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The last days of Mecca and Medina: Saudis are wiping out Islamic heritage

By Daniel Howden

Saturday, 6 August 2005  


Historic Mecca, the cradle of Islam, is being buried in an unprecedented onslaught by religious zealots.


Almost all of the rich and multi-layered history of the holy city is gone. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades.


Now the actual birthplace of the Prophet Mohamed is facing the bulldozers, with the connivance of Saudi religious authorities whose hard-line interpretation of Islam is compelling them to wipe out their own heritage.


It is the same oil-rich orthodoxy that pumped money into the Taliban as they prepared to detonate the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2000. And the same doctrine - violently opposed to all forms of idolatry - that this week decreed that the Saudis' own king be buried in an unmarked desert grave.


A Saudi architect, Sami Angawi, who is an acknowledged specialist on the region's Islamic architecture, told The Independent that the final farewell to Mecca is imminent: "What we are witnessing are the last days of Mecca and Medina."


According to Dr Angawi - who has dedicated his life to preserving Islam's two holiest cities - as few as 20 structures are left that date back to the lifetime of the Prophet 1,400 years ago and those that remain could be bulldozed at any time. "This is the end of history in Mecca and Medina and the end of their future," said Dr Angawi.


Mecca is the most visited pilgrimage site in the world. It is home to the Grand Mosque and, along with the nearby city of Medina which houses the Prophet's tomb, receives four million people annually as they undertake the Islamic duty of the Haj and Umra pilgrimages.


The driving force behind the demolition campaign that has transformed these cities is Wahhabism. This, the austere state faith of Saudi Arabia, was imported by the al-Saud tribal chieftains when they conquered the region in the 1920s.


The motive behind the destruction is the Wahhabists' fanatical fear that places of historical and religious interest could give rise to idolatry or polytheism, the worship of multiple and potentially equal gods.


As John R. Bradley notes in his new book Saudi Arabia Exposed, the practice of idolatry in the kingdom remains, in principle at least, punishable by beheading. And Bradley also points out this same literalism mandates that advertising posters can and need to be altered. The walls of Jeddah are adorned with ads featuring people missing an eye or with a foot painted over. These "deliberate imperfections" are the most glaring sign of an orthodoxy that tolerates nothing which fosters adulation of the graven image. Nothing can, or can be seen to, interfere with a person's devotion to Allah.


"At the root of the problem is Wahhabism," says Dr Angawi. " They have a big complex about idolatry and anything that relates to the Prophet."


The Wahhabists now have the birthplace of the Prophet in their sights. The site survived redevelopment early in the reign of King Abdul al-Aziz ibn Saud 50 years ago when the architect for a library there persuaded the absolute ruler to allow him to keep the remains under the new structure. That concession is under threat after Saudi authorities approved plans to "update" the library with a new structure that would concrete over the existing foundations and their priceless remains.


Dr Angawi is the descendant of a respected merchant family in Jeddah and a leading figure in the Hijaz - a swath of the kingdom that includes the holy cities and runs from the mountains bordering Yemen in the south to the northern shores of the Red Sea and the frontier with Jordan. He established the Haj Research Centre two decades ago to preserve the rich history of Mecca and Medina. Yet it has largely been a doomed effort. He says that the bulldozers could come "at any time" and the Prophet's birthplace would be gone in a single night.


He is not alone in his concerns. The Gulf Institute, an independent news-gathering group, has publicised what it says is a fatwa, issued by the senior Saudi council of religious scholars in 1994, stating that preserving historical sites "could lead to polytheism and idolatry".


Ali al-Ahmed, the head of the organisation, formerly known as the Saudi Institute, said: "The destruction of Islamic landmarks in Hijaz is the largest in history, and worse than the desecration of the Koran."


Most of the buildings have suffered the same fate as the house of Ali-Oraid, the grandson of the Prophet, which was identified and excavated by Dr Angawi. After its discovery, King Fahd ordered that it be bulldozed before it could become a pilgrimage site.


