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Masjid an-Nabawi Mosque, Medina, Saudi Arabia

Tuesday 30 Oct 2012

A price too high?

Your comments on this project

No. of Comments: 5

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05/11/12 G.Adam, Seattle
It is truly heart breaking to witness the destruction of historical holy sites in
Saudi Arabia.They claim they are expanding for the comfort of the pilgrims
when they are constructing towering hotels and gleaming malls to distract
pilgrims from worship.The intricate carving and mosaic of past centuries
cannot be reproduced and should be preserved.Futhermore,isn't the pilgimage
supposed to be a lesson in equality for the wealthy versus the pauper and not
a luxurious journey?
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03/11/12 Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, Washington, DC, USA
"Barry Hughes VP at HOK, a firm that has extensive experience working in the region explains his standpoint: 'Personally I believe these articles engage in a bit of cultural relativism, applying a European sense of historic importance to some of these locations, simultaneously ignoring the debate going on between the various bodies within Islam about these issues. I find it an interesting discussion, this dichotomy between the idea and the object, and which has primacy. The Wahhabis might say the idea, rather than the object."

No Muslim thinks the idea of worshipping God is subordinate to the preservation of mosques, but only extreme radicals like the Wahhabis believe perversely that the preservation of historic structures encourages polytheism.

As a Muslim involved with these issues for more than two decades I find Mr Hughes' view be among the most offensive and absurd I ever encountered. So Mr Hughes, with his "extensive experience working in the region," thinks that ":a sense of historic importance" of Muslim shrines is an idea imported from Europe? The shrines and other sites have been preserved in the Muslim world for centuries. Perhaps Mr Hughes has the same view of the Taj Mahal, the many Sufi shrines in South Asia, the Hagia Sophia mosque, the Registan in Samarqand, the mosques of Isfahan, etc,? And why not apply the same "Eurocentric" label to the preservation of Buddhist structures, pre-Columbian remains, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian sites in Jerusalem? Who needs them when one earn money advising egomaniacal plutocrats on how to replace whole architectural genres with ugly, brutalist, commercial properties?

Mr Hughes' comments are clearly not impartial and should not have been included in this article. Perhaps he can consult for the Serbian defendants in the trials at the Hague where they are charged with cultural vandalism for destroying hundreds of mosques and Catholic churches in Bosnia and Kosovo.

The Wahhabis of Al-Qaida also levelled the Twin Towers in Manhattan. In that case the "object" was clearly more important than the "idea." Mr. Hughes is on a very slippery slope. He also does not understand the concept of "cultural relativism." "Cultural relativism" is what he practices when he argues that "those Muslims" are different from Europeans regarding these issues.
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01/11/12 Mark, Toronto
I don't know why this is a surprise to anyone after the needless destruction of the 6th Century Bamiyan Statues in Afganistan! I would fear my personal safety in Saudi Arabia so, this outrage by readers is irrelevant in the context of this region of the world
31/10/12 Sy Auerbach, F.A.I.A., CHEVY CHASE, MD
I can't believe the Saudi Gov't. or the Muslim Religious leaders would allow this to happen. My word, these buildings are at the center of the beginning history of one of the world's major religions. THEY SHOULD NOT BE DESTROYED !

As a Jew and an Architect, I fail to understand the reasoning behind this move. These are simply major historic buildings, to be dealt with according to the World- Wide Concept of the preservation of history. It is NOT to be dealt with as simply of a Religion which is worth less than that of any other religion, It belongs to the Thoughtful World's history !

And I am appalled that an architect, particularly one from an American architectural firm, should argue that to object to such destruction is the application of Western – not Islamic – thinking. Is his firm after some big project ?
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30/10/12 Unhappy Architect, Cairo
What's happening is really terrible.
This historic architecture should be turned into MUSEUMS, not be demolished!

What's left? Why don't they just destroy the Ka'aba too?!
Why did they leave that behind?!

Shame on them.
For a mosque to be the largest and most ostentatious building in the world is most UN-Islamic and goes against everything the religion teaches.

