Saudis Turn Mecca into Vegas

September 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Historic and culturally important landmarks are being destroyed to make way for luxury hotels and malls, reports Jerome Taylor

SAUDI ARABIA/

A general view is seen of the Grand Mosque during the Muslim month of Ramadan in the holy city of Mecca August 20, 2011.  Saudi Arabia has begun the biggest expansion yet of the Grand Mosque, to raise its capacity to 2 million pilgrims, the state news agency SPA said. 

REUTERS/Hassan Ali

Behind closed doors–in places where the religious police cannot listen in–residents of Mecca are beginning to refer to their city as Las Vegas, and the moniker is not a compliment.

Over the past 10 years the holiest site in Islam has undergone a huge transformation, one that has divided opinion among Muslims all over the world.

Once a dusty desert town struggling to cope with the ever-increasing number of pilgrims arriving for the annual Hajj, the city now soars above its surroundings with a glittering array of skyscrapers, shopping malls and luxury hotels.

To the al-Saud monarchy, Mecca is their vision of the future–a steel and concrete metropolis built on the proceeds of enormous oil wealth that showcases their national pride.

Yet growing numbers of citizens, particularly those living in the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have looked on aghast as the nation’s archaeological heritage is trampled under a construction mania backed by hardline clerics who preach against the preservation of their own heritage. Mecca, once a place where the Prophet Muhammad (s) insisted all Muslims would be equal, has become a playground for the rich, critics say, where naked capitalism has usurped spirituality as the city’s raison d’être.

Few are willing to discuss their fears openly because of the risks associated with criticising official policy in the authoritarian kingdom. And, with the exceptions of Turkey and Iran, fellow Muslim nations have largely held their tongues for fear of of a diplomatic fallout and restrictions on their citizens’ pilgrimage visas. Western archaeologists are silent out of fear that the few sites they are allowed access to will be closed to them.

But a number of prominent Saudi archaeologists and historians are speaking up in the belief that the opportunity to save Saudi Arabia’s remaining historical sites is closing fast.

“No one has the balls to stand up and condemn this cultural vandalism,” says Dr Irfan al-Alawi who, as executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, has fought in vain to protect his country’s historical sites. “We have already lost 400-500 sites. I just hope it’s not too late to turn things around.”

Sami Angawi, a renowned Saudi expert on the region’s Islamic architecture, is equally concerned. “This is an absolute contradiction to the nature of Mecca and the sacredness of the house of God,” he told the Reuters news agency earlier this year. “Both [Mecca and Medina] are historically almost finished. You do not find anything except skyscrapers.”

Dr Alawi’s most pressing concern is the planned £690m expansion of the Grand Mosque, the most sacred site in Islam which contains the Kaaba–the black stone cube built by Ibrahim (Abraham) that Muslims face when they pray.

Construction officially began earlier this month with the country’s Justice Minister, Mohammed al-Eissa, exclaiming that the project would respect “the sacredness and glory of the location, which calls for the highest care and attention of the servants or Islam and Muslims”.

The 400,000 square metre development is being built to accommodate an extra 1.2 million pilgrims each year and will turn the Grand Mosque into the largest religious structure in the world. But the Islamic Heritage Foundation has compiled a list of key historical sites that they believe are now at risk from the ongoing development of Mecca, including the old Ottoman and Abbasi sections of the Grand Mosque, the house where the Prophet Muhammad (s) was born and the house where his paternal uncle Hamza grew up.

There is little argument that Mecca and Medina desperately need infrastructure development. Twelve million pilgrims visit the cities every year with the numbers expected to increase to 17 million by 2025.

But critics fear that the desire to expand the pilgrimage sites has allowed the authorities to ride roughshod over the area’s cultural heritage. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates that 95 per cent of Mecca’s millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades alone.

The destruction has been aided by Wahabism, the austere interpretation of Islam that has served as the kingdom’s official religion ever since the al-Sauds rose to power across the Arabian Peninsula in the 19th century.

In the eyes of Wahabis, historical sites and shrines encourage “shirk”—the sin of idolatry or polytheism–and should be destroyed. When the al-Saud tribes swept through Mecca in the 1920s, the first thing they did was lay waste to cemeteries holding many of Islam’s important figures. They have been destroying the country’s heritage ever since.

Of the three sites the Saudis have allowed the UN to designate World Heritage Sites, none are related to Islam.

Those circling the Kaaba only need to look skywards to see the latest example of the Saudi monarchy’s insatiable appetite for architectural bling. At 1,972ft, the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, opened earlier this year, soars over the surrounding Grand Mosque, part of an enormous development of skyscrapers that will house five-star hotels for the minority of pilgrims rich enough to afford them.

