Saudi plans to modernise Mecca slammed as 'destroying the cradle of Islam'

Exclusive: Plans for retractable sports stadium style roof to shield pilgrims visiting Grand Mosque complex from sun ‘will not meet international preservation standards’

Tuesday 14 November 2017 12:18
New plans for Mecca with closing roof

Alleged Saudi government plans to build a retractable roof over Mecca’s holy Kaaba have been met with outrage over concerns the modifications will destroy the historic character of one of Islam’s most sacred sites.

While there has been no official announcement from Mecca province or other Saudi authorities on the proposed measures, video provided to The Independent by the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation shows a scale model currently on display in the holy Saudi Arabian city, demonstrating how the roof will work.

The new “umbrella project” enclosure is designed to protect pilgrims from the scorching desert sun when visiting the Kaaba, the black structure at the centre of Mecca’s Grand Mosque which Muslims face towards when they pray.

Muslims are expected to perform Hajj – a Ramadan visit to Mecca, the Prophet Mohammed’s birthplace – at least once in their lifetimes.

Construction is supposed to begin shortly and the roof is due to be finished by 2019, Major General Muhammad Al-Ahmadi, commander of the Grand Mosque security forces, was recently quoted as saying by Saudi media.

“For centuries Muslims have travelled to the site for Hajj and Umra [lesser pilgrimage] and not complained about this. I can’t understand for the life of me why you would destroy the cradle of Islam and all our heritage like this", said Dr Irfan Al Alawi, director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.

“Nothing should cover the Kaaba from above as Muslims believe the mercy of God descends from the highest heavens.

“This umbrella plan looks like a spaceship from a Hollywood movie.”

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The Saudi government’s Centre for International Communication did not immediately respond to The Independent’s request for comment.

It is not unusual for major building projects to commence without public consultation or prior announcement in the kingdom. Renovations to Mecca and Medina’s existing infrastructure to accommodate more pilgrims every year have been underway since 2011, under the rule of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

When completed, extensions to the Grand Mosque complex will include six new floors for praying and 21,000 toilets, as well as 860 escalators and 24 lifts for disabled and less mobile worshippers. Plans for new roads and high speed rail links have not yet materialised.

Critics note, however, that since Mecca and Medina are not protected as Unesco World Heritage Sites, Riyadh is free to carry out modernisation work in the holy cities which may not meet international preservation standards.

Worshippers and historians across the world have been frequently angered by the bulldozing of historic neighbourhoods in favour of modern hotels and malls.

The US-based Gulf Institute estimated in 2012 that 95 per cent of the 1,000-year-old buildings in Mecca and Medina have been destroyed in the past 20 years.

Modernisation for the sake of health and safety during the week of Hajj – which attracted 2.34 million pilgrims last year – is now a top priority for the sites’ caretakers following a stampede in Mina in 2015 which killed more than 2,000 people.

“There are so many other things [the Saudi authorities] could do to protect people other than this roof,” Dr Alawi said.

“The closest major hospital is more than five miles away from Mecca. Why not build one of those first?”, he continued.

“The Saudis’ track record of looking after historic sites is incredibly bad. They believe in innovation, but destroy so much in the process.”

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