It seems only a matter of time before the house where Prophet Muhammad was born, located opposite the imposing Royal Palace, is razed to the ground, and turned, probably, into a car park. During most of the Saudi era it was used as a cattle market; the Hijazi citizens fought to turn it into a library. However, even to enter the library is apparently to commit an unpardonable sin—hence no one is allowed in. But even this is too much for the radical clerics who have repeatedly called for its demolition. Also in their sights is Jabal al-Nur, the mountain that contains the cave of Hira, where the Prophet used to retire for meditation and reflection and where he received his first revelations.

What I find particularly troubling is how few are willing to stand up and openly criticize the official policy of the Saudi government. Turkey, and the arch-enemy of the Kingdom, Iran, have raised dissenting voices about the erasure of history, but most Muslim countries are too fearful of the Saudis. There is real fear that their pilgrim quota will be cut—just as the Saudis refused to give visas to the Iranian pilgrims during the late 1980s. Popular vituperative complaint between consenting adults in private, though it is the norm in Muslim circles, is, as it always has been, inconsequential and irrelevant. Far from cautioning the Saudis, architects, including some who are Muslim, are actively colluding with the destruction of Mecca. Peace activists and archaeologists have raised concerns in newspapers and in the pages of learned journals, but the mass of believers are silent. Archaeologists fear that access to the few remaining sites open to them will be blocked. Would-be pilgrims understandably worry that they may be barred from performing a compulsory sacred ritual. Everything else for believers comes secondary to Mecca’s place as the destination for one of five ‘pillars’ of the practice of faith.

Mecca today is a microcosm of its own history replayed as tragedy. The city that has serially been remade in the image of the wealth and imperial splendour of whatever power was dominant is the plaything of its latest masters—who happen on this occasion to be lacking any aesthetic sensitivity, so that the underlying theme of naked power and wealth-driven consumer excess is brazenly exposed for all to see, devoid of saving graces.

Ziauddin Sardar, in Open, on Mecca’s history and future. Excerpted from Mecca: The Sacred City.

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Photo: aljazeeraenglish, Flickr