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Saudi government demolishes historic Ottoman castle
By Simon Wheelan
28 January 2002
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A diplomatic dispute has emerged between Saudi Arabia and Turkey
regarding the Saudi authorities destruction of an 18th century
Ottoman castle that overlooked the holy city of Mecca. The two
nations normally enjoy less vexed relations as military allies
of the US.
The 220-year-old fortress of al-Ajyad was demolished at the
turn of 2002 to make way for a $533 million construction project.
Days before the demolition, King Faud of Saudi Arabia gave the
go ahead to a huge project that will cover the former site of
the al-Ajyad castle. The building scheme entails flattening the
hill on which the castle stood and constructing 11 high-rise towers,
consisting of apartments, a twin-tower five-star hotel, restaurants
and a shopping centre. The Wall Street Journal reports
that the BinLaden Group, the construction firm founded by the
father of Islamic terrorist Osama bin Laden, will be one of the
two main businesses contracted to build the luxury project.
Many castles and other buildings still remain throughout the
former Ottoman Empire, especially in the Middle East. The Ottoman
Empire dates from the late 13th century until 1922. The centre
was in present day Turkey and the Balkans, but intermittent periods
of expansion extended its reach to what is now Hungary and the
Ukraine, much of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. It was
created by Turkish tribes from the North-Western Anatolian principality.
Mecca was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1916, when Hejaz,
a large western coastal region of the Arabian Peninsula, declared
independence. The Sultanate of Nejd, formed in 1921 and ruled
by the Saud dynasty, occupied Mecca in 1924, eventually uniting
Hejaz to form the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi governments obliteration of al-Ajyad is only
the latest in a deplorable history of destroying architectural
treasures from Ottoman period. Numerous Ottoman houses, cemeteries,
castles and fortresses have been sacrificed to the building of
new developments in Mecca and Medina.
This latest demolition has brought protests and cries of wanton
cultural vandalism from historic conservationists in Turkey. Ankara
has compared the demolition of al-Ajyad to the Talibans
destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. The Saudi authorities
protracted programme of demolishing all remnants of the Ottoman
Empire made the bulldozing of al-Ajyad castle all the more criminal.
Al-Ajyad was one of a diminishing number of significant historical
buildings on the periphery of the Great Mosque in Mecca.
The Turkish parliamentary speaker Murat Sokmenoglu appealed
to religious and nationalist sensibilities, calling the Saudis
actions un-Islamic. On the BBC Middle East
website Sokmenoglu explained A Muslim countrys destruction
of another countrys historic heritage on holy soil is a
sinful behaviour in breach of the moral values of Islam, religious
brotherhood and common sense.
Turkish Cultural Minister Istemihan Talay upped the nationalist
ante stating This is not just a show of disrespect of history
but also the reflection of a complex, an approach that aims to
erase the Turkish period from [Saudi Arabian] history and the
The Saudi Islamic affairs Minister Saleh al-Shaikh was quoted
by the French news agency AFP, saying, No-one has
the right to interfere in what comes under the states authority.
Defending the planned housing element of the new scheme, al-Sheikh
said that it was intended to house pilgrims to Mecca and that
this is in the interest of Muslims all over the world.
The Ottomans had constructed al-Ajyad castle itself to provide
housing and protection to Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. Moreover,
the luxury nature of the apartments and hotel complex, to be built
on the grounds of the former castle, clearly shows this accommodation
is not meant for ordinary Muslim pilgrims, as al-Sheikh boasts,
but the wealthy. Access to these facilities will only be open
to a thin layer of the richest visitors.
Al-Shaikh also sought to defend the demolition by calling it
an act of preservation claiming somewhat disingenuously
that a reconstruction of the fort would be included as part of
the site redevelopment. Said Zulifcar, head of Patrimonie Sans
Frontieres, the Paris-based monument protection non-governmental
organisation, rubbished this claim. Well, whats the
point of demolishing it if they are going to rebuild it? And if
you rebuild something which was already historical, you dont
rebuild the authentic structure, he said.
The al-Ajyad castle stood on a hill overlooking the grand Mosque
and was built in 1780 by the ruling Ottomans to keep the Wahhabi
Islamic sect out of Mecca. Carel Bertram, a historian of Ottoman
art at the University of Texas described the demolition as a very
sectarian move. Denouncing Saudi plans as an erasure
of the past she said the demolition was part of a wider
effort by Saudi Arabias dominant Wahhabi elite to expunge
the Islamic world of any remaining element of cultural and religious
diversity. It is a way for the Wahhabi sect to show that
there is no form of Islamon the ground, in the past, or
in peoples memoriesother than their own.
Motivated by religious zealotry the Saudi authorities carried
out enormous demolition campaigns in Mecca and the nearby port
city of Medina after coming to power in the 1920s, and again in
the 1970s. In 1924, they demolished the majority of historical
mosques and monuments in Mecca and Medina. Despite protests from
other Muslim countries and UNESCO they even destroyed the Prophet
Mohammeds house in Mecca and hundreds of mausoleums belonging
to his companions. The al-Ajyad castle survived those decades
of mass demolition, until now.
This latest act of cultural vandalism by Riyadh follows a similar
pattern of destruction by Saudi-funded charities and aid agencies
in the Balkans, not to mention the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas
by the Saudi-backed Taliban. In Bosnia and Kosovo humanitarian
agencies funded and financed by the Saudi royal family are demolishing
Ottoman-era mosques and other monuments to promote their Wahhabi
vision of Islam.
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