|Party Like It's 632|
|Turning towards Mecca|
“”[G]rowing numbers of citizens, particularly those living in the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have looked on aghast as the nation's archaeological heritage is trampled under a construction mania backed by hardline clerics who preach against the preservation of their own heritage. Mecca, once a place where the Prophet Mohamed insisted all Muslims would be equal, has become a playground for the rich, critics say, where naked capitalism has usurped spirituality as the city’s raison d’être.
Mecca, in Arabic known as 'Makkah al-Mukarramah (مكة المكرمة or "Makkah the Noble"), is a city in Saudi Arabia considered to the the holiest site in the religion of Islam. According to Islamic tradition, Mecca was the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, and it was where he received alleged revelations from God and some angels that led him to kick start the religion. Mecca is also home to landmarks and places associated with the prophet's life or otherwise held sacred.
During daily prayers (salah), Muslims will do their best to face in the direction of Mecca, known as the qibla. Most religious architecture in Islam will have some general indication of the qibla to make finding the right direction a bit easier. God apparently doesn't have much against convenience.
Additionally, every Muslim is expected to make at least one pilgrimage, or Hajj, or Umrah, to Mecca in their lifetime, unless constrained by poverty or health. Deep in the heart of Mecca is a huge black cloth-covered marble box, called the Kaaba, around which each pilgrim must circle and carry out some rituals which are intended to reflect Muhammad's actions during his life.
Non-Muslims are not allowed within the city proper. This applies year-round. In fact, when French troops got special permission to enter the city in 1979 (to deal with the armed takeover of the Masjid al-Haram), one Osama bin Laden took this as a grievous insult to Islam.
The city is currently administered by the Saudi royal family, which has used every opportunity to destroy history and replace it with glitzy hotels to cash in on the tourist trade.
Mecca was a pagan city before Muhammad founded Islam, although it had a diverse religious landscape and generally practiced religious tolerance. This was due to the city's status as an important trade hub in the Middle East, connected to the rest of the world via hardy camel caravans. Merchants from the outside brought in new religions like Christianity and Zoroastrianism, which helped the Arabs of the region become used to the concept of monotheism.
While living in Mecca, tradition holds it that Muhammad meditated in a cave and received visions from the Archangel Gabriel revealing the first parts of what would be the Quran. Mecca at this time was a major religious site of Arab pagan pilgrimage, so Muhammad's insistence that there was only one God and that idols should be destroyed was a bit unpopular with city authorities. He and his followers eventually had to flee to the city of Medina, but after some decades of war they returned to conquer the city and convert it to Islam.
Destruction and greed in Saudi Arabia
One of the worst things to happen here was the city's conquest by the House of Saud, the current ruling dynasty of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis follow a violently iconoclastic interpretation of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism. They furiously hated traditional Islamic practices like celebrations honouring Muhammad, his family and companions, reverence of deceased saints, visitation of shrines, tombs and holy sites connected with any of these. After seizing control of of Mecca and its surroundings, the Saudis promptly set about destroying many of these historic and holy landmarks in order to prevent the continuation of such "heretical" acts. They've destroyed historic graveyards, they destroyed the tomb of Muhammad's wife Aisha, and they turned the home of Muhammad's first wife Khadijah into a toilet block. They even dynamited much of the historic central mosque structure surrounding the Kaaba.
It's estimated that at least 98% of Arabia's historical and religious sites have been destroyed by the Saudis since 1985, a practice that many Muslims feel is the intentional destruction of priceless history.
The end goal, now realized, is to create a glittering array of skyscrapers, shopping malls and luxury hotels, including a massive Big Ben-like clock tower. There's even a goddamned KFC. Rich and poor Muslims now stand side-by-side at the Hajj as 'equals' under the shadow of massive skyscrapers. Even protest notes by fellow Muslim countries like Turkey could not sway the iconoclast fervor of the Saudi regime.
Notable landmarks and locations
Also known as the "Great Mosque of Mecca", the Masjid al-Haram is the massive building that surrounds the Kaaba. This is the focal point of the Hajj pilgrimage, that journey which every Muslim is obligated to complete at least once in their lives. The Kaaba has been a holy site since even before the founding of Islam, but the first major mosque construction here took place in 692 CE as commissioned by Abd al-Malik, the fifth Umayyad Caliph. The site then had to be expanded and repaired a few more times during the period of the Ottoman Empire.
Violence inside the mosque is strictly, strictly forbidden. That's why it was such an international shock and outrage when armed Islamist militants seized control of the mosque and took hostages in 1979. The Saudis had to enlist the help of some French commandos to fight a four-day battle to retake the site. Warfare inside Mecca is a bit older than that, though. In 930, religious zealots of the radical Qarmatian sect in Bahrain attacked Mecca, sacked the Great Mosque, murdered a bunch of religious pilgrims, and stole the Black Stone from the Kaaba.