"The bulldozer is there and they take only two hours to destroy everything. It has no sensitivity to history. It digs down to the bedrock and then the concrete is poured in," he said.


Similarly, finds by a Lebanese professor, Kamal Salibi, which indicated that once-Jewish villages in what is now Saudi Arabia might have been the location of scenes from the Bible, prompted the bulldozers to be sent in. All traces were destroyed.


This depressing pattern of excavation and demolition has led Dr Angawi and his colleagues to keep secret a number of locations in the holy cities that could date back as far as the time of Abraham.


The ruling House of Saud has been bound to Wahhabism since the religious reformer Mohamed Ibn abdul-Wahab signed a pact with Mohammed bin Saud in 1744. The combination of the al-Saud clan and Wahhab's warrior zealots became the foundation of the modern state. The House of Saud received its wealth and power and the hardline clerics got the state backing that would enable them in the decades to come to promote their Wahhabist ideology across the globe.


On the tailcoats of the religious zealots have come commercial developers keen to fill the historic void left by demolitions with lucrative high-rises.


"The man-made history of Mecca has gone and now the Mecca that God made is going as well." Says Dr Angawi. "The projects that are coming up are going to finish them historically, architecturally and environmentally," he said.


With the annual pilgrimage expected to increase five-fold to 20 million in the coming years as Saudi authorities relax entry controls, estate agencies are seeing a chance to cash in on huge demand for accommodation.


"The infrastructure at the moment cannot cope. New hotels, apartments and services are badly needed," the director of a leading Saudi estate agency told Reuters.


Despite an estimated $13bn in development cash currently washing around Mecca, Saudi sceptics dismiss the developers' argument. "The service of pilgrims is not the goal really," says Mr Ahmed. "If they were concerned for the pilgrims, they would have built a railroad between Mecca and Jeddah, and Mecca and Medina. They are removing any historical landmark that is not Saudi-Wahhabi, and using the prime location to make money," he says.


Dominating these new developments is the Jabal Omar scheme which will feature two 50-storey hotel towers and seven 35-storey apartment blocks - all within a stone's throw of the Grand Mosque.


Dr Angawi said: "Mecca should be the reflection of the multicultural Muslim world, not a concrete parking lot."


Whereas proposals for high-rise developments in Jerusalem have prompted a worldwide outcry and the Taliban's demolition of the Bamiyan buddhas was condemned by Unicef, Mecca's busy bulldozers have barely raised a whisper of protest.


"The house where the Prophet received the word of God is gone and nobody cares," says Dr Angawi. "I don't want trouble. I just want this to stop."



Shame of the House of Saud: Shadows over Mecca

Previously unseen photographs (NOT PUBLISHED WITH THIS ARTICLE) reveal how religious zealots obsessed with idolatry have colluded with developers to destroy Islam's diverse heritage

By Daniel Howden

Wednesday, 19 April 2006

 There is a growing shadow being cast over Islam's holiest site. Only a few metres from the walls of the Grand Mosque in Mecca skyscrapers are reaching further into the sky, slowly blocking out the light. These enormous and garish newcomers now dwarf the elegant black granite of the Kaaba, the focal point of the four million Muslims' annual Haj pilgrimage.


The tower blocks are the latest and largest evidence of the destruction of Islamic heritage that has wiped almost all of the historic city from the physical landscape. As revealed in The Independent last August,the historic cities of Mecca and Medina are under an unprecedented assault from religious zealots and their commercial backers.


Writing in response to the article, Prince Turki al-Faisal said that Saudi Arabia was spending more than $19bn (£11bn) preserving and maintaining these two holy sites. "[We are aware] how important the preservation of this heritage is, not just to us but to the millions of Muslims from around the world who visit the two holy mosques every year. It is hardly something we are going to allow to be destroyed."


This rebuttal sits at odds with a series of previously unseen photographs, published today, that document the demolition of key archaeological sites and their replacement with skyscrapers.


