How the 1979 siege of Makkah unfolded

Makkah’s Grand Mosque under attack in November 1979. Armed men seized the mosque, locking 100,000 pilgrims and residents inside. (AFP)
Updated 20 November 2019

How the 1979 siege of Makkah unfolded

JEDDAH: Throughout October 1979, close to a million Muslims from around the world had flooded into Makkah for Hajj, the pilgrimage to the spiritual heart of Islam that every physically and financially able believer is obliged to complete at least once in their lifetime.

On the morning of Nov. 20, the call to the first prayer summoned pilgrims from far and wide to the courtyard of the Grand Mosque.

Some were locals, others were visitors who had finished their Hajj pilgrimage two weeks earlier and delayed their departure to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime event, before bidding farewell to a place that for centuries had seen countless millions like them come and go.

It was a little after 5:15 a.m. The first shots rang out across the courtyard moments after the imam, 55-year-old Sheikh Mohammed Al-Subayil, had finished the fajr, the first prayer of the day.

Worshippers stood side by side, forming a circular formation around the Kaaba, as they welcomed the dawn of the new Islamic century. But among their number was a group of fanatics the like of which the Holy Mosque had never seen before.

In the courtyard behind where Al-Subayil stood, the siege of the mosque claimed its first victims — two unarmed police guards gunned down at their posts.

As chaos ensued and the worshippers began to disperse, some managing to flee from the mosque in the confusion before the gates were closed by the attackers, three armed men pushed their way through the crowd toward the imam.

One, dressed in a short, ragged traditional dress, took the microphone and began issuing orders over the mosque’s loudspeakers.  “Get on the minarets! Position the snipers! Close the doors! Deploy the guards! Position the guards and sentinels in front of the doors!”

It was the ring-leader, Juhayman Al-Otaibi. Then he handed the microphone to another man, and what he had to say shocked the imam and all who heard it.

The Mahdi, in the shape of Mohammed bin Abdullah Al-Qahtani, had arrived to wipe the world of its evils and was here among the armed men who had seized the mosque and were now locking inside 100,000 pilgrims and residents. The speaker rejected the authority of the Saudi royal family and the ulema, the senior theologians of Islam, as illegitimate. Now everyone present, he said, must come forward to swear the oath of allegiance to the Mahdi.

The man himself, carrying an automatic weapon, stepped forward. He stood near the Kaaba, as the false prophecy adopted by the renegades had predicted the Mahdi would. Juhayman’s men took it in turns to swear their allegiance and then began forcing the worshippers to follow suit.

In the confusion, the imam blended into the crowd and made his way to his office in the mosque. There, he called Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al-Rashid, president of the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, and told him what was going on — and held the phone up so he could hear the gunshots that were ringing out.

At first, the official response to the wholly unanticipated outrage was confused.

“When these individuals took over the mosque, the first people to deal with them were the mosque police, who at that time were simply unarmed, and there to direct people where to go rather than to enforce security,” said Prince Turki, the then head of the General Intelligence Directorate who at the time of the attack was in Tunis, attending an Arab League summit with Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdul Aziz (later King Fahd).

The National Guard and the Saudi Army began arriving at the Grand Mosque in force to try to retake the building. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (later King Abdullah), then head of the National Guard, was in Morocco. An early-morning phone call from Sheikh Nasser,
the senior cleric in charge of Makkah and Madinah, woke King Khaled to the news that the mosque had been seized. 

The king immediately ordered two senior members of the government, Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, and Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz, to assess the situation on the ground.

By 9 a.m. they had joined Makkah’s regional governor, Prince Fawwaz bin Abdul Aziz, in the holy city. Prince Turki, meanwhile, was on the first plane back to Jeddah. In Makkah the National Guard and the Saudi Army had begun arriving at the mosque in force.

At about 8 a.m., a lone police officer approaching the mosque in a jeep was wounded by sniper fire. Minutes later, a fusillade of fire from snipers posted on rooftops and in minarets greeted more officers who arrived on another side of the mosque, killing eight and wounding 36 more.