The mosque has been expanded yet more under the custodianship of the Saudis. The final structure is huge, the product of centuries of construction. It contains several other holy sites. Islamic tradition holds that a single prayer in the Great Mosque is equal to 100,000 prayers anywhere else in the world. Apparently the omnipresent God is super concerned with geography.
The Kaaba is the main attraction of the Great Mosque and Mecca as a whole. Even though it's just a small building, the Kaaba is considered the holiest place in all of Islam.
Before Islam, the Kaaba was a major site of religious pilgrimage for the pagan Arabs, and they kept idols of their various gods there. These idols were later destroyed when Muhammad and his followers took control of Mecca.
Islamic tradition holds that Adam (of the Adam and Eve tale) built the first iteration of the Kaaba, and they also believe that the prophet Abraham reconstructed a second version atop the foundation left by Adam. During the tumultuous history of Islam, the structure had to be repaired every now and then due to being damaged in war or by natural disasters.
The Kaaba is actually a fairly bland-looking granite bulding; its unique appearance comes from the Kiswah, the black cloth which is draped over it and replaced every year in accordance with tradition. The building itself is empty save for some religious decorations.
The Black Stone
Set into one of the corners of the Kaaba structure is the Black Stone, an Islamic relic which supposedly dates back to the era of Adam and Eve. According to the story, angels gave the stone to Adam. It was apparently white back then, but it has since turned black by absorbing all of the sin of the pious Muslims who have visited it. Some scientists think it's actually a meteorite since the story describes it falling from "heaven", although for obvious reasons this idea cannot be verified. At some point during the infighting of the early caliphates, the Black Stone was busted during a siege of Mecca; it is now bound together by that silver bowl-looking thing you see in the picture there. Gotta keep better care of your relics, guys.
In 930, zealots of the Qarmatian religious sect attacked the Great Mosque and absconded with the Black Stone. They kept hold of it for 23 years, even putting it in their own mosque in an attempt to redirect pilgrimage away from Mecca. That idea didn't really pan out, so they eventually ransomed the rock back to the caliphs.
Being such a sacred object, the Black Stone has become an integral part of the hajj tradition. Pilgrims will attempt to touch or kiss the stone during their processions around the mosque (probably causing at least a little bit of pushing and shoving), while the ones who lose out must content themselves with simply pointing at the stone.
The Maqam Ibrahim, or the "Station of Abraham", is a relic purporting to be the imprints of Abraham's feet. Muslims believe that Abraham stood on a rock during the construction of the Kaaba, and that rock apparently magically turned into putty for him to leave footprints in. God apparently likes making rocks do tricks, as Abraham's declaration of the Kaaba's completion apparently caused the mountains to bow to him. What that would have looked like is unclear. Today, the preserved "footprints" are in a big gilded box next to the Kaaba, where Muslims are expected to make prayers after their final circuit around the mosque. They can't be touched or kissed, so Muslims are recommended to stay a respectful distance away for the convenience of others.
From various photographs, though, the impressions are very strangely oval-shaped and don't really resemble footprints at all. They are also significantly larger than a human being's feet.
The Zamzam Well is a supposedly miraculous well of water that was revealed to Abraham and his family when they were thirsty in the desert. Lots of religious stories like this have people wandering through the desert without having planned ahead enough to take water. According to Muhammad, the Zamzam Well is the purest water on Earth, supposedly being capable of curing any illness. It's gotten to the point today where Muslims now believe in the Zamzam water as a form of alternative medicine that can cure even cancer.
The reality, as you might expect, is quite less divine. The water is actually collected from desert rain runoff, and is thus rather salty, although this quality gives the water a distinct taste. Saudi scientist Dr. Khawla Al Kuraya even went on state television to debunk the water's cancer-treating abilities, noting that the salinity would actually interfere with chemotherapy and thus harm cancer patients. She recommended bathing in it rather than drinking it. Naturally, she promptly came under verbal attacks and death threats for "undermining the teachings of Islam."
Oh, and the UK Food Standards Agency also warned British Muslims away from drinking anything labeled Zamzam water, as it could potentially have high levels of arsenic and nitrates. This is because Saudi Arabia has banned the export of the substance, meaning that Zamzam water bought abroad tends to be sourced from much less savory locations.
Overlooking the city of Mecca, the Jabal al-Nour or "Mountain of Illumination" is the supposed site where Muhammad went to receive his first vision from the Archangel Gabriel. The Cave of Hira, an awkward crevasse about halfway up the mountain, is where Muhammad met the angel in what must have been a pretty damn cramped environment. The cave is, after all, only 3.7 m (12 ft) in length and 1.60 m (5 ft 3 in) in width. No wonder the stories say Muhammad got the fuck out of there; do angels not know about personal space?
