A man who dreams of old Mecca

By: Basma Atassi

Photography by Amer Hilabi 

Sami Angawi refuses to call Mecca a city, for his Mecca could never be transformed into a metropolis – no matter how deep the drills dig or how fierce the battle between the skyscrapers and the clouds.

Mecca is a “sanctuary,” he says. “It’s God’s house, the refuge of humans, the birthplace of Islam.” It is the sanctuary established by the archetype of the perfect Muslim, Prophet Abraham, he adds.

And for this impassioned, animated Saudi architect it is also the place of his roots and the object of his love. Angawi’s father was a Mutawef, a guide to pilgrims undertaking the spiritual journey of Hajj. As a boy, he would help him, sometimes carrying the pilgrims’ shoes to save them from being lost at the steps of the Grand Mosque.

Their home was located in Shaab Ali, the neighbourhood said to have been home to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam and a descendent of Prophet Abraham, in the 600s AD. He remembers it as an intimate but bustling neighbourhood that once housed one of Mecca’s busiest open markets, ‘Souq al-Leil’ (the Night market). Its narrow allyways smelled of rich incense and spices, he says.

But the Angawi family home was demolished during the 1950s, as the country’s ruling family, the Al Sauds, began to expand the Grand Mosque in order to increase the number of pilgrims it could accommodate. It is a programme of expansion that has continued ever since, transforming the area Angawi once knew as home.

In 2006, the architect stirred debate when he told a regional television channel that where once there had been historical sites – the Prophet Muhammad’s house and the oldest school of Islam, Dar al-Arkam – there were now roads and public facilities. “These places have always been known to the Meccans,” he says, adding: “And now I am trying to use old and modern maps to scientifically locate these historical sites.”

Angawi is the architect of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Centre in the US [Amer Hilabi] 

Angawi is the architect of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Centre in the US [Amer Hilabi] 

“I had a chance to allocate and excavate the House of Sayyida Khadija [the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad], and discovered traces of buildings that had existed before the Abbasid era [in the eighth century] I used old maps and books to locate the house of the prophet and excavated there and discovered traces of floors that existed during the Abbasid era.”

“I took pictures of the locations and presented my findings to the authorities,” he continues. “But I guess the authorities wanted these spaces to accommodate the worshippers.”

The Hajj is one of the pillars of Islam, with each of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide religiously obliged to perform it at least once in their lifetime if they are financially, physically and spiritually able. Saudi Arabia currently allows about 1.5million people to come to the country during the Hajj period, allocating different percentages of the figure to different nationalities. Many wait for decades on long lists to get a turn. In fact, at the current rate, it takes 500 years for any Muslim to get the opportunity to come to Mecca.

The Grand Mosque in 1988 [AP]

The Grand Mosque in 2014 [Gallo Getty]

Saudi Arabia has long insisted that it is committed to granting more Muslims the chance to perform Hajj. And to that end it embarked on the fourth expansion of the Grand Mosque, the largest ever in the mosque’s history. After its completion, the expansion will create prayer spaces for two million worshippers at any given instance.

Angawi’s family moved two further times within Mecca, as the city continued to be transformed. Then they settled in Jeddah, a city on the Red Sea that serves as a gateway to many of the pilgrims.

Angawi was too young to understand why. “I just found myself in yet another new house,” he remembers. “But one thing I was very conscious of is that I stopped seeing the Grand Mosque.”

Jeddah is a melting pot of ideas and people. Muslims from all over the world have passed through the city, some stopping to make it their home. And it was in this environment that the young Angawi’s love for architecture flourished.

In the mid-1980s, the now 65-year-old architect began building his own house with his own hands. Located in a quiet neighbourhood of Jeddah, it took 15 years to complete.

Sat among dozens of non-descript, flat-sided villas, and beneath a giant palm tree, his creation stands out as a celebration of the traditional architecture of Hijaz, the ancient name for the western part of Saudi Arabia, which includes Jeddah and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. As pilgrims from all over the world have descended on the region, traces of their homelands have come with them. Influences from the Levant, Yemen, east Africa and India can all be found etched into its buildings – and within Angawi’s home, with its white coral and desert yellow stone walls, elaborately carved doors and windows and ornate verandas.

The stone facade at the entrance to his house is from Mecca and about 350 years old. He salvaged it from a home that was being demolished during the 1980s. “This was one of the last remaining historical pieces from Mecca,” he says as he welcomes me inside.