The first mosque was made of nothing but straw mats and trees!
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World’s largest building overshadowed by heritage dilemma 


Outrage is growing in heritage circles as the Saudi Government prepares to demolish three historic mosques dating back to the seventh centuryto make way for world's largest building.

Due to start on site in a few weeks after the annual Hajj pilgrimage, the new, expanded Masjid an-Nabawi mosque complex in Medina, Saudia Arabia is designed to hold some 1.6m people and reported to be costing $10.6-billion USD. Low cost flights have enabled an increasing number of pilgrims to visit Mecca. This year the figure is expected to top 12 million.

The heritage issue highlighted by this row is complex and is a manifestation of the wider, and much deeper differences of cultural values on both sides of the debate. 

One the most outspoken critics of the Saudi Government is Dr. Irfan al-Alawi of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. Alawi has spent much of the past ten years trying to highlight the destruction of early Islamic sites and is one of the few academics prepared to speak out against the proposals. "No one denies that Medina is in need of expansion, but it's the way the authorities are going about it which is so worrying. There are ways they could expand which would either avoid or preserve the ancient Islamic sites but instead they want to knock it all down."

As the demolition work looms, the issue is rapidly gaining attention in the international  media. This week, Jerome Taylor, reporting for the UK'sIndependent newspaper reignited the row with an extensive feature on the issue, stating;  "Heritage campaigners and many locals have looked on aghast as the historic sections of Mecca and Medina have been bulldozed to make way for gleaming shopping malls, luxury hotels and enormous skyscrapers. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of the 1,000-year-old buildings in the two cities have been destroyed in the past 20 years."

The three mosques on death row date back to the seventh century and are covered by Ottoman-era structures but the Saudi Authorities have not even commissioned archaeological digs before they are pulled down.

Amongst the gems to go are the Ottoman and Abbasi columns of the Masjid al-Haram, now slated for demolition as part of the Grand Mosque expansion, these intricately carved columns date back to the 17th century and are the oldest surviving sections of Islam's holiest site.

Other reported examples of Saudi destruction are:

Bayt al-Mawlid, the house where Mohamed was born demolished and rebuilt as a library.

Dar al Arqam, the first Islamic school where Muhammed taught flattened to make way for escalators.

The house of Khadija the wife of the Prophet was demolished and replaced by public toilets. Abu Jahl's house was replaced by a 3 star hotel.

Dome which served as a canopy over the Well of Zamzam demolished.

None of the Ottoman porticos at the Masjid al-Haram have been demolished yet but remain under threat.

House of Muhammed in Medina is where he is buried with his 2 companions where he lived after the migration from Mecca is still there and is the sacred chamber.

Saudi Arabia's disregard for historic sites of Islam stems from its association with Wahabism, which is an extreme and inflexible interpretation of Islam and does not support worship of material objects.

Richard Coleman, Heritage Consultant London and Chairman of WAN expresses concern; "One can only hope that the proposition of creating the world's biggest building, a new Mosque for 1.6 million Muslims, overlaying this central site, will be one which combines preservation and rejuvenation with the creation of the new. There are rumours that it will not. A fundamentalist approach is apparently being adopted which will cut ties with the past, to rid the city of its historic connections, even with the buildings that hold meaning as poignant as that which houses the tomb of the prophet Mohamed." (Read full response here)

Barry Hughes VP at HOK, a firm that has extensive experience working in the region explains his standpoint: "Personally I believe these articles engage in a bit of cultural relativism, applying a European sense of historic importance to some of these locations, simultaneously ignoring the debate going on between the various bodies within Islam about these issues.  I find it an interesting discussion, this dichotomy between the idea and the object, and which has primacy. The Wahhabis might say the idea, rather than the object.  This is a variation of heritage meets 'progress' debate, with the added pressure of religious ideology added in for good measure. Balance is always going to be a challenge."

It is unlikely that the mosques will be saved in this instance but maybe their demise should spark an international debate about heritage, whether concrete or spiritual, to help both sides gain a deeper understanding of the values.


Michael Hammond

Editor in Chief at WAN


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