The systematic obliteration of Islam’s cultural heritage

The Independent reports: 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 pound 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 his life. One column which is believed to have been ripped down is supposed to mark the spot where Muslims believe Muhammad began his heavenly journey on a winged horse, which took him to Jerusalem and heaven in a single night.

Ghaffar Hussain writes: The holy cities of Mecca and Medina are increasingly beginning to resemble Chicago and Las Vegas rather than quaint Arab towns in which one can envisage what life was like in the times of the Prophet of Islam. Cultural heritage sites are being bulldozed in order to make way for glitzy shopping centres, 5 star hotels, trendy apartment blocks and bland sky scrapers. In fact, when I was last in Medina, the place was starting to resemble Milton Keynes

The Saudi regime benefits enormously from the millions of Muslim pilgrims that descend upon the holy cities each year. Visitor numbers are increasing year on year and expected to rise to 20 million a year in 2020. From a business point of view this is a dream come true. Increasingly wealthy visitors from neighbouring Gulf States have the potential to transform the holy cities into a gold mine, but that is only half the good news.

The business community has found allies in the conservative Wahabi religious establishment that is keen to obliterate historical sites and cultural artefacts and, thus, pave the way for unfettered development. In Wahabi theology, cultural heritage is not only deemed valueless, it is also deemed dangerous. Wahabis are strictly against forms of Islam in which holy relics or buildings are given reverence; they are also determined to enforce this view on others, stamping out more tolerant strands of Islam in the process.

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