The destruction was happening at such a rate, he explains, that nobody thought to salvage the remains.

The wooden gate is also from Mecca. He found it in a market in Jeddah about 20 years ago. “The vendor saw I was very keen to have it so he sold it for a hefty price,” he remembers with a smirk.

Whatever the price, Angawi had to have it – if only to ensure that it wasn’t placed somewhere he would consider unsuitable. He shudders at the thought of it being used “as a decoration in Texas or something like that”.

Angawi enters the house via the small door carved into the gate, lowering his head and stepping, right leg first and with the help of a wooden cane, into the hallway. “If you enter through the big gates you do not think about the entering process,” he says. “The effort you make in entering the small door allows you to be conscious about going into the house. You think about it. You remember to make a prayer to God.

Inside Angawi’s sanctuary, the diversity of Hijaz is reflected in each corner. The Damascene beige and orange infused tiles are surrounded by smaller turquoise ones from Morocco. The dining table was inspired by Japan and the blue silk rug is Persian.

But his attention to detail isn’t purely aesthetic. The house is designed to make the very most of nature: daylight floods into every room and the meticulously calculated and crafted multi-level rooftops allows the breeze to flow through from both north and west. Even the shadows have been considered – falling in just the right spot and forming exactly the desired shape.

It took more than a decade of painstaking care to bring his vision to fruition.


“The idea of building this house was not to be different or special,” he explains. “The idea was to apply my philosophy in real life.” It is a philosophy he calls al-Mizan, or the balance.

At the root of this is his belief that contemporary design can harmoniously exist with both nature and tradition.

His technologically equipped but traditionally designed home seems to be the embodiment of this theory. And it is just what he envisions for Mecca; the city that was once a barren valley enclave hugged by rocky mountains and centred by the most sacred mosque in Islam, and in whose architecture the marks of many different civilisations and cultures could once be found.

Photos of Angawi’s House

But in the second half of the 20th century, as the oil boom brought modern technology to Saudi Arabia, Mecca’s classical Islamic architecture began to disappear. The traditional buildings that had survived for hundreds of years – through the Abbasid, Umayyad and Ottoman periods – were replaced with towering skyscrapers.

Of Mecca’s 15 old neighbourhoods, 13 have been completely demolished. Homes, cafes, shops and even pre-Islamic archaeological sites have just disappeared. And in their place has risen something that few of the residents recognise.

As Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer put it in 2012 after his visit to Mecca, the modern city felt as though it had been built by a people without history or tradition.

“During that time, while people were collecting money, I was collecting data,” Angawi explains in his guest room, where a glass table houses a small stone water fountain, a characteristic of a true Hijazi house, where the splashing sound sets the rhythm of the place.

In 1975, having just returned from the US and Germany, where he did his postgraduate degree in Islamic architecture, Angawi started a centre in Jeddah to preserve the Islamic and natural environment of the holy places of Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad, and Medina, which houses the prophet’s mosque and tomb.

The centre, which attracted dozens of scholars from across the world, carried out geological, archaeological and anthropological studies. They also laid out strategies to manage the services needed to cater to the ever-growing number of pilgrims, while still respecting the nature and history of the two places. “Hajjiology,” Angawi likes to call it. Less than a decade later, he resigned from the centre, believing that it had become embroiled in bureaucratic chaos that paralysed its work. “I dream and breathe about Mecca and Medina,” he says. “When I left the centre, this is when my health started to deteriorate.”

At the entrance of Angawi’s house are two large framed maps: one shows Mecca before the construction boom, the other depicts it in its current state. He has marked various sites of historical importance, such as the prophet’s companions’ houses and mosques – many of them are now beneath malls or hotels. “The mapping work I am doing requires governments,” he says. “[But] I am doing it on my own.”

Since the 1980s, more than 95 percent of Mecca’s historical sites – many dating back to the earliest years of Islam in the seventh century – have been demolished, making way for towers and five-star hotels. Then, of course, there is the Mecca Clock Tower, which is 46 times taller than the nearby al-Kaaba, the black cubical considered to be the holiest structure in Islam and around which Muslims circumambulate to signify harmony in the worship of God. The result is stark.

The Mecca Royal Clock Tower is one of the tallest in the world [AP]

The glare of the skyscrapers reflects on the faces of the worshippers, the cranes cast shadows on the marbled flooring. And it was one of these cranes that collapsed on the campus of the mosque in September, killing more than 100 people. “This this is an embodiment of the disruption in al-Mizan,” Angawi whispers, gesturing with his hand as though conducting an orchestra to emphasise every word.

