Has Saudi-Arabia no respect for its own past?

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by Björn Schöpe

November 6, 2014 – The Taliban are known as religious fundamentalists without any respect of their own country’s past and cultural property. Taking a closer look at what is happening in Mecca, though, at the very heart of Islam, we must admit: the government of Saudi Arabia doesn’t care a straw about their history either. The Gulf Institute estimates that about 95 per cent of Mecca’s historical architecture have been destroyed during the two last decades. In their places modern projects have come into life, luxurious hotels and prestigious buildings. Where once stood the house of Kadija, the prophet’s wife, today you will find 1,400 lavatories.

Mecca in 1889. In the background on the left the Ajyad Fortress. Source: Wikicommons.

Just near by the Grand Mosque, Mecca’s most imminent religious place, an 18th-century Turkish fortress was bulldozed to clear the way for a 15 billion dollar project: the 76-floor Abraj Al Bait, a building with an imitation of London’s Big Ben tower clock.

Instead of the Ajyad Fortress visitors will see the Abraj Al Bait Towers with a clock tower imitating London’s Big Ben. Photo: King Eliot / http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

In addition to a shopping mall a prayer room can hold up to 10,000 people. Cultural Minister of Turkey Istemihan Talay bluntly called this operation ‘an act of barbarism’.
The architects do not even back off from the interiors of the Grand Mosque: 500-year-old Ottoman and Abbasid columns bearing historical inscriptions were destroyed, too. Just imagine in St Peter’s Basilica all columns would be replaced by modern concrete pillars, Michelangelo’s Pietà would be shattered, and the Sistine Chapel would be blown up to avoid any distraction of the pilgrims during their prayers.

But how can Saudi Arabia, a country with a stable government, tolerate this cultural barbarism, anyway? These actions have been advanced by the very conservative religious Wahhabi movement. As a matter of fact Wahabbis are extremely powerful in Saudi Arabia and fear that in Mecca the Prophet may be revered more than Allah. In order to prevent any ‘idolatry’ the hardliners reckon that all potential places of worship should be destroyed – which means actually destroying their own cultural heritage.
Protest from the Western world is very rare. Allegedly Western archaeologists are afraid of being prevented from access to archaeological sites in the future. According to The Independent, Dr Irfan al-Alawi, executive director of the Saudi Arabian Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, said: ‘No one has the balls to stand up and condemn this cultural vandalism. We have already lost 400-500 sites. I just hope it’s not too late to turn things around.’

This article of the Committee for Cultural Policy summarises the situation.

These older articles offer numerous examples of destruction and show many photographs: in the Independent

… and in the Guardian.

This is the website of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.