This post originally appeared on the Cultural Security Blog.
Recent years have seen the purposeful destruction of mosques and historic sites dating back to the time of Muhammad, as well as of Ottoman-era mansions and ancient wells and stone bridges. An article by Lorena Munoz-Alonso posted on Artnet News in November summarizes how, according to the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, over 98 percent of Saudi Arabia’s historical and religious sites have been destroyed since 1985.
Saudi rulers have a long history of destroying heritage sites, in keeping with the Wahhabi doctrine–Wahhabism is the prevailing Saudi strain of Islam that rejects idolatry, and therefor disapproves of visits to religio-historical sites. And it appears that this mission has escalated in recent years. Munoz-Alonso cites the expansion of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, begun in 2011, as a prime example of the destruction of cultural heritage. The project has resulted in the flattening of the arched porticos erected three centuries ago by the Ottomans as well as the eighth-century columns encircling the Kaaba. The project launched with a $21 billion budget.
While Saudi officials reportedly argue that the expansion is necessary to accommodate the influx of pilgrims–estimated at 17 million individuals each year–activists counter that this project, as well as all other recent demolitions, are part of a government campaign to “rub out” historical and religious sites throughout the Kingdom. Already, the house of the Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, is now the site for public toilets; a Hilton hotel now stands on the site of the house of Islam’s first caliph, Abu Bakr; the Kaaba is now cast in the shadow of one of the world’s tallest buildings, the Mecca Royal Clock Tower, which is part of a complex including a 5-story shopping mall, luxury hotels, and a parking garage.
This is in striking contrast to the Cultural Security blog entry posted in February 2012, “Protecting Cultural Heritage Goes Mainstream.” Three years ago a national campaign to recover the Kingdom’s antiques and heritage pieces had elicited a remarkable response, with the efforts of the campaign prompting citizens to come forward and return artifacts to the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA). At the time, the SCTA was diligently working to raise awareness regarding the importance of cultural security.
Three years ago, it was reported that the SCTA had retrieved about 14,000 artifacts from abroad. These demolition projects are a contradiction. Now, in the words of Ali Al-Ahmed, of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, D.C., “It’s as if [the Saudi government] wanted to wipe out history.”
It should be noted that as the Saudi government never submitted the city of Mecca for inclusion on the list of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO’s hand are essentially tied. The Times article by Carla Power “Saudi Arabia Bulldozes Over its Heritage” notes that when the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, they were met with international condemnation. In contrast, the response to the demolition activity in the Kingdom “has been decidedly muted.” Per Roni Amelan, spokesman for UNESCO: “When it comes to Mecca, as far as we are concerned it’s a Saudi question…we don’t have a legal basis to stake a position regarding it.”
We cannot forget that artifacts and historic sites preserve culture, that they are a means of learning about, revering, and remember our pasts. Cultural security will always be of paramount importance. This mission cannot be emphasized enough: We must take preservation of cultural history seriously and continue to brainstorm ideas to ensure the protection of cultural heritage worldwide.