Saudi religious authorities have overseen a decades-long demolition campaign that has cleared the way for developers to embark on a building spree of multi-storey hotels, restaurants, shopping centres and luxury apartment blocks on a scale unseen outside Dubai. The driving force behind this historical demolition is Wahhabism  the austere state faith that the House of Saud brought with it when Ibn Saud conquered the Arabian peninsula in the 1920s.


The Wahhabis live in fanatical fear that places of historical or religious interest could give rise to alternative forms of pilgrimage or worship. Their obsession with combating idolatry has seen them flatten all evidence of a past that does not agree with their interpretation of Islam.


Irfan Ahmed al-Alawi, the chairman of the Islamic Heritage Foundation, set up to help protect the holy sites, says the case of the grave of Amina bint Wahb, the mother of the Prophet, found in 1998, is typical of what has happened. "It was bulldozed in Abwa and gasoline was poured on it. Even though thousands of petitions throughout the Muslim world were sent, nothing could stop this action."


Today there are fewer than 20 structures remaining in Mecca that date back to the time of the Prophet 1,400 years ago. The litany of this lost history includes the house of Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet, demolished to make way for public lavatories; the house of Abu Bakr, the Prophet's companion, now the site of the local Hilton hotel; the house of Ali-Oraid, the grandson of the Prophet, and the Mosque of abu-Qubais, now the location of the King's palace in Mecca.


Yet the same oil-rich dynasty that pumped money into the Taliban regime as they blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan six years ago has so far avoided international criticism for similar acts of vandalism at home. Mai Yamani, author of The Cradle of Islam, said it was time for other Muslim governments to ignore the al-Sauds' oil wealth and clout and speak out. "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," she said. "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."


Lay people, and in some cases even US senators could be forgiven for thinking that the House of Saud has been the guardian of the two holy places for time immemorial. In fact, it is only 80 years since the tribal chieftain Ibn Saud occupied Mecca and Medina. The House of Saud has been bound to Wahhabism since the 18th century religious reformer Mohamed Ibn Abdul-Wahab signed a pact with Mohammed bin Saud in 1744. Wahab's warrior zealots helped to conquer a kingdom for the tribal chieftains. The House of Saud got its wealth and power, and the clerics got the vehicle of state they needed to spread their fundamentalist ideology around the world. The ruler of this fledgling kingdom needed the legitimacy afforded by declaring himself " custodian of the two holy places".


But that legitimacy has come at an enormous price for the diversity of Muslims who look to Mecca for guidance. Once in charge, the Wahhabists wasted little time in censoring the Haj. As early as 1929, Egyptian pilgrims were refused permission to celebrate the colourful Mahmal rites and more than 30 were killed. At the time Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. Few governments have stood up to them since.


Instead, the homogenisation of Islam's holiest sites was allowed to accelerate into a demolition campaign that now threatens the birthplace of the Prophet itself. The site survived the early reign of Ibn Saud 50 years ago when the architect for the planned library persuaded the absolute ruler to allow him to preserve the remains under the new structure. Saudi authorities now plan to "update" the site with a car park that would mean concreting over the remains.


"The al-Sauds need to rein in the Wahhabists now," warns Dr Yamani. "Mecca used to be a symbol of Muslim diversity and it needs to be again." But with oil prices and profits, at record highs, there is little sign the House of Saud is listening.


Sami Angawi, a Hijazi architect who has devoted his life to a largely doomed effort to preserve what remains of the history of the world's greatest pilgrimage sites, said that the final farewell to Mecca was imminent. " What we are witnessing are the last days of Mecca and Medina."


Mecca's skyline


Giant cranes and half-constructed skyscrapers tower over the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Six new property developments, including the Bin Laden group's Zam Zam Tower, are transforming the character of Islam's holiest city




Mountain of light


The mountain of light, or al-Nour, is next in the Wahhabis' sights. Home to the Hira'a cave, it was here that the Prophet is said to have received the first verses of the Koran. Hardline clerics want it destroyed to stop pilgrims visiting. At the foot of the hill there is a Wahhabi fatwa: " The Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) did not permit us to climb on to this hill, not to pray here, not to touch stones, and tie knots on trees..."




