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Middle East: Saudi Arabia Rejects Criticism Over Citadel Demolition

  • Jolyon Naegele

Saudi Arabia has rejected protests from Ankara over the demolition of an 18th-century Ottoman Turkish fortress overlooking Mecca. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, the fortress is the latest in a long list of Ottoman-era monuments the Saudis have destroyed at home and abroad.

Prague, 11 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, Saudi Arabia demolished an 18th-century Ottoman fortress in Mecca, apparently to clear space for a massive shopping and apartment complex. The move drew protests from Turkey and historic preservationists alike. But despite taking just days to bulldoze the fortress, Saudi officials are now denying they destroyed the structure, insisting they merely dismantled it and intend to rebuild it.

Saudi Islamic Affairs Minister Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz bin Mohammad al Sheikh expressed astonishment over news reports the al-Ajyad citadel had been destroyed, calling the move an "act of preservation" and saying the Saudi government was "acting within its sovereign rights." A Saudi Foreign Ministry official likewise defended the move, saying it was made "in the interest of pilgrims" traveling to Mecca.

Al-Ajyad, which sat atop a hillside overlooking the Great Mosque, was built in the late 18th century as a defensive fortress designed to help keep advocates of the Wahhabi Islamic sect out of Mecca. Although of limited architectural value, the Ottoman citadel was one of the few old buildings remaining on the periphery of the Great Mosque, and experts say its historical worth was undeniable.

Saudi authorities say the 800-square-meter stone fortress will eventually be rebuilt on another site. But many -- including Said Zulficar, head of the Paris-based monument-protection NGO Patrimonie Sans Frontieres -- dispute the claim, saying even if the fortress is rebuilt, it will lose the significance of the original.

"Well, what's the point of demolishing it if they are going to rebuild it? And if you rebuild something which was already historical, you don't rebuild the authentic structure. So in any case, the Saudis don't have any sort of aesthetic considerations about that architecture. I'm talking about the government."

Carel Bertram is a historian of Ottoman art at the University of Texas. She says the demolition is part of a wider effort by Saudi Arabia's dominant Wahhabi sect to rid the Islamic world of all traces of cultural and religious diversity.

"[The demolition] is a very sectarian move, but it is not against the Ottomans or today's Turks. I see it as very ideological and as not the culmination -- because I think there is more to come -- but part of a long process of erasure of the past. And in that way, it relates to what has happened recently with the Taliban [destroying the ancient Buddha monuments in Afghanistan] and also recently [the destruction of Islamic monuments by Saudi aid agencies] in the Balkans. It is a way for the Wahhabi sect to show that there is no form of Islam -- on the ground, in the past, or in people's memories -- other than their own. It's very upsetting, I would think, to all of the rest of the Muslim world."

The destruction of the al-Ajyad fortress is not the first time the Saudi regime has attempted to clear the country of certain religious and architectural monuments. The Saudis staged sweeping demolition campaigns in Mecca and the nearby port city of Medina in the 1920s and 1970s. Patrimonie Sans Frontieres' Zulficar says al-Ajyad somehow managed to escape destruction both times.

"In the case of this [al-Ajyad] structure in Mecca, I think they had just forgotten about it. It hadn't been demolished originally in the 1920s or later on. Medina was again -- the historical quarters of Mecca and Medina -- were totally bulldozed in the late 1970s. They even bulldozed the Prophet's house in Mecca. And even though I went there for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1976 to try and convince them to preserve these historic quarters that dated back to the Middle Ages and had a certain architectural and historic value, they just laughed. They didn't see the importance, why people are attached to these material things, and they wouldn't listen to me."

Turkey, which had recently received assurances from Saudi officials that the fortress would not be destroyed, has expressed outrage over the reported demolition. Turkish Culture Minister Istemihan Talay said, "This is not just a show of disrespect of history but also the reflection of a complex, an approach that aims to erase the Turkish period from [Saudi Arabian] history and [the Saudi] world."

Relations between Riyadh and Ankara have traditionally been burdened with historical baggage. Mecca was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1916 when a large western coastal region of the Arabian peninsula, known as Hejaz, declared independence. The Sultanate of Nejd, formed in 1921 and ruled by the Saud dynasty, occupied Mecca in 1924, eventually uniting with Hejaz to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Patrimonie Sans Frontieres' Zulficar said: "In 1924, when the Sauds took power, they conquered Medina and Mecca [and] demolished the majority of historical mosques and monuments in both Mecca and Medina at that time. They even destroyed between 500 and 600 of the mausolea belonging to the Prophet's companions, which dated back to the seventh century. This is part of their ideology, their religious ideology, that you shouldn't have any commemorable structures as tombs. And the same applies to mosques in their ideology -- that mosques shouldn't be beautiful structures with ornaments and embellishments and designs in them, and especially if they have domes."

