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Volume 13, Number 9November 1962

In This Issue

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Marble For Mecca

In the Saudi Arabian Red Sea port of Jiddah, the hands of the marblecutters fashion some of the most beautiful stonework in the world.

One afternoon during the first week of May this year two widely contrasting vehicles sped past each other on the highway between Jiddah and Mecca. Their missions were different, but curiously linked. One, a big red bus filled with Muslim pilgrims, rolled on toward Mecca, the Holy City of Islam. The other, a blunt-nosed ex-military truck altered for its peacetime role, lumbered cautiously into the seaport city of Jiddah to a large marble factory of considerable renown in Saudi Arabia.

The variety of pilgrim luggage roped to the top of the bus made clear the scattered provenance of those making the spiritual journey. Shortly they would enter the Sacred Mosque in Mecca. There they would look upon the increasing, but still incomplete, beauty of a vast reconstruction project initiated six years ago by King Sa'ud. On all sides they would see the gleaming surfaces of new marble pillars, gateways and wall facings, and the decorative beauty of arabesque panels incorporating in the cursive flow of Arab calligraphy the name Allah.

As the bus neared Mecca, the truck, its air brakes hissing in short bursts, pulled into the plant yard of the marble factory. It was a strange sight. The cab stood high in the air, covered only by a weathered khaki canvas top. American soldiers who had served in North Africa or with the Persian Gulf Command during World War II might have recognized its workaday silhouette. However, they would have been puzzled by the odd girdered cargo bed that had replaced its original body. Parallel I-beams ran the length of the frame behind the cab. This floor held another set of shorter I-beam sections which ran crosswise. The extraordinary structure carried a gigantic rock, whitish, nondescript and roughhewn, weighing about 13 tons. Hence the caution of the truck as it moved slowly along the highway and through city traffic.

The huge rock stood higher than the men who arranged the wire rope sling that permitted the factory's 25-ton crane to hoist it from the truck. Seen in its unprocessed form sitting in the plant yard near the battery of "saws"—attrition cutters—that would soon slice it into rough vertical slabs, the great stone gave no evidence of the handsomely veined and gleamingly polished panels of marble that would emerge from its indifferent mass.

When it was unloaded at the Marble Factory, as the company is formally known, the boulder succeeded to its place in a long procession of similar monoliths, most of which have yielded marble for the Great Mosque in Medina and more recently for the Sacred Mosque in Mecca. Thus the greater part of the production of this Saudi Arab enterprise has been put to religious use.

The plant and its nearby quarries went into operation only 12 years ago. The founder-owner of the factory is Muhammad ibn Ladin, a well-known businessman in Saudi Arabia whose enterprises have included large construction and highway projects, as well as manufacturing. A visitor to Jiddah in search of ibn Ladin may be hard put to track him down. Not long ago a caller tried to find him at his office at the Marble Factory. Ibn Ladin was not there, but the visitor learned that if he had been, he would have been working outside under an arbor fronting the low office building because he does not like to be confined indoors. Next the caller tried ibn Ladin's main office in downtown Jiddah. Again no luck. He then ran into a friend along King Abd al-'Aziz Street. It turned out that ibn Ladin was out near Tayif actively supervising a highway construction project from a tent he uses as field headquarters. An effort to contact him there revealed that he had left in the light plane he uses to get about quickly. By the end of the day it was finally learned that he had gone to Mecca to supervise some emergency street resurfacing preparatory to the influx of several hundred thousand Muslims making the hajj (annual pilgrimage).

It was obvious to the frustrated visitor that Muhammad ibn Ladin is an energetic businessman who enjoys being in the center of things. A story is told that years ago, when he was a foreman on a construction project for the late King 'Abd al-'Aziz, ibn Ladin demonstrated his ingenuity and devotion to the King in a daring manner. He proposed that a ramp be constructed to the second floor of the palace then under construction so that the King could drive up in his car and avoid a climb made painful by the lameness of his later years. The palace was being built of traditional mud-base material.

Some protested that the plan was dangerous, that the mud ramp would never hold the King's car. Ibn Ladin built the ramp, and when it was finished he drove the King's car to the top himself. Anyone who enjoys the lore of American business will recognize in this scene the image of John Gates standing behind a wire fence stretched across a Beaumont street as a herd of cattle was driven toward him. The fence held and the skeptical Texas cattlemen, so the story goes, gathered around Gates, later known as "Beta-Million," and helped him toward his fortune with huge orders for the formerly suspect wire fence.

