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Millions of Muslims gather in Saudi Arabia's holiest city every year. Mecca is home to what Muslims know as the house of God and also, now, a Hilton that boasts seven panoramic elevators and five elegant restaurants. This and other glitzy buildings in the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad caused much dismay to some of those who seek to reserve the city's history and spirituality. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: So I'm standing maybe a few-hundred yards from the Grand Mosque in Mecca where millions of Muslims come to pray, and really, this is a construction site. I see crane after crane after crane, two bulldozers digging into a mountain and a very new hotel with a clock tower. That clock tower hotel soars some-130 stories and crowns a cluster of skyscrapers. And to build it, the city literally blew up a mountain that once overlooked the central focus of Mecca, the Kaaba, the cube-shaped chamber covered in black cloth that worshippers circle in prayer to God.
That skyscraper is a symbol of the transformation and commercialization of Mecca, the birthplace of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Hotel rooms with a Kaaba view are hot-ticket items. When you enter the marble-covered plaza that surrounds the mosque, to the left is the pathway that millions take to get their first glimpse of the Kaaba, an awe-inspiring sight for Muslims. To the right is a Kentucky Fried Chicken. People wash to purify themselves before entering the mosque. But the call to prayer competes with the constant racket of construction. There are tracks of land all around the mosque where hundreds of simple homes once stood but were bulldozed to make room for multifaceted construction projects to build hotels and space for more pilgrims.
We meet the mayor of Mecca, Osama al-Bar. He's overseeing the controversial expansion, and he says they have to destroy and then build to accommodate the more-than-15 million people who come each year and the more-than-2 million who come all at once during the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
OSAMA AL-BAR: We are talking about easing the situation for those, our Muslim brothers, and increasing the capacity and going with the demand. With the high increase of demand, we have to demolish.
FADEL: The city's putting in a metro line, a bus system and expanding the open air Grand Mosque. But where the mayor sees development, 45 miles away in the city of Jeddah, Sami Angawi sees history being lost. The well-known architect meets visitors in his home of arches and geometric designs built to honor the traditions of Islamic architecture. He gives a slideshow presentation to a tour group.
SAMI ANGAWI: I'm a Meccan, and this is my father. And our traditional job is called matawwif. We are the pilgrim's servant, and this is how we grew up serving the pilgrims come from different parts of the world.
FADEL: He talks about his hometown, Mecca. He's a descendent of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, and he hasn't been back to Mecca in years.
You said you don't go to Mecca anymore. Why?
ANGAWI: It's hard. I cannot bear it.
FADEL: His family home was demolished to make room for construction. And like many Meccan families, he now resides in Jeddah. And throughout his home, he has historic pictures of Mecca. He calls it the Mecca that was.
When we were walking through your house, you kept referring to the Mecca that was, the Mecca that was.
FADEL: What is the Mecca that is?
ANGAWI: Well, the Mecca that is is a sanctuary, and it's not anymore.
FADEL: He describes what that sanctuary means.
ANGAWI: It's a zone of peace where the environment is safe. The animals are safe. The human beings are safe - everybody coming in with the minimum to visit the house of God. And everything there grew, eventually, to become what Mecca which was.
FADEL: And now...
ANGAWI: Unfortunately, the new way of doing things are absolutely the wrong thing - dynamite and bulldozers. Even the mountains, now, are being blown up.
FADEL: He founded a research center to study how to restore and build Mecca to preserve the spirituality and architecture of the city. But he says none of it was implemented, and he hopes that Saudi's new king, Salman, will save what's left.
ANGAWI: It's too late for saving the past. Maybe, I hope, I hope, I hope, I hope, King Salman will change things. That's only hope.
FADEL: That, he says, and God. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Mecca.
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