Mecca redevelopment sparks heritage concerns

Story highlights

  • Saudi authorities have begun dismantling a historic Ottoman area of Mecca's Grand Mosque
  • A UK-based Saudi historian says the demolition is "cultural vandalism"
  • Saudi govt says it is expanding mosque to accommodate soaring numbers of Hajj pilgrims
  • Historian disagrees, says demolition is fuelled by Saudi religious beliefs
An Ottoman-era portico in Mecca's Grand Mosque has become the latest battleground in a conflict between those who want to preserve the city's architectural heritage and Saudi authorities pushing for redevelopment.
The 17th century portico -- one of the oldest parts of the Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest -- is being removed by Mecca authorities as part of an expansion project to create more space for soaring numbers of pilgrims.
Millions of people visit Mecca and Medina annually (two million of them during the Hajj pilgrimage alone), a number that is only expected to grow rapidly in the coming years.
However, one UK-based Saudi historian says what Saudi authorities are doing in Mecca amounts to "cultural vandalism."
Irfan Al Alawi, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, which seeks to preserve historical sites in Saudi Arabia, says significant features of Mecca and Medina's architectural history are being lost on account of the renovations.
He has called on the Muslim world to voice its disapproval at the demolitions, which he likened to the torching of ancient manuscripts by Islamists in Timbuktu, Mali.
Every follower must carry out the Hajj once in their lives, if physically and financially able to do so. Overcrowding at the Hajj has resulted in fatal stampedes on a number of occasions, with 1,426 pilgrims killed in 1990 and more than 350 killed in 2006.
Saudi Binladin Group's Mohammed Jom'a, the supervisor of the project at Mecca's Grand Mosque, told CNN the expansion would triple the amount of space there.
"(The authorities) want to offer more space to the pilgrims to avoid crowds," he said.
But Al Alawi says there's a better way.
"I'm not against expanding the mosques at all, but there are ways you can go about it without destroying the historical aspects of these sites," he said. "Rather than engaging with heritage concerns, the Saudis are simply not interested."
Clashes with Turkey
Turkey says it is alarmed by the loss of the Ottoman portico and its Foreign Affairs Ministry has been in correspondence with the Saudis over the matter since 2010.
"It is very important to preserve the Kaaba porches as the legacy of the Ottoman Empire where they stand," Turkey's Directorate for Cultural Properties and Museums said in a statement to CNN.
CNN contacted the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, local officials in Saudi Arabia, including the Mayor and Municipality of Mecca and the Saudi Embassy in London. But we were unsuccessful in getting a response to our request for comment.
Al Alawi said the authorities were inclined not to value aspects of Mecca's heritage that dated from before Saudi control over the city -- such as the portico, going back centuries to Ottoman sovereignty over the city -- because that evidence of a pre-Saudi Mecca undermined the kingdom's important position in the Islamic world as guardians of the city.
This is not the first time Saudi authorities have clashed with Turkey over the destruction of Ottoman-era buildings in Mecca, which Turkey views as in important part of a shared Islamic heritage.
In 2002, Ankara made a heated protest about the destruction of Mecca's Al Ajyad fortress, built on a hill overlooking the Kaaba in the late 18th century.
Both the citadel and the hill it sat on were demolished to make way for the skyscraper city that today looms over the Grand Mosque, prom