The destruction of Mecca: Saudi hardliners are wiping out their own heritage

By Daniel Howden 
Published: 06 August 2005

Historic Mecca, the cradle of Islam, is being buried
in an unprecedented onslaught by religious zealots. 

Almost all of the rich and multi-layered history of
the holy city is gone. The Washington-based Gulf
Institute estimates that 95 per cent of millennium-old
buildings have been demolished in the past two

Now the actual birthplace of the Prophet Mohamed is
facing the bulldozers, with the connivance of Saudi
religious authorities whose hardline interpretation of
Islam is compelling them to wipe out their own

It is the same oil-rich orthodoxy that pumped money
into the Taliban as they prepared to detonate the
Bamiyan buddhas in 2000. And the same doctrine -
violently opposed to all forms of idolatry - that this
week decreed that the Saudis' own king be buried in an
unmarked desert grave.

A Saudi architect, Sami Angawi, who is an acknowledged
specialist on the region's Islamic architecture, told
The Independent that the final farewell to Mecca is
imminent: "What we are witnessing are the last days of
Mecca and Medina."

According to Dr Angawi - who has dedicated his life to
preserving Islam's two holiest cities - as few as 20
structures are left that date back to the lifetime of
the Prophet 1,400 years ago and those that remain
could be bulldozed at any time. "This is the end of
history in Mecca and Medina and the end of their
future," said Dr Angawi.

Mecca is the most visited pilgrimage site in the
world. It is home to the Grand Mosque and, along with
the nearby city of Medina which houses the Prophet's
tomb, receives four million people annually as they
undertake the Islamic duty of the Haj and Umra

The driving force behind the demolition campaign that
has transformed these cities is Wahhabism. This, the
austere state faith of Saudi Arabia, was imported by
the al-Saud tribal chieftains when they conquered the
region in the 1920s.

The motive behind the destruction is the Wahhabists'
fanatical fear that places of historical and religious
interest could give rise to idolatry or polytheism,
the worship of multiple and potentially equal gods.

The practice of idolatry in Saudi Arabia remains, in
principle at least, punishable by beheading. This same
literalism mandates that advertising posters can and
need to be altered. The walls of Jeddah are adorned
with ads featuring people deliberately missing an eye
or with a foot painted over. These contrived
imperfections are the most glaring sign of an
orthodoxy that tolerates nothing which fosters
adulation of the graven image. Nothing can, or can be
seen to, interfere with a person's devotion to Allah.

"At the root of the problem is Wahhabism," says Dr
Angawi. "They have a big complex about idolatry and
anything that relates to the Prophet."

The Wahhabists now have the birthplace of the Prophet
in their sights. The site survived redevelopment early
in the reign of King Abdul al-Aziz ibn Saud 50 years
ago when the architect for a library there persuaded
the absolute ruler to allow him to keep the remains
under the new structure. That concession is under
threat after Saudi authorities approved plans to
"update" the library with a new structure that would
concrete over the existing foundations and their
priceless remains.

Dr Angawi is the descendant of a respected merchant
family in Jeddah and a leading figure in the Hijaz - a
swath of the kingdom that includes the holy cities and
runs from the mountains bordering Yemen in the south
to the northern shores of the Red Sea and the frontier
with Jordan. He established the Haj Research Centre
two decades ago to preserve the rich history of Mecca
and Medina. Yet it has largely been a doomed effort.
He says that the bulldozers could come "at any time"
and the Prophet's birthplace would be gone in a single

He is not alone in his concerns. The Gulf Institute,
an independent news-gathering group, has publicised
what it says is a fatwa, issued by the senior Saudi
council of religious scholars in 1994, stating that
preserving historical sites "could lead to polytheism
and idolatry".

Ali al-Ahmed, the head of the organisation, formerly
known as the Saudi Institute, said: "The destruction
of Islamic landmarks in Hijaz is the largest in
history, and worse than the desecration of the Koran."

Most of the buildings have suffered the same fate as
the house of Ali-Oraid, the grandson of the Prophet,
which was identified and excavated by Dr Angawi. After
its discovery, King Fahd ordered that it be bulldozed
before it could become a pilgrimage site.

"The bulldozer is there and they take only two hours
to destroy everything. It has no sensitivity to
history. It digs down to the bedrock and then the
concrete is poured in," he said.

Similarly, finds by a Lebanese professor, Kamal
Salibi, which indicated that once-Jewish villages in
what is now Saudi Arabia might have been the location
of scenes from the Bible, prompted the bulldozers to
be sent in. All traces were destroyed.

This depressing pattern of excavation and demolition
has led Dr Angawi and his colleagues to keep secret a
number of locations in the holy cities that could date
back as far as the time of Abraham.

The ruling House of Saud has been bound to Wahhabism
since the religious reformer Mohamed Ibn abdul-Wahab
signed a pact with Mohammed bin Saud in 1744. The
combination of the al-Saud clan and Wahhab's warrior
zealots became the foundation of the modern state. The
House of Saud received its wealth and power and the
hardline clerics got the state backing that would
enable them in the decades to come to promote their
Wahhabist ideology across the globe.

On the tailcoats of the religious zealots have come
commercial developers keen to fill the historic void
left by demolitions with lucrative high-rises.

"The man-made history of Mecca has gone and now the
Mecca that God made is going as well." Says Dr Angawi.
"The projects that are coming up are going to finish
them historically, architecturally and
environmentally," he said.

With the annual pilgrimage expected to increase
five-fold to 20 million in the coming years as Saudi
authorities relax entry controls, estate agencies are
seeing a chance to cash in on huge demand for

"The infrastructure at the moment cannot cope. New
hotels, apartments and services are badly needed," the
director of a leading Saudi estate agency told

Despite an estimated $13bn in development cash
currently washing around Mecca, Saudi sceptics dismiss
the developers' argument. "The service of pilgrims is
not the goal really," says Mr Ahmed. "If they were
concerned for the pilgrims, they would have built a
railroad between Mecca and Jeddah, and Mecca and
Medina. They are removing any historical landmark that
is not Saudi-Wahhabi, and using the prime location to
make money," he says.

Dominating these new developments is the Jabal Omar
scheme which will feature two 50-storey hotel towers
and seven 35-storey apartment blocks - all within a
stone's throw of the Grand Mosque.

Dr Angawi said: "Mecca should be the reflection of the
multicultural Muslim world, not a concrete parking

Whereas proposals for high-rise developments in
Jerusalem have prompted a worldwide outcry and the
Taliban's demolition of the Bamiyan buddhas was
condemned by Unicef, Mecca's busy bulldozers have
barely raised a whisper of protest.

"The house where the Prophet received the word of God
is gone and nobody cares," says Dr Angawi. "I don't
want trouble. I just want this to stop." 


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