The behavior of the militants appalled all who witnessed it. In one incident, one of Juhayman’s snipers in a minaret had been shot dead by the security forces outside the mosque and was callously pushed to the ground from the balcony by his compatriots.

It later emerged that weapons, ammunition and food had been smuggled into the mosque before the siege. Some guns had been hidden in large construction containers. But others, taking advantage of the tradition of Islamic funeral prayers conducted by the imam within the sacred mosque, had been concealed in coffins.

“Using coffins of the dead to smuggle arms into the Grand Mosque — who could have thought of exploiting this?” said Rashed Al-Shashai, an artist who as a young boy heard tales of the siege from his grandfather, who worked at the mosque and narrowly avoided being taken hostage.

Inside the mosque, fear and confusion reigned. Juhayman’s men had begun allowing some of the hostages to leave, but it was clear that they had no intention of freeing any Saudis. Many were forced to swear allegiance to the so-called Mahdi.

With others, Al-Shashai’s grandfather moved toward the north of the mosque. As the infamous Mahdi “sermon” blared out of the speakers and occasional shots rang out, they hid behind pillars and looked for a way out.

“They had one of two choices,” said Al-Shashai. “Either they believe in the salvation of Juhayman or believe in their own salvation, search for it themselves and get out of the dilemma they found themselves in.”

They chose the latter and continued moving from one pillar to the next, heading toward the northern end of the Safa-Marwa gallery. It was here that several people, including Al-Shashai’s grandfather, were able to escape. 

By now the courtyard of the Grand Mosque, normally teeming with worshippers by this time on the first day of the new year, was eerily empty.

Juhayman’s men had forced men, women and children into the corridors of the mosque, and the silence was broken only by the crack of bullets as snipers fired on the surrounding security forces.

Juhayman: 40 years on
On the anniversary of the 1979 attack on Makkah's Grand Mosque, Arab News tells the full story of an unthinkable event that shocked the Islamic world and cast a shadow over Saudi society for decades




Jeddah center of Japan’s TeamLab promises an inspiring art space for Saudis

Updated 22 September 2020

Jeddah center of Japan’s TeamLab promises an inspiring art space for Saudis

  • Agreement between KSA and Tokyo-based technology group envisions region’s first digital-art museum
  • TeamLab Borderless Jeddah is in line with Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform strategy’s Quality of Life program

DUBAI: Japan’s TeamLab Borderless has brought to life the idea of a world of digital art without boundaries, a museum where art installations can move from one room to another and come alive in different parts of the world simultaneously.

Artworks such as these will be seen in Saudi Arabia, now that its Ministry of Culture has announced plans for a space in Jeddah to exhibit interactive digital artworks created by the Tokyo-based technology group.

TeamLab Borderless Jeddah, scheduled to open in 2023, will feature an array of interconnected artworks created by a group of physicians, CGI animators, engineers and mathematicians.

Kudo Takashi, TeamLab’s communications manager and brand director, said the plan is to create an art space in Jeddah that is positive and futuristic. “What we create isn’t something we can explain through words,” he told Arab News Japan.

Japan’s TeamLab looks to explore the world “beyond borders,” merging both arts and technology to create their Borderless exhibitions around the world. (Via TeamLab/Supplied)

Takashi said growing up in the UAE, he developed a deep appreciation and love for Arab countries, which inspired him to bring innovation to the region’s art landscape.

Formed in 2001, TeamLab sees itself as an international art collective. Its first permanent exhibition, TeamLab Borderless, opened at Tokyo’s Mori Museum in 2018.

The artworks are displayed across a 10,000-square-meter space. Another permanent exhibition opened in Shanghai, China, in November last year.

TeamLab museums are known for their interconnectivity between installations in different locations. Takashi said entering any of these is like entering a unified digital world.

“There’s no boundary between the visitors and the artwork. If you’re standing inside our space, some flowers will (start to) bloom around you. If you touch them, you’ll activate them,” he added.

Borders are mere “illusions,” Takashi said, adding: “Despite our age, location or background, we’re able to connect. As humans we naturally find a way to connect.”

This is apparent in TeamLab’s art, where if a visitor touches a piece in Tokyo it will be affected in Shanghai, demonstrating how interconnected the installations are.

