Hurriyet Daily News has an odd little story from the Uskudar district of Istanbul, where the mayor has constructed a miniature replica of Mecca, Islam’s holy city. It is essentially a theme park of Mohammed’s life and times, with replicas of “the Kaaba, Prophet Mohammad’s house, the Hira cave, the Sevr cave, the Muallaq Stone, the Zamzam well and an elephant statue.”
“In these days that we say ‘Happy birthday’ to our master, we wanted to experience the feeling of Kaaba in our city,” Mayor Hilmi Turkmen declared, referring to the traditional Islamic pilgrimage to visit the real, full-sized Mecca.
One of the reasons this is so unusual is that Islam generally has serious problems with idolatry, as famously displayed in the prohibition against depictions of Mohammed. Different branches of Islam place varying degrees of emphasis on avoiding idolatry. The murderous fanatics of ISIS take it to the extreme of destroying mausoleums inside mosques, because supposedly the presence of the honored dead would distract the faithful from worshiping Allah. At first glance, the construction of a perky little Disneyworld version of Mecca would seem troublesome to many Muslims, especially since the Mayor openly describes it as a scale-model substitute for making the actual pilgrimage.
Criticisms have been raised, but evidently many Turkish Muslims are comfortable with the idea because a much cheesier knockoff has already appeared in another district of Istanbul. “The Tuzla Municipality’s ‘Hijra Walking Track’ features newer, and apparently lower budget, replicas of the Kaaba, the Sevr cave and some novelties such as the lookalikes of two hills in the real-word Mecca, as well as a traffic sign that reads the distance to Madina right next to a cardboard camel,” writes Hurriyet.
They’re not kidding about the lower budget of this second mini-Mecca. This is what its version of the Sevr cave looks like:
The exhibits “triggered an avalance [sic] of criticism on social media, not only from secular opposition, but also from some conservative voices, too,” resulting in the removal of some decorations from the lower-budget display, according to Hurriyet. At least one protester turned up at Mayor Turkmen’s display dressed like an authentic Mecca pilgrim, although it is not clear from the report if he was irate about the mini-Mecca or trying to make some other statement.
Further problems for model Mecca are reported by the BBC, which says Turkey’s highest religious body, the Diyanet, has declared it “a great sin” to imitate the sacred sites for any purpose except serious practice for a real journey to the actual Mecca.
On the other hand, there have been some good-natured jokes about how the Istanbul theme park could be a money-maker for Uskudar, as it could draw plenty of Muslims who do not want to make the more difficult and expensive journey to Saudi Arabia. The Turkish satire magazine Le Man even published a front-cover cartoon making this jest, with a pair of men discussing how much easier and more convenient it was to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Uskudar.