca’s narrow streets for the annual pilgrimage, however, many visitors and residents point to a government-owned 600-metre (1,970 feet) tower surmounted by an extravagant clock as evidence development has moved too quickly.

“The building regulations in the city take into consideration the width of the streets, central locations and do not allow the building of skyscrapers…what was built was that,” Mayor Osama al-Bar told Reuters when asked about the tower. Future projects “will be far from the grand mosque by 300 meters … The buildings will have reasonable heights between 8 to 10 floors and will have the Meccan style,” he said.

Within six years, the government hopes to reinforce the infrastructure surrounding Mecca’s Grand Mosque, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba towards which Muslims the world over turn in prayer, replacing congested narrow roads with new ones, installing foot bridges for pedestrians and a four-line metro.

On Tuesday, Crown Prince Nayef, whose ruling Al Saud family bases its legitimacy in part on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites, said the development that had already taken place would “be little compared to what will happen.”

“We want to evolve Mecca, not change it,” said Sami Angawi, founder of Hajj Research Centre and an expert on Mecca. Angawi, who is originally from Mecca, has not stepped into his city for the past two years because he is unhappy about the way that it is being transformed.

“I love Mecca and cannot see the beloved (sanctuary) of the Prophet being destroyed and handled this way,” said Angawi, who shares a belief with many Muslims that Mecca is a holy place where change must be made in a delicate manner.

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