The Prophet's wife's grave


The ruins in the foreground are the remains of the grave of the Prophet's wife, Al Baqi, destroyed in the 1950s. The mutawi religious police are present night and day to prevent anyone placing flowers on the site, or even praying in the proximity of the graves




Al Oraid Mosque


The 1,200-year-old mosque, site of the grave of the Prophet's grandson al-Oraid, is seen here being dynamited. Gathered around the site are Saudi religious police with their distinctive red scarves, who appear to be celebrating




Dissident Watch: Sami Angawi

by Rachel Hoff

Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2006, p. 96

In 1975, Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect and scion of a respected merchant family, founded the Haj Research Center to preserve the history and architecture of Islam's holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Both cities once boasted centuries-old winding streets and traditional homes. In 1924 though, Saudi tribes invaded the more cosmopolitan Hijaz kingdom and declared themselves custodians of Islam's two holy cities. They imposed Wahhabism, a strict and iconoclastic interpretation of Islam, upon the local population.[1]


The Saudi royal family has since used Wahhabism to justify the destruction of historical sites throughout the region. Just as the Taliban argued as they dynamited the fifth-century C.E. giant Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001, Saudi leaders say the presence of historical religious sites may lead to idolatry. Angawi explains, "At the root of the problem is Wahhabism. They have a big complex about idolatry and anything that relates to the Prophet."[2] During the past fifty years, the Saudi authorities have destroyed more than 300 historical sites in Mecca and Medina.[3] In the past two decades alone, Saudi authorities have destroyed 95 percent of Mecca's ancient and historical buildings.[4] With few exceptions,[5] the outside world remains silent.


Saudi authorities tell foreigners that the destruction is based less on religious imperative than upon the need to provide more modern facilities to pilgrims. They say that construction of parking lots, high-rise apartment buildings, and hotels on top of old neighborhoods and religious sites enables greater access to the Hajj. Angawi dismisses such arguments. He counters that affluent Saudis lease the new apartments for prestige. In actuality, most religious pilgrims have no access to the new facilities.[6]


Other incidents belie official explanations of convenience and access. After Angawi discovered and excavated the site of the house of Muhammad's grandson, Saudi king Fahd, fearing that it would become a pilgrimage site, ordered it razed. Angawi said, "The bulldozer is there, and they take only two hours to destroy everything. It has no sensitivity to history. It digs down to the bedrock and then the concrete is poured in." Frustrated, he has since kept secret the locations of his subsequent excavations, even reburying the remnants of the Prophet's home to spare it from the bulldozers.[7]


Angawi is pessimistic about the future of the cradle of Islam. In an interview with The Independent, he said, "What we are witnessing are the last days of Mecca and MedinaMecca should be the reflection of the multicultural Muslim world, not a concrete parking lot."[8]


Rachel Hoff is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.


[1] For background on the Saudi suppression of Hijazi identity, see, Mai Yamani, Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004).

[2] The Independent (London), Aug. 6, 2005.

[3] New Statesman (London), July 18, 2005.

[4] The Independent, Aug. 6, 2005; The Toronto Star, Aug. 17, 2005.

[5] The Independent, Aug. 6, 2005; Turkish Daily News (Istanbul), Jan. 8, 2002.

[6] Seminar in the house of Sami Angawi (attended by Michael Rubin), Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Mar. 8, 2005.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Independent, Aug. 6, 2005.



February 19, 2002

Elizabeth Farnsworth interviews architect Sami Angawi in the final portion of her three-part series of reports from Saudi Arabia, a nation that has remained largely inaccessible to foreign reporters.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jeddah is a city of more than a million on the Red Sea that has long served as the gateway for Muslim pilgrims traveling to nearby Mecca and Medina. Muslims from all over the world have settled here, making the city a melting pot of people and ideas; of old and new. The old is visible downtown, where wood lattices cover windows on buildings constructed long ago. Streets are narrow and shops are small and intimate. New Jeddah can be seen on the great boulevard leading to the Red Sea, where dozens of modern sculptures line miles of street and beach. Children play here as families picnic on their day off.

