Times of change: Erasing the Ottomans from Mecca
ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 12/4/2009 12:00:00 AM | GÜL DEMİR - NİKİ GAMM
The 350-year-old portico designed by legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan for the Sacred Mosque is to be torn down now that the pilgrims have left. And with its demolition Mecca’s last traces of Ottoman architecture will be dust in the desert wind
Now that the Kurban Bayram holiday and the time of the Hajj pilgrimage have ended, Islam’s holy city of Mecca can return to normal. But with the number of pilgrims estimated to rise to 10 million in the coming years, Saudis have been working hard non-stop for years to prepare for them.
This year approximately 2.5 million pilgrims converged on the Saudi Arabian city that for centuries has been the focal point of Muslim believers who gather to partake in the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime provided they can afford it and are in good enough health.
How the city prepares for its visitors, however, is a question that some experts say has not been addressed appropriately, especially regarding ancient Islamic architecture and Ottoman heritage.
According to reports during this year’s Hajj, now that the pilgrims have left, the portico around the Kaabah, designed by legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in the late 1500s, is to be torn down.
Dr. Sami Angawi, head of the Amar Center for Architectural Heritage in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, is an expert on the region's Islamic architecture. He said he acknowledges that the Saudis have the right to provide modern cities for their citizens, but also noted that many buildings from early Islamic history are being demolished and replaced with high-rise buildings. Angawi said he calculated that over 300 historical buildings in Mecca and Medina have already been destroyed.
Also, the Washington-based Gulf Institute has estimated that, in the past two decades, 95 percent of the millennium-old buildings in Mecca have been demolished.
Furthermore, the British-based Gensler architectural firm disclosed during the Hajj that is has plans to redevelop one square kilometer in the historic southern area known as Darb Al-Khalil. When completed, however, the area will include residences, hotels and amenities for pilgrims and will allow easy movement from the area to the Mosque Al-Haram, or Sacred Mosque.
Admittedly, the Saudis have the right to ensure that the annual pilgrimage occurs as safely as possible, so it is not surprising they are bent on making changes. For example, the ramp that leads to the area where the pilgrims “throw stones at the devil” at times was where hundreds could be killed when crowds rushed forward to complete this portion of the pilgrimage. Today, however, the ramp system has been changed and can hold 3 million people and has capacity for as many as 5 million.
They also expanded the Mosque Al-Haram in the center of the city, and where there were once hundreds of houses, they have now been replaced with wide avenues and city squares.
The Ottoman fortress that looked over the Kaabah for two centuries has already been razed to make room for the Abraj Al Bait Towers, which are supposed to be finished in 2010. This move provoked anger among Turks who viewed the fortress as part of Ottoman heritage. The towers, however, will have a prayer hall capable of holding 10,000 worshippers, a seven-star hotel, a shopping mall, residential housing and a parking lot. All told, the entire structure will be capable of housing up to 100,000 people.
Mecca has gone through many rejuvenations before. One example is in the late 1500s, when Ottoman Sultan Suleyman had Mimar Sinan design plans that included widening the courtyard and building porticoes. The plan was carried out in 1590 by Mimar Mehmed Ağa. Sultan Selim II, in 1571, ordered Mimar Sinan to renovate the mosque and replaced the prayer hall’s roof with domes and reinforced it with new columns. The portico plan was deferred to a later date. In 1629, excessive rain damage led to the restoration of the mosque and the Kaabah.
But with demolition of the portico, the last traces of Ottoman architecture will be erased from Mecca.
[HH] The Saudi way
In 1924, Mecca became a part of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis espoused Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam that rejects many of the practices attached to Islam. In particular, certain locations in and around Mecca and Medina that were connected to the Prophet had virtually been turned into shrines. The Saudis viewed this as sacrilegious and moved to eliminate them.
Furthermore, certain buildings from the Ottoman period were made sacred because they were historical. The Saudis, however, saw these new traditions to be expendable because the kingdom was facing a growing numbers of pilgrims.
[HH] Mecca history
The foundation of the city dates back to 2000 B.C. and flourished when it became a center of north-south trade routes. Little is known about the city’s early years but some of its history can be found in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul where pre-Islamic artifacts are displayed.
For Muslims, Mecca became important as the center of the Prophet Mohammed’s activities in the 7th century and the city from which Islam spread throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia by military conquest and trade.
[HH] Ottomans take responsibility
In the early 1500s, Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt and from then on Ottomans provided the main caravan to Mecca for the Hajj and for centuries held responsibility for the upkeep of the Kaabah and surrounding mosque and town. Ottoman control over Mecca meant that with the exception of brigands, caravans were not raided. More people could travel safely. Fortresses and caravanasaries were built along the roads for accommodation as well as wells for drinking water.
In Mecca, the legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan designed the facilities around the Kaabah including the domed portico that currently encircles the enclosure. The large Kışla Fortress of Mecca was built overlooking the Kaabah and constructed in the 18th century for defense purposes. Also, efforts to safely organize large numbers of pilgrims to certain locations were carried out.
[HH] Momentum of change
In the 16th century, no one would have thought that millions of people would flock to the religious sanctuary centuries later. Since then hostels, hans, government buildings and private houses were built, railroad lines expanded, improvements in passenger ships and ferries and finally cars and airplanes contributed to an ever-increasing number of people participating in the pilgrimage.
As is the case everywhere in the world, without more attention to development, it appears the massive influx of people will outweigh the momentum of history.