One other aspect of ibn Ladin's marble enterprise that the American business observer would quickly recognize in the hustle and noise of the plant is a touch of showmanship. Against one wall, Mahmud ibn Khadra, director of the factory, has set up a display consisting of a section of a wall as it might appear inside the Sacred Mosque, with enormous pillar bases and plinths in place, a massive detail from the pediment of an entranceway and part of one of the exterior columns. Thus the non-Muslim who is forbidden access to the Holy City of Mecca can examine the imposing beauty of King Sa'ud's reconstruction project, the largest undertaking of contemporary religious architecture in the Muslim world.

In order to meet a deadline which is still about three years away, the plant works around the clock. The huge raw rocks are hoisted by the yard crane onto trolley pallets which can be pushed along a rail to a position in front of the cutters. The rocks are cemented to the flooring of the pallet to secure them during cutting. The multibladed cutters, or "saws" as they are sometimes called, stand 14 feet high. Ten such saws cut 24 hours a day. Two more are currently idle, in the process of being converted to work the extremely hard Saudi Arabian marble.

The rough cutting process takes eight to ten days for each rock. First the magazine of cutting blades is raised to permit the trolley pallet to be pushed into position. Then an overhead moving sprinkler bathes the boulder, and the long cutting blades are lowered onto its topmost part. The blades rock back and forth like a shuttle. The bath of water and sand floods into the narrow grooves made by the blades. It is the attrition of the blade riding on the film of the sand-water mix that cuts into the hard, raw marble. The muddy-looking water flows off through a drain network into an underground sump where the sand particles settle out. The water is then re-used, and each day 4,000 gallons of make-up water are added to the system. New sand is added, for during the cutting the sand is worn smooth and loses its abrasive quality.

The blades last about 20 to 25 days, and each month five tons of new blades are installed in the multiblade saws. The blades are four meters long on some of the saws and five on others. As the blades slowly cut down into the rock, wooden wedges are driven into the tops and sides of the grooves to prevent binding and facilitate the flow of the sand-water mix. Most of the equipment in the plant is of Italian manufacture, and nine Italian marble artisans supervise and train Saudi Arab and other workers.

There are now 294 employees on the Marble Factory payroll, either in the plant or at the three quarries at Farasan, Madrakah and the Wadi Fatima. It is believed that this is one of the five largest regular private payrolls in Saudi Arabia, other than that of the Arabian American Oil Company far across the Kingdom in the Eastern Province.

Many of the Saudi Arab employees have become skilled marble workers. After the raw boulder has been cut into large slabs, which may vary in thickness from two to 27 centimeters, workers break the slabs away from the cement footing that underlay the boulder and held it during the rough cutting. These big work slabs are then sized and formed by rotary carborundum wheels that look like circular saws. The "tire" of the carborundum cutter is pressure-cast on circular metal blanks in the plant. The shaping of the marble slabs into finished forms is based upon hundreds of templates, many of which have been memorized by the cutter operators.

After the marble has been rough cut and formed, it is then polished in a series of four steps. The polishing wheels last from one to five days depending upon the hardness of the marble. Saudi Arabian marble is much harder than the famous Carrara marble of northern Italy, a characteristic that makes it an excellent material for exposure to the elements. The beauty of Arabian marble as compared with Carrara marble is a subject that stirs a range of controversy. Ibn Khadra happily testifies to the superiority of his marble:

"It is more beautiful than Italian marble," he says. "We import some Carrara marble and it is lovely, but Arabian marble is harder and even more beautiful. You know, even the Italians bring in marble from France for the best trim pieces. And here we have a great variety of coloring in the stone. There is black marble and white and a reddish marble and one that is a cream color. Then there is the veined marble in grey, green and pink."

On his desk ibn Khadra keeps small unpolished samples of the various types of marble the factory has processed. One type had to be abandoned because the presence of metal in the stone ruined the cutter blades. Seeing the samples raises the question, how did Muhammad ibn Ladin find the quarries that supply his plant? Using the nine-year-old quarry in the Wadi Fatima as a case in point, the answer is simple. He sent word to the Bedouins of the Mu'abbad tribe that he was looking for specimens of marble. In a short time samples began to come in from the mountains east of Jiddah. Ibn Ladin then selected the mountains that appeared to have the greatest potential yield and bought them from the Government.