Zulficar says the Saudi authorities -- who, as Wahhabis, follow a strict interpretation of the Koran -- have modified their practices somewhat since the 1920s. But he says the sect's traditional dismissal of artistic representation and historical monument continues to have an impact on the Saudi royal family.

"In 1924 they demolished practically everything. The Sauds were vandals. They were Bedouins from the Nejd in Central Arabia. These were Bedouins from the desert who had no aesthetic values whatsoever. They lived in tents. So when they conquered Medina and Mecca in the 1920s, they were imbued by this ideology which was the Wahhabi ideology from Nejd. The Wahhabis are married with them. The al-Wahhab family who is [descended from] the man who created this ideology in the 18th century -- that family is married into the Saud family today. They are all mixed. They're just one tribe, more or less. And the king of Saudi Arabia is the head of the Wahhabi sect. The ideology of this sect is a very puritanical and very primitive ideology. They want to go back to the seventh century and in the seventh century there were no historical monuments. They're not attached to any form of aesthetics or art, although in private, of course, their palaces -- they have lots of art treasures inside their palaces. I mean there is a total hypocrisy in this whole thing."

Last month, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd approved a massive project that encompasses the al-Ajyad fortress site. The project envisions leveling the hill on which the fortress sat and constructing 11 massive high-rise towers consisting of apartments, a twin-tower five-star hotel, restaurants, and a shopping center. A project description posted on the Internet specifies that the fortress will be preserved "as a historical monument." But it is unclear where, and in what condition, the fortress will in fact be rebuilt.

An article in "The Wall Street Journal" of 10 January reports that the Binladen Group -- a firm founded by the father of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden -- will be one of the two main construction firms working on the project.

Andras Riedlmayer is an Islamic architecture expert with Harvard University library. He says the al-Ajyad fortress, which from its hilltop perch overlooked the Great Mosque, dominated the center of Mecca and was all that was left of the old city.

"The old palaces of the sheriffs (rulers), the old religious monuments, even the Great Mosque itself, have been either torn down or reconstructed to an extent that very little is left of the original. The Great Mosque is now completely surrounded by high-rises on three sides and this would complete the remodeling of Mecca into essentially a Saudi creation. And the Saudis themselves, being essentially a movement that rejects tradition, are in some ways a very postmodern phenomenon."

Riedlmayer concedes the al-Ajyad fortress was of limited architectural value but nevertheless was highly symbolic. "As a building, it is impressive in its situation in the cityscape, but it's certainly not one of the great architectural wonders of the world. Its significance is mainly in where it is -- Mecca, the holiest city of Islam -- and its place in the history and the cityscape."

The Saudis' willingness to tear down such authentic monuments and replace them with modernized reincarnations, Riedlmayer says, reflects what he calls a "mentality that history is more real if you can recreate it."

Zulficar of Patrimonie Sans Frontieres says the demolition of the al-Ajyad fortress differs from the demolition by Saudi and other Wahhabi aid agencies of mosques, cemeteries, and other Ottoman-era Muslim shrines in the Balkans. He says the fortress demolition appears to be largely about money rather than ideology. As he said, "they need land to build."

"In Bosnia and Kosovo, [the demolition of Ottoman-era mosques and other monuments] is clearly an ideological movement. They're using humanitarian agencies, charitable agencies as a Trojan horse to re-Islamize, in their version of Islam, the populations of Kosovo and Bosnia."

Bertram of the University of Texas says the consistent destruction of Ottoman-era Islamic monuments in the Balkans shows there is a desire among the Wahhabi sect to make sure there is no other type of Islam.

"There is no localism, there is no diversity in Islam [according to the Wahhabis]. And therefore it is important in the Balkans to make an architectural stamp that is unified, so that all mosques that are funded by the Saudis look alike and therefore are the 'true mosque.' The destruction of other types of Islam and their memory and what goes along with their types of piety started immediately [in 1924] with the Saudis in Mecca and Medina where they destroyed tombs of the companions of the Prophet, [and] the Prophet's house."

As Bertram said, the Saudis "wanted to destroy the tomb of the Prophet himself because they wanted to have only their own ways of reverence."