To build the skyscraper city, the authorities dynamited an entire mountain and the Ottoman era Ajyad Fortress that lay on top of it. At the other end of the Grand Mosque complex, the house of the Prophet’s (s) first wife Khadijah has been turned into a toilet block. The fate of the house he was born in is uncertain. Also planned for demolition are the Grand Mosque’s Ottoman columns which dare to contain the names of the Prophet’s (s) companions, something hardline Wahabis detest.

For ordinary Meccans living in the mainly Ottoman-era town houses that make up much of what remains of the old city, development often means the loss of their family home.

Non-Muslims cannot visit Mecca and Medina, but The Independent was able to interview a number of citizens who expressed discontent over the way their town was changing. One young woman whose father recently had his house bulldozed described how her family was still waiting for compensation. “There was very little warning; they just came and told him that the house had to be bulldozed,” she said.

Another Meccan added: “If a prince of a member of the royal family wants to extend his palace he just does it. No one talks about it in public though. There’s such a climate of fear.”

Dr Alawi hopes the international community will finally begin to wake up to what is happening in the cradle of Islam. “We would never allow someone to destroy the Pyramids, so why are we letting Islam’s history disappear?”

Prophet’s (s) Wife’s House

The house of the Prophet’s (s) wife Khadijah was destroyed and replaced with a public toilet block. After lengthy negotiations the site was briefly excavated with artefacts found dating back to the Prophet’s  (s) time.

Expansion of the Grand Mosque

In order to accommodate the ever growing pilgrim numbers, the authorities have begun a £690m expansion. Houses have been pulled, and it is likely the old Ottoman and Abbasi columns will also go.

The Prophet’s (s) Birth House

The building where the Prophet (s) once lived lies just a few hundred yards  from the Grand Mosque. Currently a library, the fear is that it could suffer the same fate as his wife’s house when the mosque expands.

Royal Mecca Clocktower

In order to build the clock tower and its surrounding skyscrapers–most of which house luxury hotels–the Saudi authorities approved the destruction of an entire mountain and the Ottoman Ajyad Fortress that lay on top.

Also under threat

Bayt al-Mawlid

When the Wahabis took Mecca in the 1920s they destroyed the dome on top of the house where the Prophet Muhammad (s) was born. It was then used as a cattle market before being turned into a library after a campaign by Meccans. There are concerns that the expansion of the Grand Mosque will destroy it once more. The site has never been excavated by archaeologists.

Ottoman and Abasi columns of the Grand Mosque

Slated for demolition as part of the Grand Mosque expansion, these intricately carved columns date back to the 17th century and are the oldest surviving sections of Islam’s holiest site. Much to the chagrin of Wahabis, they are inscribed with the names of the Prophet’s (s) companions. Ottomon Mecca is now rapidly disappearing.

Al-Masjid al-Nawabi

For many years, hardline Wahabi clerics have had their sites set on the 15th century green dome that rests above the tomb holding the Prophet (s), Abu Bakr and Umar in Medina. The mosque is regarded as the second holiest site in Islam. Wahabis, however, believe marked graves are idolatrous. A pamphlet published in 2007 by the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, endorsed by Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, stated that “the green dome shall be demolished and the three graves flattened in the Prophet’s  (s) Masjid.”

Jabal al-Nour

A mountain outside Mecca where Muhammad (s) received his first Koranic revelations. The Prophet (s) used to spend long spells in a cave called Hira. The cave is particularly popular among South Asian pilgrims who have carved steps up to its entrance and adorned the walls with graffiti. Religious hardliners are keen to dissuade pilgrims from congregating there and have mooted the idea of removing the steps and even destroying the mountain altogether.

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Gaddafi Loyalists Under Fire as Libya Celebrates ‘Eid

September 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Samia Nakhoul and Maria Golovnina

TRIPOLI/TAWARGA, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan forces backed by NATO bombers struck at loyalist troops dug in around Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown on Wednesday, as refugees streamed out of the besieged bastion fearing a bloody showdown in the coming days.

2011-08-31T101914Z_1293657413_GM1E78V1EZE01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA
Libyan Muslims react during Eid prayers at Green Square in Tripoli August 31, 2011. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

As people in Tripoli and other cities marked the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan with special savor following the end of 42 years of one-man rule, anti-Gaddafi fighters at the front around the coastal city of Sirte kept up pressure on its defenders, whom they have given till Saturday to surrender.

