Saudi Arabia and the Destruction of Islamic Cultural Heritage

Whilst the West despairs over the destruction of the Arch of Palmyra, the walls of Nineveh, and the lamassus of Nimrud by Islamic State, a second wave of cultural heritage destruction is sweeping across the Middle East almost unnoticed. The international media has devoted extensive coverage to the obliteration of museums and archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State fighters, but for the most part has failed to report on the countless monuments and artefacts destroyed every day by Saudi Arabia, both in its own country and, lately, in the Yemen. 

In January 2002 Saudi Arabia demolished a 200-year-old Ottoman castle in Mecca in order to build a five-star hotel, residential complex and parking lot. The original fortress was built in 1780 by Ottoman Turks in order to protect the Ka’aba and other Islamic shrines in Mecca from bandits, including invading Wahhabi radicals – ironically the ultra-orthodox branch of Sunni Islam that now makes up the dominant minority in Saudi Arabia. 

The Saudis defended their actions by citing the understandable need to provide accommodation for the almost three million Muslim pilgrims who journey to Mecca every year, but Turkey, who viewed the destruction of the Ottoman Ajyad Fortress as ‘cultural genocide’ demanded a UNESCO intervention. This was unsuccessful and the castle was bulldozed. 

The Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who saw the castle in 1814, described it as
'a very large and massy structure, surrounded by thick walls and solid towers… It contains a large cistern and a small mosque; and might accommodate a garrison of about one thousand men. To Arabs it is an impregnable fortress… even against Europeans, it might offer some resistance.'
‘Large and massy’ the Ajyad Fortress may have been, but the new Abraj al Bait Royal Makkah Clock Tower complex towers over the Ka’aba like Godzilla considering a peanut. 

The Ajyad Fortress is far from the only architectural casualty in Saudi Arabia. Experts at the Washington-based Gulf Institute have estimated that over 90 per cent of the archaeological treasures of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina have been demolished in the last two decades alone. This is all the more remarkable when you take into account that the vast majority of these sites are neither secular, pagan, Christian, nor Ottoman – they are early Islamic holy sites. For example, the house of Khadijah, the Prophet’s first wife, has been bulldozed and replaced with public lavatories whilst the Prophet’s own birthplace is now a library, soon to be further damaged with the addition of underground parking. The human dangers of the extensive modernisation of Mecca were also made clear earlier this year when a construction crane collapsed into the Masjid al-Haram, killing an estimated 111 and injuring 394.  

The destruction of early Islamic heritage by Saudi authorities is not even unique to sites popular with tourists and pilgrims, where the need for modern facilities could be argued to outweigh the preservation of historic buildings. For example, the Tomb of Eve, a debatable archaeological site in Jeddah, was sealed with concrete by religious authorities in 1975. Meanwhile, abject disregard for cultural heritage has spilled over intoYemen. Although Yemen was once part of the wealthy caravan kingdom of Sheba (home of the legendary queen), knowledge of Yemeni culture and history is sadly lacking around the world. Now it is in danger of being lost forever, as a coalition of Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia – and with logistical support from the USA – has been waging war against a Shia rebel group who now controls the country's capital, Sana’a. A UNESCO list of Yemeni protected areas has done little to minimise the destruction, particularly in the World Heritage Site of Sana’a old town. Elsewhere, the Great Dam of Marib, a 2,800-year-old marvel of engineering almost twice as long as the Hoover Dam, has been struck four times by missiles, whilst some of the oldest surviving fragments of the Koran are constantly in danger of being bombed. Forces fighting along Yemen’s southern coast have reputedly destroyed the 700-year-old Sheikh Omar Ali al-Saqaff mosque in Lahf, whilst earlier this year a Saudi airstrike destroyed the Dhamar Regional Museum. The museum held more than 150 ancient South Arabian inscriptions, including the oldest-known texts from the Yemeni highlands, plus an important fourth-century wooden minbar.

The Saudi destruction of historic sites is closely linked to Wahhabism, the Sunni branch of Islam, which rejects the ideas of bid’ah (innovation/reformation) and shirk (idolatry). Wahhabism advocates a pure Islam, dedicated only to Allah, and also denounces the veneration of saints, the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, the use of ornamentation in mosques, prayer at tombs (including the tomb of the Prophet), and taking non-Muslims as friends. Wahhabism is part of the impetus behind Islamic State’s desire to erase all monuments, whether sacred or secular, from the map. 

The West’s failure to raise any serious issue about the Saudi destruction of Islamic cultural heritage raises some serious questions. Do we only care about the ‘star’ attractions, big name archaeological sites that were popularised by western archaeologists from the time of the Enlightenment? Palmyra, Nimrud and Nineveh are known to most people with a smattering of classical education – or at least to those who have visited the British Museum. This attitude would explain why the western media has failed to headline the destruction of any of the Islamic historic sites and monuments mentioned above. Surely all these sites and their cultures are worthy of our recognition and safekeeping, or at least our outrage when they are wilfully destroyed or desecrated?  We are witnessing the obliteration of centuries of Islamic culture – a culture as deserving of our protection as any classical site endangered by Islamic State.

Image: Eric Vernier