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Thu 10 Nov 2011 03:20 PM

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Future building in Makkah aims to match heritage

But residents fear the city’s holiest sites are disappearing behind skyscrapers

Future building in Makkah aims to match heritage
As more than 2.5 million Muslims from across the world visit Makkah to perform the annual hajj

Future development in the Muslim sacred city of Makkah 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 hajj pilgrimage safer and

As more than 2.5 million Muslims from across the world flood
Makkah's narrow streets for the annual pilgrimage, however, many visitors and
residents point to a government-owned 600m 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," said Mayor Osama
al-Bar, when asked about the tower.

Future projects "will be far from the grand mosque by
300m ... The buildings will have reasonable heights between 8 to 10 floors and
will have the Makkah style," he said.

Within six years, the government hopes to reinforce the
infrastructure surrounding Makkah'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 Makkah, not change it," said
Sami Angawi, founder of Hajjj Research Center and an expert on Makkah.

Angawi, who is originally from Makkah, 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 Makkah 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 Makkah is a holy place where change must
be made in a delicate manner.

An hour before evening prayer, the marble floor around the
Grand Mosque is hardly visible as millions of worshippers stand side-by-side,
lining their prayer mats outside the overflowing mosque to reserve a spot in
anticipation for the call to pray.

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The pilgrimage was once the culmination of an arduous desert
journey over perilous weeks or months, but with the advent of modern transport,
the number of hajjis, or pilgrims, has risen to millions, gridlocking the
city's roads and compromising safety.

Deadly stampedes, tent fires and other accidents have
several times caused hundreds of deaths, forcing the government to spend lavishly
on new infrastructure.

"For sure [the expansion] will be good for pilgrims
because usually there are huge numbers of pilgrims, especially during prayer
times," Ahdab Seif, an Egyptian pilgrim, said outside the Grand Mosque.

Long-term projects around the mosque will include hotels,
malls and cafes. Developments in the suburbs include housing estates and a park
for residents who have been made to relocate from the city centre.

"Makkah is known to be an old city ... it has some old
haphazard buildings located near the Grand Mosque and this project will reshape
the face of Makkah and raise the capacity and services of the city," Bar

"By 2020 we hope that results will be visible as major
parts of the projects will be complete," he said, sitting behind his
wooden desk at the Makkah municipality.

Among the announced projects, which will cost more than $30bn,
is a historic expansion of the Grand Mosque to add 400,000 sq m and add shaded
areas to shelter worshippers from the scorching desert sun.

The clock tower of the King Abdulaziz Endowment, which is
visible for miles around and stands next to the Grand Mosque, has been the focal
point of criticism.

"What is not nice is that the outside design is not
traditionally Arabic... What they created looks like the buildings in
Australia, it does not give a feel of Arabs and Makkah," said Wafa Sbbet,
50, who came from Sydney for the hajj.

The tower, which overlooks the Kaaba, was built over a
demolished 18th-century Ottoman fort on a prominent Makkah hillside, now
flattened to the ground.

"This is a sanctuary ... My objection is not about
expansion, or increasing capacity for pilgrims or developing Makkah. My
objection is about how it is done," Angawi said.

"This tower does not respect the dignity, sanctity and
culture of the Kaaba ... it has demolished a whole mountain."

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Makkah residents, who once lived a few steps from the Grand
Mosque, say they are being pushed away from the city-centre to make way for
hotels and restaurants that will cater to visiting pilgrims.

A square foot of land around the Grand Mosque has in some
cases reached up to $18,000, Bar said, significantly higher than average prices
of around $4,420 in Monaco.

Property consultant Jones Lang LaSalle could not corroborate
those prices but confirmed that the land around the Grand Mosque is the most
expensive real estate in the world.

"Makkah is the heart of the Islamic world... what we
are doing is changing the heart from a natural heart to a mechanical one,"
Angawi said.

"Now we should review and stop any project that does
not respect the scale of the Kaaba and the environment of the holy sanctuary
... Take the bulldozers and dynamites out of Makkah."


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