Reaching the cave is no easy task, as it's a good ways up a mountain and the hike takes a fit person at least two hours. Basically, if you mean to make the trip, take some fucking water. And maybe some snacks. Predictably, the site attracts great numbers of visitors each year who hope to see the starting point of the Islamic religion. The unfortunate thing is that the cave has now been extensively damaged by people chiseling names into the rocks or knocking off chunks of stone to carry home.
A smaller hill in the vicinity of Mecca, Jabal Arafat or "Mountain of Mercy", is believed to be the location of Muhammad's Farewell Sermon, his last public religious speech. For that reason, it's usually pretty damn packed with people.
Due to its name and traditional beliefs, Muslims hold that praying at Jabal Arafat is one of the most effective ways to be forgiven for whatever sins Muslims believe they have committed. Muslim pilgrims for the hajj usually spend a whole day here praying and asking for forgiveness, all while workers clean up litter left behind.
Mina, the City of Tents
“”With the Saudi government purely focused on financial profits, pilgrims are often neglected, and sometimes endangered, as little significant efforts are made to protect them.
|—Inside Arabia, January 2020.|
Mina is a small town just outside Mecca, but it has a massive capacity to temporarily accommodate about 3 million people in air conditioned tents. This is where hajj pilgrims stay overnight during the five nights of their visit. The current tent city is the result of some incompetent trial-and-error by Saudi officials. People used to have to bring their own tents, but the Saudis decided to be nice and install a bunch of cotton tents in the 1990s. Tragically, the tents caught fire in 1997 and killed hundreds of people, finally convincing the Saudis to invest in fire-proof tents.
Saudi mismanagement still makes itself quite clear at Mina, though. Although all pilgrims of the hajj are supposed to be equal according to Muhammad's vision, rich-poor divides are horribly evident in the ways pilgrims receive their accommodations. Better tents cost more, and the truly rich get to stay in the glitzy hotels that directly overlook the Grand Mosque; the poor meanwhile trudge through garbage-filled areas to buy from open air markets and sleep in ramshackle structures.
Accommodations and food have become increasingly expensive as Saudi Arabia looks to decrease its dependence on oil by increasing hajj profits. Admittance used to be just $800, but it's now gone up via mandatory travel packages ranging between $1,000 to $20,000 depending on distance while fees for even basic accommodations can go as high as $7,000 once the Saudis are done nickel-and-diming you.
Mina is also home to one of the main rituals of the hajj. The "Stoning of the Devil" ritual, or the Ramy al-Jamarāt involves pilgrims throwing pebbles at pillars to symbolize their defeat of the devil and sin. (If you think that seems violent, note that big chunks of the Christian world like to burn and flog Judas in effigy.)
You might be able to see the really big problem with this already. The stoning ritual has proven the deadliest part of the hajj, with people often being struck by stones and human stampedes crushing people along the relatively narrow space around the pillars.
In 2004, Saudi authorities realized that something had to change, and they tore out the old pillars and replaced them with great stone walls called Jamarāt. The idea was to limit the risk of people missing a throw and beaning someone on the other side, but this innovation sadly hasn't prevented more deadly stampedes. The worst incident of all was in 2015 when a stampede near the site killed at least 2,411 pilgrims. The Saudi authorities promptly rebuffed criticism and insisted that their official death toll was much smaller.
Abraj Al Bait
“”They are turning the holy sanctuary into a machine, a city which has no identity, no heritage, no culture and no natural environment.
|—Sami Angawi, Hajj Research Centre.|
Once you're done with all that boring religion stuff, come on down to Abraj Al Bait complex! It's got everything, even the highest and largest clock tower in the world! Good thing the Saudis destroyed that drab 220 year-old historic Ottoman castle to make way for this; we just want to go to the mall.
The shopping mall is 18 floors high, there are 11,116 luxury hotel rooms and apartments, and you can even visit an observation deck under the great clock. Wow! The tallest tower contains a five-star hotel managed by Fairmont. Also, if you've ever had a hankering for fried chicken while you're conducting religious rituals, don't worry because the Abraj Al Bait also has a nice KFC just waiting for you to visit.
Apparently, Saudi theology says it's okay to build giant hotel towers that loom over the holiest site of Islam so long as you remember to slap "God is the greatest" on the front instead of a corporate logo. Sure, there might be some religious story about mocking God with a tower, but that was just a dumb fairy tale anyways. Come on and buy some nice shoes once you're bored of asceticism and all of that "equality before god" nonsense! Isn't capitalism the greatest?
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