Mecca to be remodeled

A pilgrim at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.  The Kaaba is seen in the midground.

A pilgrim at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. The Kaaba is seen in the midground.

The Economist has an interesting story about Saudi plans to remodel Mecca, the holiest city is Islam.  The city is the original hometown of Mohammed, the founder and chief figure in Islam, and was a key religious center even before that time.  Muslims are supposed to pray five times each day, at appointed times, all while facing in the direction of Mecca, and are urged to participate in the haj, a pilgrimage to the city during the holy month of Ramadan, at least once in their life if they are able.

As international travel has gotten easier, more Muslims have been able to visit Mecca, causing significant logistical problems (including people often being trampled to death).  A chief reason for remodeling parts of the city, including the most important mosque there, the Masjid al-Haram (“Sacred Mosque”) is to accommodate the 2.5 million pilgrims that come to Mecca during the haj each year.  At present, the mosque can hold up to 900,000 visitors; plans are to expand it to a capacity of 1.5 million.

Given the great importance of the mosque and Mecca to Muslims, it is not surprising that the Saudi plans are stirring up debate.  The fact that one of the architects chosen for the project, Briton Norman Foster, is a non-Muslim has added to the controversy.  Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca, so he’d have to supervise the project from a distance and couldn’t visit the site itself.

But the city has already undergone huge changes.  The Economist reports:

Even before the plans to give the Haram mosque a facelift emerged, many Muslims were uneasy about the renovations already underway in Mecca. The modern city bears little resemblance to the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. Visitors to Mecca can buy a latte from Starbucks and a snack from KFC or McDonald’s. Moreover, the first Islamic school where Muhammad is believed to have taught as well as the house of Khadija, his first wife, are believed to have been destroyed as construction in Mecca has boomed. Critics such as Mr Angawi fear that if these plans go ahead, more damage will be wrought upon Mecca’s historic buildings. Some suggest that Saudi Arabia’s rulers don’t concern themselves much about preserving these historic sites because their interpretation of Islam regards venerating holy places as akin to idol worship.

It will be interesting to see what sorts of decisions are made by Saudi leaders, including King Abdullah—who is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (in Mecca and Medina)—in this matter.

This highway sign indicates that non-Muslims must take the bypass around Mecca, where only Muslims are permitted

This highway sign indicates that non-Muslims must take the bypass around Mecca, where only Muslims are permitted. (Click to enlarge)

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