NATO said its planes bombed Gaddafi forces near Sirte on Tuesday, targeting tanks and other armored vehicles as well as military facilities. They also hit targets in the area of Bani Walid, another Gaddafi stronghold 150 km (100 miles) southeast of Tripoli. Anti-Gaddafi fighters said on the same day that they had advanced to within 30 km (20 miles) of the desert town.
On Wednesday NTC fighters said they clashed with Gaddafi forces patrolling in the area west of Sirte.

At Tawarga, west of Sirte, civilians streamed in laden vehicles along the coastal highway, some flying white flags.

Passing through a checkpoint set up by the forces of the interim ruling council, the NTC, many of the refugees said they feared a major battle, since they did not expect those holding Gaddafi’s tribal homeland to give up without a fight.

“I need to take my family where it is peaceful. Here there will be a big fight,” said one man, who gave his name as Mohammed.

Ali Faraj, a fighter for the opposition forces which forced Gaddafi into hiding last week, said he doubted people in Sirte would willingly join the revolt: “There will be a big fight for Sirte. It’s a dangerous city. It’s unlikely to rise up. A lot of people there support Gaddafi. It’s too close to Gaddafi and his family. It is still controlled by them.”

There is no independent confirmation of conditions in Sirte, which was developed into a prosperous city of 100,000 during the 42 years Gaddafi ruled Libya. NTC officials say power and water are largely cut off and supplies are low.

In Tripoli, after dawn, worshippers packed Martyrs’ Square, which was named Green Square in the Gaddafi era, chanting “Allahu Akbar (God is greatest), Libya is free.”
Fighters on rooftops guarded against any attack by Gaddafi loyalists and sniffer dogs checked cars. Even the interim interior minister, Ahmed Darat, was searched.
“This is the most beautiful Eid and most beautiful day in 42 years,” said Hatem Gureish, 31, a merchant from Tripoli.

“Gaddafi made us hate our lives … We come here to express our joy at the end of 42 years of repression and deprivation.”

Fatima Mustafa, 28, a pregnant woman wearing a black chador, said: “This is a day of freedom, a day I cannot describe to you. It’s as if I own the world. I’m glad I haven’t given birth yet so my daughter can be born into a free Libya.”

But the war is not over yet, with Gaddafi on the run and his loyalists defying an ultimatum set by Libya’s interim council.

Saturday Ultimatum

Libyans who revolted against Gaddafi in February needed NATO air power to help them win, but, given their country’s unhappy colonial history, they remain wary of foreign meddling.

Their interim leaders, trying to heal a nation scarred by Gaddafi’s cruelly eccentric ways, may want United Nations help in setting up a new police force, but see no role for international peacekeepers or observers, a U.N. official said.

“They are very seriously interested in assistance with policing to get the public security situation under control and gradually develop a democratically accountable public security force,” Ian Martin, special U.N. envoy for post-conflict planning in Libya, said at the United Nations in New York.

“We don’t now expect military observers to be requested,” he said. “It’s very clear that the Libyans want to avoid any kind of military deployment of the U.N. or others.”

The National Transitional Council (NTC), keen to assert its grip and relieve hardship after six months of war, won a $1.55 billion cash injection when the U.N. sanctions committee released banknotes in Britain in frozen Gaddafi accounts.

France has asked the committee to unfreeze 1.5 billion euros

($2.16 billion) of Libyan assets in France, a French government source said on Wednesday, adding that Libya has 7.6 billion euros of assets parked in French banks.

“Friends of Libya”

The source also said that Russia and China, which have not formally recognized the NTC, would send representatives to a “Friends of Libya” conference in Paris on Thursday to discuss support for political and economic rebuilding.

The timing of the meeting, on September 1, strikes a chord for many Libyans, who for four decades have been obliged to celebrate the date as the anniversary of the military coup that brought Colonel Gaddafi to power in 1969.

Despite the killing and shortages of fuel, power and water that Tripoli has endured since Gaddafi’s fall, worshippers in Martyrs’ Square were mostly ebullient about the future.

But Nouri Hussein, 42, an engineer, said that while he was glad Gaddafi was gone, he feared the guns in the hands of unruly fighters: “There is apprehension about what next. The rebels should not be blinded with the ecstasy of victory.”

NTC leaders have told their forces to treat prisoners with respect — in contrast with the reported killing and torture of detainees by Gaddafi’s forces — but Amnesty International said its staff had seen anti-Gaddafi fighters threaten and detain wounded opponents, notably black Libyans and foreigners.

“The council must do more to ensure that their fighters do not abuse detainees, especially the most vulnerable ones such as black Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans,” Amnesty’s Claudio Cordone said in a statement after one incident in Tripoli.

“Many risk reprisals as a result of allegations that Gaddafi forces used ‘African mercenaries’ to commit widespread violations during the conflict,” the lobby group added.

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