September 6, 2013

Essay: Can there be a balance between the expansion of Makkah and the preservation of cultural heritage?

The Independent: 'Photo taken by activists in Saudia Arabia
 showing the destruction of the Grand Mosque.'
by Christiana O'Connell-Schizas

As the week of Hajj (October 13-18, 2013) is approaching, millions of Muslims around the world are preparing to visit the holy cities of Makkah and Medina. However, unlike any other year, the Ministry of Hajj is trying to reduce the number of foreign and domestic pilgrims due to the ongoing £690 million expansion work at Makkah's Grand Mosque. Islam is the fastest growing religion and every Muslim has to perform Hajj at least once in their lifetime. Twelve million pilgrims visit Makkah and Medina every year with the numbers expected to rise to 17 million by 2025. This justifies the infrastructure developments in Makkah. But at what cost?

Over the past twenty years much of Makkah's cultural heritage has been destroyed to facilitate the expansion and modernization of the city with luxury five-star hotels, skyscrapers and shopping malls. On the edge of the Grand Mosque, the house of Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad (May Peace Be Upon Him), was demolished for public toilets. The grave of his mother Amina bint Wahb was bulldozed and gasoline poured over it. The house of the Prophet’s companion Abu Bakr is now the Hilton Hotel. The house of the Prophet’s grandson Ali-Oraid and the Mosque of Abu-Qubais is now the location of the King's palace in Makkah. The Ottoman era Ajyad Fortress was dynamited to build a skyscraper. Some clerics want the Mountain of Light, where the Prophet received the first verses of the Qur'an, demolished. There are plans to destroy the Grand Mosque's Ottoman columns that contain the names of the Prophet's companions. The Islamic Heritage Foundation fears for the house the Prophet was born in and the Ottoman and Abbasi sections of the Grand Mosque.

Why is it that the cultural heritage of these cities which have a spiritual and material significance, as they have a direct link to the Prophet himself, are being annihilated? First and foremost, Wahhabism, the Kingdom's fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, prohibits idolatry. This means that the cultural heritage associated with the Prophet, such as those mentioned above, encourage shirq, the worship of false or many gods, shrines and tomb visitations. (According to the Qur'an, verse 9.5, blasphemy is punishable by death: 'kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush'.) Secondly, some argue it is greed and opulence. The King Abdul-Aziz Endowment Project funded the $533 million Abraj al Bait Towers, the second tallest building in the world in 2012. These towers were built on the aforementioned Ajyad Fortress. They house the Makkah Clock Royal Tower, a 29-story Fairmont Hotel with 858 rooms renting for a minimum rate of $200 per night. Turkey protested the demolition of the fortress as cultural erasure. The Project planned to reconstruct it in the same traditional way as it was first built in the same location. This is not possible as the entire fortress was destroyed and the hotel now sits in its place. Today, eleven years on, there is no indication of it being rebuilt.

According to Mai Yamani, author of The Cradle of Islam: The Jijaz and the Quest for Identity in Saudi Arabia (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009) told The Independent, "what is alarming about this, is that the world doesn't question the Al-Sauds' custodianship of Islam's two holy places. These are the sites that are of such importance to over one billion Muslims and yet their destruction is being ignored... when the Prophet was insulted by Danish cartoonists thousands of people went into the streets to protest. The sites related to the Prophet are part of their heritage and religion but we see no concern from Muslims."
Why is this? With the exception of Turkey and Iran, many Islamic countries fear that any critical statement toward Saudi Arabia and its policies would reduce the number of its citizens' annual pilgrimage visas. Many locals are wary of what they say or are indifferent to the matter. Why the lack of concern from non-Muslims? Is it because they are not allowed visit these holy cities and have therefore never seen any of these sites? Maybe the international arena is not aware of the extent of the destruction due to the Kingdom's closely regulated press. These devastating events have been occurring over the past two decades yet have only gained recognition the past three years. What is left of early Islamic heritage needs to be saved and preserved. The monarchy and relevant ministries and authorities should act swiftly in finding a balance between cultural heritage and the expansion of Makkah and Medina.

Christiana O'Connell-Schizas, a solicitor, lived in Saudia Arabia for 18 years and returns frequently to visit.


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