Most of TeamLab’s work is programmed to respond to light, sound and touch. One piece, “Hopscotch for Geniuses: Bounce on the Water,” involves visitors hopping on shapes that appear on the ground, activating images and depictions of fish, insects and other animals.

Japan’s TeamLab looks to explore the world “beyond borders,” merging both arts and technology to create their Borderless exhibitions around the world. (Via TeamLab/Supplied)

Another piece, “Multi-Jumping Universe,” allows people to direct the flow of light and music around them simply through their own movements.

The Jeddah location is near Al-Balad, the city’s old town and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There are plans for a children’s section, the objective being to inspire the next generation of artists through its exhibits.

The children’ sections at several of TeamLab’s other museums include experiences such as the Sketch Aquarium that highlight the power of imagination.

Children are invited to color in drawings of sea creatures, scan the artwork and then watch as their colored art piece floats in a virtual aquarium.

TeamLab Borderless Jeddah is in line with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform strategy’s Quality of Life Program, which seeks to diversify the country’s economy through cultural and artistic ventures.

Saudi artists will be involved in the project, and arrangements for a similar exhibition in Riyadh are in the pipeline.

Takashi said TeamLab’s aim is to “explore the new relationship between humans and their world,” adding that in the 20th century people entered a new digital era that changed their relationship with the world and others.

The idea behind the installations, Takashi said, is to create an extension of people’s imagination and creativity.

TeamLab’s website puts it this way: “Within the digital domain, art is able to transcend physical and conceptual boundaries. Digital technology allows art to break free from the frame and go beyond the boundaries that separate one work from another.”

Takashi said it is important to consider the feelings and emotions that art installations can evoke in visitors.

“Human beings aren’t logical creatures. Groups can be controlled through logic, but as individuals they can be very emotional,” he added.

In order to elicit feelings and emotions in their patrons, however, TeamLab Borderless installations utilize different software and programs that the company created together with various hardware.

“In Japan’s Borderless, we use over 470 projectors and over 520 high-spec PCs,” Takashi said, adding that the technology is set in place to create a higher dimension in the immersive experience, something the organization is looking to expand on.

Explaining that the shift in perspective from 2D to 3D enhances how we experience art, he said: “We understand the world not just through our eyes and brains; the process is also physical and emotional.”

Japan’s TeamLab looks to explore the world “beyond borders,” merging both arts and technology to create their Borderless exhibitions around the world. (Via TeamLab/Supplied)

TeamLab has reconstructed many ancient Asian drawings using today’s technologies, and it is a sign of the times to come, he added.

Much of TeamLab’s work is inspired by Japanese traditions of immersive technology-based environments and workplaces, symbolized for instance by Takashi Murakami’s postmodern art movement Superflat, which combines the flatness of commercial graphic design and characters from popular Japanese anime and manga (animation and comics) with the influences of fine art.

Takashi maintains that good designs are those that can be used by everyone. “If you’re the only person who can understand a design, it isn’t good,” he said.

As for the relationship between art and design, he said: “If I compare what’s art and what’s design, design is the answer and art is the question.”

He believes that the right answer is always changing. “A good business model or answer may (have been) the correct answer in the 18th century, but not in the 19th century, due to the industrial revolution,” he said.

TeamLab’s aim is to create the questions, and for visitors to find the answers within the interactive artworks displayed in its installations.

Takashi said the overarching question that TeamLab is trying to answer is: “The borderless world is very beautiful, right?”

TeamLab also has a special section for children, which will be implemented at Borderless Jeddah to inspire the next generation of creatives. (Via TeamLab/Supplied)

Art may seem “weird,” but it is simply expanding on the questions asked, and the answer is in “global feelings,” he added.

Summing up the purpose of the Borderless exhibitions, Takashi said it is neither geographical nor political — the key idea is to understand the relationship between humans and the world.

He said TeamLab is “lucky to find good partners in Saudi Arabia who could understand what we’re talking about.” Equally, he is excited about the TeamLab projects that will be announced in the coming year.

Twitter: @DianaFarahANJP