Night’s Watchmen of the Holy Lands

Last month during spring break, I had the opportunity to visit the Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam exhibit at the British Museum in London, UK. A collective of academics, curators and prominent figures of the highbrow global art scene, including Venetia Porter, Qaisra Khan and Karen Armstrong, author of Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, curated the extravagant exhibit. Examining the significance of the Hajj as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the exhibit follows the evolution of the journey throughout history, dating back to its pre-Islamic practices. The exhibit featured an impressive showcase of archaeological material; manuscripts, textiles, historic photographs and artworks including textiles commissioned by Sultan Selim Khan (Selim III) dated 1204 AH from the Khalili Collection, the second largest collection of textiles and objects related to Mecca and Medina after Topkapı Sarayı in Istanbul.

While the exhibit itself received many an accolade for its scope, display, educational and cultural value, one of its sponsors in particular provoked a very different debate.

Sponsored by HSBC Amanah (the Islamic Banking division of HSBC), the Khalili Family Trust and the King Abdulaziz Public Library, the political motivations of the latter were received with much skepticism and criticism. In her article Kneeling Towards Riyadh for Guernica, Joy Lo Dico chastises The British Museum for omissions in the curatorial practices surrounding the holy site now controlled by the Saudi monarchy, the Al Saud family, for being subservient to the oil-wealthy royals controlling the most important site for Muslims worldwide. From the siege of Mecca in 1979 by Jahayman Al Utaibi, which ended in a death toll of over 1,000 people (rebels, forces and civilians) to the fires of 1997, Lo Dico calls out the gaps in between the display panels.

“The Hajj is a very important use of soft power,” says Saudi scholar Dr Mai Yamani to Lo Dico,

“When King Fahd adopted the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, that was partly a response to the threat of the Islamic revolution and Khomeini questioning why the al Saud’s were the rulers of it of it.”

This was not the first time that Saudi control over Mecca was brought into question. In fact, the Saudi regime has been lambasted for its destruction of a long list of historical sites in Mecca and Medina, according to Salah Nasrawi of AP who wrote of the demolitions in his article Mecca’s Ancient Heritage is Under Attack, published in 2007. The demolitions include the house believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in 570 and the Dar Al Arqam, the first Islamic school where the Prophet taught and a 200-year-old Ottoman fort on a hill overlooking the Kaaba in 2002.

Recently, the construction of a massive clock tower, The Royal Mecca Tower, looming over Mecca reignited a debate surrounding the commercialization of the holy site. “It is a commercialization of the house of God,” Saudi architect Sami Anqawi told Nicolai Ouroussoff in the article New Look for Mecca: Gargantuan and Gaudy published in New York Times in 2010.

Similarly, in her article Has Hajj Lost Its Egalitarian Spirit? for The Green Prophet, Arwa Abu Rawa argues that the simplicity of the Kaaba, the key destination of the Hajj pilgrimage “has been undermined by the proliferation of luxury hotels, malls and towering skyscrapers which surround the holy site.” She states. “You can even start your day with the usual Starbucks coffee if you like or pick up a McDonalds after prayers.”

Control of Mecca by the Saudis does not stop at its architectural endeavors, the Saudi regime controls entry and exit into the Kingdom, thus restricting access to the holy site by way of documentation and bureaucracy. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter Mecca under Saudi law. Bar the limited authority of the resolutions put forth by the States of the Organization of the Islamic conferences, Muslims worldwide have little say over the fate of Mecca.

Architecture, real estate and “development” in the case of Mecca and Medina sheds light on the political nature of its practices and those who control it. If Mecca, a site, which today is primarily if not exclusively holy to one religion, poses such a challenge to regulation practices and authority, what of a holy city at the heart of not one, but three religions and historical significance?

On access to Al Aqsa, the Church of All Nations, and the Temple Mount, who has the final say?

As Makdissi asks

“How can a state claim to have one identity when such a large proportion of the people over whom it rules have another identity?”

From the shut down of Al Mughrabi Bridge to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City citing concerns over “public safety” to the restricted access to holy sites to the Christian Palestinian West Bank community during Easter, it is clear that, like Mecca, control over holy sites in Jerusalem is held by the powers that rule – be it lawfully or not.  And if the West Bank or Gaza identity cards and behind-the-wall status of Palestinian Christian and Muslim communities “complicate” the matter making it susceptible to “security” claims, what then do we call the hindrance of access to Lebanese and Syrian Christians who wish to visit the holy sites? What then is the reason I cannot visit the Al Aqsa mosque?

While the circumstances are by no means comparable, in the commercialization of Mecca, the “annexation” of Jerusalem and the demolition and renaming of Bahrain’s Lulu roundabout, there is a common ground to be found: architecture or its erasure for that matter is indeed always political. While architectural endeavors may begin on the left side of an architect’s brain they must always strip away their creative innocence in order to come to life. The politics need not be blatant. A simple inscription on the bottom right hand corner is enough to implicate any given blueprints in white and blue.


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