Architect Sami Angawi comes from an old Jeddah family descended from the prophet Mohammed. He's an authority on the architecture of his region, and his religion. He has spent the last ten years building a home that he hopes embodies both.


Traditional Hijazi architecture

SAMI ANGAWI, Architect: The house here is a reflection of traditional Hijazi architecture.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Hijazi, explain what that means.

SAMI ANGAWI: Hijazi is the local region here, which is an ancient name for this region. And Hijaz has always been the reflecting point. It's the melting pot of the Muslim world. So you can see something in Hijaz, which is from India, and you see something from Morocco, and something from Turkey, and something from Yemen. Everything is a reflection of the idea of the unity and the diversity. My statement here is that to live in a time now, you don't have to forget

your traditions. So it's the balance between the constant and the variable. And that's how it's always been in Islamic tradition; Islamic architecture.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Angawi has designed into his house the dualities he thinks Islam embraces. The home is very private but also open to the world, as he thinks his religion has been. Many openings to the outside are screened, but light permeates every room, flowing through windows that evoke Islam and Christianity alike. There's a sunken dining area that feels like Japan, and tiles from various parts of the Muslim world. The designs of the tiles are themselves works of art, as are the quotes from the Koran and other details.


SAMI ANGAWI: Well, as you notice as you walk in the house from one place to another, it's

really like walking in my mind.


SAMI ANGAWI: What I mean is, is that's how my mind works. I see things from different perspectives. I see it in layers, I see it in details, and that's why I look even at our Islamic culture and Islamic concept from different perspectives. And that's how we have to see it now.


SAMI ANGAWI: Not single minded. Not just seeing one thing. You have to see more than one thing in order to reach the balance, because you cannot have balance with just a one-sided scale.


Example of the true Jihad

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Angawi contrasts his vision of his religion with the more fundamentalist vision of Islam that has become familiar to foreigners since September 11th. He sees his house as an example of the true Jihad, as opposed to Jihad as Holy War.

SAMI ANGAWI: There is always a choice in what's called Jihad, which is, again, misunderstood by Muslims and by non-Muslims. Jihad starts with yourself, with your inside, with your body,with your family, with your house. This is Jihad what I'm trying to do. The beauty you see is the

Jihad of trying to do something beautiful.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It's almost as if in your art and in your person you want to embody this vision of Islam that you think is the proper one, or is the way it should be? How would you put it?

SAMI ANGAWI: I put it that I'm not inventing anything. I put it that I'm part of a tradition, part of a heritage, which is 1,400 years old if we take it to the prophet Mohammed. If we take it to Abraham, it's at least 5,000 years old, or how long ago Abraham was. And it's a continuity of tradition. Not only ours, but tradition since the beginning of time. We believe in continuity.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the past, Angawi said, Islam was open to many influences and traditions; and this is what made it a great civilization. He's worried that in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of the religion, Islam has become restricted to one narrow interpretation that is intolerant of other views.

SAMI ANGAWI: The way it's taught is mainly in one direction, of one view. Again, I'm not saying it's right or wrong. This is not for me. I'm not a religious specialist. But I know when I look at my Islamic culture and Islamic tradition and civilization, I know that one of the reasons that we did have this great civilization is because different views were represented: The flexibility that was there, the adaptability that was there. And we very much need that now, to bring that back and to teach our children how to have a dialogue, how to discuss, how to interact with other people; how to be friends and how to follow the prophet.


The prophet at that time had said, "My companions are like the stars. Whichever one you follow, you are on the right path." And so that even though the companions had many different opinions, he didn't say, "shut up," and "you are right," and "he was wrong." No. He was always against extremism. He discouraged and even spoke strongly against extremism. Our crown prince was saying that recently. He was saying, "Don't be extreme on religion. Don't be extreme on religion.

Don't be extreme on religion." Three times.


