A price too high?

Tuesday 30 Oct 2012

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


Key Facts:

Saudi Arabia

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