Jerome Taylor ("The Independent," March 15, 2013)
The authorities in Saudi Arabia have begun dismantling
some of the oldest sections of Islam’s most important mosque as part of a
highly controversial multi-billion expansion.
Photographs obtained by The Independent reveal how workers
with drills and mechanical diggers have started demolishing some Ottoman and
Abbasid sections on the eastern side of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.
The building, which is also known as the Grand Mosque, is
the holiest site in Islam because it contains the Kaaba – the point to which
all Muslims face when praying. The columns are the last remaining sections of
the mosque which date back more than a few hundred years and form the inner
perimeter on the outskirts of the white marble floor surrounding the Kaaba.
The new photos, taken over the last few weeks, have caused
alarm among archaeologists and come as Prince Charles – a long term supporter
of preserving architectural heritage – flew into Saudi Arabia yesterday for a visit
with the Duchess of Cornwall. The timing of his tour has been criticised by
human rights campaigners after the Saudis shot seven men in public earlier this
week despite major concerns about their trial and the fact that some of the men
were juveniles at the time of their alleged crimes.
Many of the Ottoman and Abbasid columns in Mecca were inscribed with intricate Arabic
calligraphy marking the names of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions and key
moments in the founder of Islam’s life. One column which is believed to have
been ripped down is supposed to mark the sport where Muslims believe Muhammad
began his heavenly journey on a winged horse which took him to Jerusalem and heaven in a single night.
To accommodate the ever increasing number of pilgrims
heading to the twin holy cities of Mecca and Medina each year the
Saudi authorities have embarked upon a massive expansion project. Billions of
pounds have been poured in to increase the capacity of the Masjid al-Haram and
the Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina
which marks where Muhammad is buried. King Abdullah has put the prominent
Wahabi cleric and imam of the Grand Mosque, Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, in charge
of the expansion while the Saudi Binladin Group – the country’s largest firms –
has won the construction contract.
While there is little disagreement over the need to expand,
critics have accused the Saudi regime of wantonly disregarding the
archaeological, historical and cultural heritage of Islam’s two holiest cities.
In the last decade Mecca
has been transformed from a dusty desert pilgrimage town into a gleaming
metropolis of sky scrapers that tower of the Masjid al-Haram and are filled
with a myriad of shopping malls, luxury apartments and five star hotels.
But such a transformation has come at a cost. The
Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Mecca's millennium-old buildings have been
demolished in the past two decades alone. Dozens of key historical sites dating
back to the birth of Islam have already been lost and there is a scramble among
archaeologists and academics to try and encourage the authorities to preserve
what little remains.
Many senior Wahabis are vehemently against the preservation
of historical Islamic sites that are linked to the profit because they believe
it encourages shirq – the sin of idol worshipping.
But Dr Irfan al-Alawi, executive director of the Islamic
Heritage Research Foundation which obtained the new photographs from inside the
Grand Mosque, says the removal of the Ottoman and Abbasid columns will leave
future generations of Muslims ignorant of their significance.
“It matters because many of these columns signified certain
areas of the mosque where the Prophet sat and prayed,” he said. “The historical
record is being deleted. A new Muslim would never have a clue because there’s
nothing marking these locations now. There are ways you could expand Mecca and Medina
while protecting the historical heritage of the mosque itself and the
There are signs that King Abdullah has listened to concerns
about the historical destruction of Mecca and Medina. Last October The
Independent revealed how new plans for the masjid an-Nabawi in Medina would result in the destruction of
three of the world’s oldest mosques on the west hand side of the main complex.
However new plans approved by King Abdullah last week appear to show a change
of heart with the bulk of the expansion now slated to take place to the north
of the Masjid an-Nabawi.
However key sites are still at risk. The Independent has
obtained a presentation used by the Saudis to illustrate how the expansion of Mecca’s main mosque will
look. In one of the slides it is clear that the Bayt al-Mawlid, an area which
is believed to be the house where Muhammad was born it, will have to be removed
unless plans change.
The Independent asked the Saudi Embassy in London a number of questions about the
expansion plans and why more was not being done to preserve key historical
sites. They replied: “Thank you for calling, but no comment.”