- 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
- 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 pilgrimages.
- 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
- 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 night.
- 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
- 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
- "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 accommodation.
- "The infrastructure at the moment cannot cope. New
hotels, apartments and services are badly needed," the director of
a leading Saudi estate agency told Reuters.
- 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 lot."
- 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."
- © 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.