Islam in his work

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The extremism of the Islam taught in Saudi Arabia, often called Wahabbi or Salafi Islam, has affected Angawi directly in his work. He started a center in Jeddah to preserve the Islamic and natural environment of the holy areas of Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed, and Medina, which houses the prophet's tomb. He said much of historic Mecca – as seen in this old footage -- has been razed to the ground, partly to build accommodations for the millions of annual pilgrims, but more ominously because religious leaders in Saudi Arabia fear historic sites will be used for a form of idol worship.

SAMI ANGAWI: I feel very, you know, bad about those places being gone. You know, like this one here is one example, and I have many other examples. This is the tomb of the first wife of the prophet, which was there and was totally demolished and is gone because of certain viewpoints that this could lead to idolatry.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It could lead to idolatry?

SAMI ANGAWI: Idolatry, yes. Again, another site, which I worked on in discovering and actually digging, the house of the prophet in Mecca, near the mosque, and it has to be taken away and covered away.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Angawi also said that in the great mosque in the old days, four schools of thought were taught, and that a pilgrim could choose up to 35 different "rings" of teaching in the courtyards. I asked him what it's like now.

SAMI ANGAWI: Unfortunately, it developed into a way, which is only one viewpoint is presented. And of course, if all the time you just listen to yourself, or those who only compliment you all the time, you think you're right and nobody else is right.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So now, there's really only one form of Islam being taught in Mecca and Medina that's spreading all over the Muslim world, isn't it?

SAMI ANGAWI: Mecca is really, I think, critical, and Medina, that the beauty of the diversity, the beauty of the tradition that is, like I explained, many-sided views, and so on, is, in a way, has been now very much limited to basically one viewpoint. I'm not saying that viewpoint is maybe wrong or bad. I'm just saying we need to balance it and we need to listen to different views. It's very essential now. As we are a growing part of the world, Islam is the religion of balance. If we cannot do it in Mecca and Medina, where can we do it?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Angawi said his house is his answer to how more balance can be achieved through evolution, a respect for the past, and not radical change. He promotes dialogue about Islam in his work in Jeddah, as well as at Harvard, where he teaches part of each year. And he is convinced evolutionary change in his religion is already underway.

SAMI ANGAWI: I'm living now. But living now does not mean that you cut yourself from the past. Or appreciating the past and carrying on with it doesn't mean you do not live now. And that was always the challenge in Islamic tradition, Islamic culture, is to carry on.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sami Angawi, thanks for being with us.

SAMI ANGAWI: Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2003 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. All Rights Reserved.


Sami Angawi: Biography

Dr. Sami Angawi has a Doctor of Philosophy in Islamic Architecture from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, UK. Since 1988 he has been the Founder and General Director of the Amar Centre for Architectural Heritage in charge of supervising all activities in areas of architectural designs, planning, conservation and development of architectural heritage, documentation of traditional architecture and analyzing its elements, research work in the fields of restoration of traditional architectural heritage and its relation to environmental and socio-economic factors, traditional arts and crafts.

The Amar Centre for Architectural Heritage is a private organization located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The activities of this Centre include the following:

Revival and development of traditional architecture through research and studies.

Restoration and rehabilitation of traditional buildings and houses.

Designing new buildings and projects based on the continuity of the traditional line of architecture from all aspects.

To carry out these activities the Centre has developed architectural library containing more than 50,000 images of traditional architectural elements and buildings stored in the computer using the laser disc technology, as well as a library of architectural drawings of many elements with varying designs and styles. The Centre has close contact and collaborates with various universities, research institutions and professional organizations on both local and international levels.

Associated sites

Site         Location Country   Images

Al-Makkiyah Residential Villa          Jeddah  Saudi Arabia        114

Amar Headquarters             Jeddah  Saudi Arabia        12

Harat al-Bab Restoration   Mecca    Saudi Arabia        5

Associated files

Author    Title        Type        Year

The Aga Khan Award for Architecture and Project Architect         Al-Makkiyah Residential Villa          text & image report            2007