July 12, 2005

Developers and purists erase Mecca’s history

By Laith Abou-Ragheb

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Some of Islam's historic
sites in Mecca, possibly including a home of the Prophet
Mohammad, are under threat from Saudi real estate developers
and Wahhabi Muslims who view them as promoting idolatry.

Sami Angawi, an expert on the region's Islamic
architecture, said 1,400-year-old buildings from the early
Islamic period risk being demolished to make way for high rise
towers for Muslims flocking to perform the annual pilgrimage to
Islam's holiest city.

"We are witnessing now the last few moments of the history
of Mecca," Angawi told Reuters. "Its layers of history are
being bulldozed for a parking lot," he added.

Angawi estimated that over the past 50 years at least 300
historical buildings had been leveled in Mecca and Medina,
another Muslim holy city containing the prophet's tomb.

Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's dominant doctrine which promotes
a strict narrow interpretation of Islam, was largely to blame,
he said.

"They (Wahhabis) have not allowed preservation of old
buildings, especially those related to the prophet. They fear
other Muslims will come to see these buildings as blessed and
this could lead to polytheism and idolatry."

The Washington-based Saudi Institute, an independent news
gathering group, says most Islamic landmarks have been
destroyed since Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932. It cited a
1994 edict by the kingdom's senior council of religious
scholars which ruled that preserving historical buildings might
lead to polytheism.

Angawi, who founded the Haj Research Center in 1975 to
study and preserve Mecca and Medina's rich history, claims to
have identified a home of the Prophet Mohammad. But he is
reluctant to publicize its location fearing it would be
demolished like DAR al Arqam -- the first school in Islam where
the prophet taught.

Angawi's views were echoed elsewhere.

In London, Geoffrey King, Islamic art and archeology
specialist at the School of Oriental and African and Studies,
said the fate of Islamic historic sites in Saudi Arabia was

"The religious authorities have failed to appreciate the
significance of these buildings to Muslims and scholars
worldwide," said King, who taught for several years in the
kingdom and stressed many young Saudis agreed with him.


Followers of Wahhabism say Muslims should focus on Mecca's
Grand Mosque, which contains the Kaaba -- an ancient structure
that more than 4 million Muslims visit each year as part of haj
and umra pilgrimages.

Real estate firms see massive demand for new accommodation
to house up to 20 million pilgrims expected to visit Islam's
holiest city annually over the coming years as authorities
relax entry restrictions for pilgrims.

"The infrastructure at the moment cannot cope. New hotels,
apartments and services are badly needed," the director of a
leading real estate company said, estimating that developers
are spending around 50 billion riyals ($13 billion) on projects
in the city.

Dominating these is the 10 billion riyal Jabal Omar scheme.
Covering a 230,000 square yard area adjacent to the Grand
Mosque, the seven-year project consists of several towers
containing hotels, apartments, shops and restaurants.

Angawi said these developments will dwarf Mecca's Grand
Mosque and are a sign of crass commercialization.

"Mecca is being treated like a bad copy of any city when it
is a sanctuary. The house of God is being commercialized and
these developments are disrespectful and totally out of

But the Jabal Omar Development Company, the firm behind the
project, said it was changing Mecca for the better, not least
in demolishing more than 1,000 poorly built homes that clung
precariously to the hillsides around the Grand Mosque.

The firm said around 70,000 residents from 29 different
nationalities used to live on the Jabal Omar site before
selling up and moving into better quality housing elsewhere.

The residents of a similar neighborhood close by seemed to
be equally eager to attract developers.

Ali Hussein, a 38-year-old originally from Myanmar, lives
in a cramped house deep within a network of unpaved,
rubbish-strewn alleyways. "The people that moved away now live
in nice homes," he said as a stray cat skipped over a puddle of
sewage nearby.

"This is a very poor area. We hope another investor will
come," said Amin Rafie, a local community ombudsman, adding
that residents would likely be offered a handsome price for
their disheveled homes in Saudi Arabia's oil-driven real estate

But Angawi wasn't convinced of the developers' motives.

"We have to accommodate these new pilgrims, but do we have
to do it in towers and skyscrapers? Making money seems to be
the bottom line here," he said.

"We are destroying physical links to our past and turning
our religion and history into a legend," he said. ($1=3.750