- 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 A