The Broader Picture: Hassan and the Mega-Mosque

Click to follow
ITS MINARET is higher than the great pyramid of Cheops - three times as high as the Statue of Liberty. At 22 square acres it covers an area greater than Angkor Wat. St Peter's basilica in Rome could fit inside the main building and its prayer hall is three times larger than St Paul's cathedral. It is an extraordinary sight, set on a platform of reclaimed land jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, towering like a colossus over the sea and the surrounding slums and buildings of Casablanca. A laser beam at the top of the minaret's 700ft tower can been seen from 30 miles away.

The King Hassan mosque is the biggest mosque in the world and next Sunday it opens its doors to the faithful on the anniversary of the birth of the prophet Mohammed. There will be room for 100,000 worshippers.

Until now, the world's biggest mosques were the Badshahi, beside Lahore fort, and the Jamma Masjid in Delhi, across the maidan from the Red Fort. Work began on the Casablanca mosque and its surrounding school and museum six years ago, after the fund-raising exercise for the estimated pounds 400m became a test of loyalty to Morocco's King Hassan and to one's faith - extortion became so entangled with generosity that it was difficult to distinguish one from the other.

Civil servants were told part of their pay had become a donation; businessmen were harassed if their contributions were considered too small. Firms, anxious for business and patronage, simply deducted money from their employees. The two million Moroccans who live abroad, mainly in France and Belgium, were unable to escape the king's collectors. They were tracked down or nobbled for contributions as soon as they stepped ashore.

Depending on your point of view the building is either a monument to the vanity of one man - King Hassan - or it is a worthy testament to God's grandeur. Most opinion comes down in favour of vanity. After all, it is called the King Hassan II mosque, and the monarch expects to be buried there. Certainly it's a mausoleum worthy of an emperor. Everything about it is imperial, the design, the decoration, the statistics: 10m cubic feet of concrete, 2,500 workers beavering away each day, 10,000 artisans carving marble and wood and making mosaics.

In recent years, Casablanca has become to rich Saudis what Amsterdam once was to Europeans - a symbol of sexual license replacing Cairo and Beirut as their favourite playground; still within the Arab world but European enough to make it different and exciting; a place where Western forms mix easily with

Islamic ways.

If you are rich, Casablanca can be glamorous. If you are poor - and most of the city's inhabitants are - it is like any other crowded industrial centre: Casablanca is sprawling, polluted, flat, and surrounded by squatters. Its port is the country's busiest, its traders are the richest, immigrants flock there from other parts of the country seeking jobs and gold. It is a flash city which has more in common with Marseilles or Bombay than the great historical settlements of North Africa and the Middle East.

Inspired, apparently, by a verse in the Koran which said the throne of God was built on water, Hassan said that it was to enhance Morocco's (and Hassan's) prestige that Casablanca would be the site for the eighth wonder of the world.

Casablanca had no building of monumental proportions. In Rabat, the capital, the city's main monument is a huge mausoleum to Hassan's father, King Muhammad V. The Hassan mosque, one of the king's appointed ministers said, would give Casablanca a soul.-

(Photographs omitted)