He declared the clock tower “stupid”, unable to conceal his distaste for the structure despite the fact that it was designed by a long-time friend and former colleague at the Hajj Research Centre, Mahmoud Bodo Rasch, a German architect who converted to Islam four decades ago and embarked on a number of projects in the holy cities.

Angawi had pushed the idea of constructing buildings in gradation, with the shortest located closest to the centre of Mecca. He wanted hotels to be built miles away and transportation improved. “Even when Prophet Muhammad came from Medina to perform Hajj in Mecca, he stayed in an area called Abtah, which was 5km away from the mosque,” Angawi explains.

But not all ideas can be “implemented realistically,” Achmed Rasch, the son of Mahmoud, told me as we sat in a cafe in the Fairmont Hotel, located in the clock tower complex. The 35-year-old managing director of Vista Rasch GmbH, a company that specialises in films and exhibition projects in the holy cities, is now overseeing the launch of an observatory and an astronomy exhibition centre built in the enclosure of the clock.

The younger Rasch says building hotels away from the centre would increase traffic on the roads leading to the mosque. He also cites the mountainous nature of Mecca as an obstruction to what might otherwise look like a good option on paper.

He suggests that the best way to preserve the history of Mecca and to make it accessible to millions of visitors would be to set up a museum. “And we are working on such concepts,” he adds.

While some people question why it is that so many European city centres can be preserved, while Mecca seemingly cannot, Achmed has an answer: there simply isn’t any model Saudi Arabia can look to, he says, for the demands placed on it – millions of people visiting at the same time – are unique.

“The unique situation of Mecca … has to be looked at as the main criteria for developing practical and realistic solutions,” he insists.

But for many residents of Mecca, solutions based on bulldozers and dynamite pose a danger not just to structures but to something simultaneously more personal and more universal – childhood memories of home and collective Islamic memory.

“It’s a prime example of greed overpowering faith,” says Majed al-Shibi, the Meccan whose tribe served pilgrims for centuries, even before the inception of Islam.

“The land surrounding the Grand Mosque in Mecca is one of the most expensive in the world. Developers – may God guide them – will therefore construct as high as they possibly can upon it,” says al-Shibi, who has black and white photographs of the Kaaba and of his ancestors who dressed the holy cubical and cleaned its interior with rose water.

Until the last decade, members of the al-Shibi tribe dressed the Kaaba with the help of enthusiastic locals who flocked to the Grand Mosque to participate in the annual proceeding. Nowadays, the dressing of the Kaaba happens under tight security and while the area around the structure is sealed off. In the past, the volunteers would climb onto the roof of the Kaaba to drape the garment over it. Now, it is all done by cranes. [Majed al-Shibi/ Al Jazeera]

A square-metre of land at the centre of Mecca can cost two million riyals (more than $500,000).

Angawi believes his outspokenness has sometimes been misunderstood as dissent. He insists that he does not doubt the intentions of the country’s leaders in wanting to provide the best possible facilities for the pilgrims. But, he adds, “the means do not justify the ends”.

He believes that if no moves are taken to reconsider the construction, “Mecca’s future is gone”. The development that has already taken place accounts for barely 20 percent of that which is planned over the next few years, he explains.

He wants the government to support him in his mission to save what is still salvageable of the Mecca he knows and loves, and is urging that construction be stopped for a few months to allow for the extent of the damage to be reassessed. He is also insisting that his initiative be funded to the tune of a couple of million riyals.

“I bet my life, God willing, that I can find scientific solutions for Mecca and the pilgrimage that are in line with al-Mizan. I put my life on the line for it,” he says. “This is how sure of my work I am. I am someone who dreamt of Mecca – in my dreams and while awake.”

“I want to be given a chance,” he says. “And Prophet Muhammad says if you have a sprout in your hand, and it is possible to plant it before judgement day comes, you should plant it.”

But does he really believe that there is still hope for the Mecca of his dreams when so much of its history has already disappeared?

He answers with another saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “If you see buildings surpass the two [Mecca] mountains, then beware [of judgement day].”

One of those mountains – Qiqaan – has already been levelled to the ground. The other is still partially intact. And that, Angawi says, means “there is still some hope”.

Source: AJE Labs

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