The quarry in the Wadi Fatima is on the slopes of a cul-de-sac about 60 kilometers from the road between Jiddah and Mecca. The highway turnoff is about ten minutes past the 'Um 'a-Salam police station. A track then leads through fine sand, coarse-sand washes (from which the sand is taken for the cutting operations at the plant), stretches of shard-like rocks, patches of rounded boulders with igneous fragments intermixed, long traverses of open ground, old and modern villages and farms to the quarry.

In the intense summer heat of the wadi (valley) the eye is deceived by the seeming movement of distant mountains swathed in haze. The further ranges appear to be cut from cardboard. Each has its own configurations and separate planes of light. Except for scattered shrubs exemplifying the hardiness of nature, the mountains are bare. Some gleam with igneous streaks suggesting the presence of iron and prehistoric geological convulsions. Suddenly the track turns into a small village and schoolboys run by, their briefcases balanced on their heads. They race toward the houses of the village. At another point a fat scarecrow sits watchfully in the sun not far from a group of circular thatch houses that rise to pointed roofs. The Wadi Fatima is a microcosm of quiet Arab folklife mixed congenially with the pulse of the new, as illustrated by the site of a consolidated municipal center now under construction which will house hospital and police services and a school. A radio antenna rises like a fragile twig from a seemingly abandoned mud building near a long mound that covers the aqueduct carrying the Jiddah municipal water supply from the upper reaches of the Wadi Fatima. From time to time this quiet world witnesses the slow passage of a boulder-laden truck on its way to the city.

At the far end of the wadi the eight-hour day is a reminder of the impact of industrial organization on older ways. There, 21 men using compressed air drills and explosives fracture the craggy jebels into boulders that can be dragged by tractor and cable down the slopes. The explosives slowly level the jebel. There are no open pits of the type familar in the United States.

When the boulders have been dragged down to the sandy floor of the wadi, a wire rope cutting rig is set up around each great stone which is then trimmed for transport. The thin wire rope, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, passes through a series of pulley wheels and across the top of the boulder where it meets with a sand-water mix and slowly cuts its way downward. The wire rope then crosses and recrosses the wadi from jebel to jebel and is thus air-cooled. The cutter makes about two to three feet a day. When the rock is trimmed to a size the truck can carry, it is hoisted into place by a crane.

Each afternoon at five o'clock all the men assemble at the open end of the cul-de-sac. Roll is called. Then the explosives are set off to loosen a new batch of marble boulders. Smaller rock fragments that cannot be cut into slabs are gathered up and shipped to a crushing mill at the plant in Jiddah. There they are ground into carefully graded pellets along with the waste from the cutting operations of the plant. This material is mixed with a binding agent and poured into a variety of molds for decorative panels. The plant now uses some 800 molds, the patterns for which were created by a master of the art from Carrara.

As the trucks bringing the raw marble boulders from the Wadi Fatima roll along the Mecca road, it is probable that they pass near ancient quarries. The yield of the old quarries was undoubtedly microscopic compared to the tremendous volumes used by the Jiddah Marble Factory in the reconstruction of the Sacred Mosque at Mecca. The magnitude of this project can be seen in some of the production data. About 700 square meters of wall panel are cut and polished each month and about 2,000 square meters of floor sections are processed. The plant will process some 14,400 square meters of wall panels before the project at Mecca is completed. The walls of the Sacred Mosque are 18 meters high and their total span, inside and out exclusive of the great gates, is about 800 meters. Be fore the reconstruction project is completed, ibn Ladin's Marble Factory will have processed an estimated quarter of a million square meters of marble. For the time being, the Marble Factory is turning down all requests for marble to be used in commercial buildings or homes. Not for an other three years will ibn Ladin have to assess the potential of the Saudi Arabian and export market for the marble in the mountains behind Jiddah. Being a highly resourceful man, he may already have plans for the day when work on the Sacred Mosque at Mecca comes to an end. Meantime, his World War II surplus trucks slowly wend their way through the Wadi Fatima day after day, and his bat teries of multiblade cutters grind through the raw marble boulders night after night.

This article appeared on pages 3-7 of the November 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November 1962 images.