Topping off at slightly less than 1,600 feet, the Abraj Al Bait will be only slighter shorter than the planned Chicago Spire (completed height: 2,000 ft). And it will be dwarfed by Dubai's yet-to-be-begun Al Burj, which is called to be capped at 3,900 feet-plus (here and here). But these buildings, and the rest of the tall buildings that have been pushed up in the past twenty years, are all spires. They go up but not out. Not in Mecca. The Abraj Al Bait is almost as wide as the Chicago Spire is high. Six or seven residential towers (accounts differ; apparently the place is so big they lose track); a sixty-floor, two-thousand-room hotel; a convention center for 1,500 people; a prayer hall for another 3,800; a mall; parking garages; a transit station; and two heliports: The structure is a web of platforms and towers and bridges and halls that, by mass, exceeds any of the built or proposed taller spires. When the Bin Laden Group is finished with it in two years, the Abraj Al Bait may be the biggest building in the world. Even now, the incomplete structure literally towers over the Mecca mosque.
But it's not the size that interests me particularly (although, in engineering, size does matter), nor the fact that this remarkable project in the heart of Islam is being largely ignored outside Muslim circles (but that's perhaps understandable, since it's unlikely that Mecca will become a stop for Presbyterians, Hindus, or just-folks like Richard Dawkins touring the Middle East). Instead, it's the project's setting and marketing that's so striking. Mecca isn't important, like the Tetons, because of its scenery; or like White Sulfur Springs, because of its waters and good golfing. It's important to the Muslim because it's hallowed by the divine command to honor the city with hajj, pilgrimage, to appear at the entrance of the mosque and proclaim, "Here I am, O God, at thy command!" Mecca is holy, or at least as holy as any place can be in Islam.
With that kind of setting, I think that most of us in the West would expect that a description of the Abraj Al Bait would emphasize the building's religious qualities. "Stay here," a hotel promotion might say, "and your pilgrimage will be enhanced by serene views of the Ka'aba." And what devout Muslim wouldn't be blessed by living so close to the sacred site, a place for profound contemplation? In the sense of the Psalms, we might expect there to be a paramount joy at being in the courts of the Lord.
But look what appears on the Abraj Al Bait's official website (and I'm told that the Arabic version of the site is basically identical to the English):
"Steps away from the holy mosque"
"Makkah's most prestigious retail address"
"Spectacular view of the Ka'abah"
"Innovative space for a new shopping experience"
"One of the tallest building in the world: Abraj Al Bair Shopping Center"
Waitmost prestigious retail address? new shopping experience? Abraj Al Bair Shopping Center??
That's rightit's the world's greatest mall. With apartments above the shops. Four levels of retail in areas themed to resemble traditional markets in different areas of the world. Starbucks, Cartier, and Tiffany have reportedly already signed leases. Apartments in the towers run at about a million dollars a bedroom (depending on the view).
To a Christian, all that seems like putting a Victoria's Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, Bloomingdale's, and the Chocolate Factory next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with extended hours during Holy Week. It looks to us like a desecration. And there are Muslims who are upset by what the new development has done to the character of the ancient city.
The hotel and shopping center, however, are not desecrations of their faith. Before he was a prophet, Muhammad was a businessman. And it is perfectly in keeping with honoring him that a market is set up next to the Great Mosque. In fact, there's always been a market next to the mosque; this one is just going to be bigger, and air conditioned. And more than the Christian heaven (which is primarily characterized by the intimate and intelligible presence of God), the paradise of Islam is the perfection of sensual pleasures. And what better way to give a foretaste of these divine gifts than a mall and a first-rate hotel? And what better place for it than the center of the holy city?
Of course, there are those trinket shops next to almost every Christian sacred site, but I think that a lot of Christians view them as embarrassments. Even in Rome, I don't think there's a Christian-themed shopping center (although there might be one here in Tennessee, if the Bible Park U.S.A. gets built). My guess is that the memory of the story of the Lord whipping the temple money changers makes us edgy about linking religion too closely with commerce.
But Islam is different. Commerce is celebrated. And there's no embarrassment whatsoever about hawking the financial benefits of businesses, like these towers, that only exist because of the hajj. It really is an innovative shopping experience. And for the individual Muslim? Of course, if at all possible, go on hajj, circle the Ka'aba, throw the seven pebbles, perform the required sacrifice, and do it all with the greatest conviction, humility, and devotion. Then shop 'til you drop. Peace be upon you.
Michael Linton is head of the Division of Music Theory and Composition at Middle Tennessee State University.