There's one thing that current pilgrims making the hajj to Mecca won't see when they visit the holy city. In early January, Saudi Arabian authorities allowed the partial demolition of a 222-year-old Ottoman fort on the historic Bulbul hill in Mecca, triggering a howl of protest from authorities in Turkey. (Turkey, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, arose in its modern Westernized form in 1923 from the former Ottoman Empire.) Turkey insists that Saudi authorities had pledged not to raze the monument, built in 1780 by Ottoman rulers. A residential complex for hajj pilgrims is slated to be built on the site.
The spat has refocused scrutiny on Saudia Arabia's stringent interpretation of Islam and its destruction of other culturally sensitive structures. (A handful of early Islamic mosques in the holy city of Medina apparently have also been demolished and the nearby site of an ancient battle in Islamic history was converted into a parking lot.) Turkish-Saudi ties have been overshadowed by suspicion and prickliness since Ottoman Turks were evicted from much of the region after the Arab revolt of the early 20th century.
In defense of Riyadh's decision, the Arabic-language Saudi newspaper Okaz, often a mouthpiece for official views, claimed the fortress was not an important Islamic monument. "Turkey is the last country to talk about preserving Islamic...heritage," claimed a commentary in the paper. "Turkey did not hesitate to erase its history [becoming] a country with no identity." Another newspaper, the Riyadh Daily, chimed in: "Despite the structure having no religious value...Turkey would rather have had it stand for spent glory rather than make way for pilgrim welfare."
Turks say the demolition is a crime against civilization, tantamount to the Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues at Bamian, Afghanistan. "It has once again become clear that the source of the Taliban mentality is Saudi Arabia," fumed Turkish cultural minister Istemihan Talay, who lodged a complaint with the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Talay likened the fortress' destruction to a "cultural massacre."
The dilapidated Ajyad fortress, built in 1780 by the Ottomans to protect Mecca from rebel tribes, is being torn down to make way for a $530 million residential complex sponsored by the royal family including a twin-tower 1,200-room five-star luxury hotel. The fort commanded a strategic view from the top of Bulbul Hill overlooking the Grand Mosque, where pilgrims have flocked this month to conduct the hajj. "It's another example of Saudis hoping to erase the non-Arab history of Islam in the region," said a foreign diplomat in Riyadh.
Who would want to replace a historical structure with yet another modern building project? The contract had been awarded to the Bin Laden Construction Company, run by relatives of notorious Saudi fugitive Osama Bin Laden. (He is estranged from his extended family in Saudi Arabia.) After the brouhaha erupted with Turkey, Saudi authorities denied the fort was being "destroyed" and promised that it would be rebuilt at another site. They also recently invited new bids for the construction of the residential complex.
Of course, Ottoman-era relics are just one of a long list of items that Saudi authorities look down upon, denounce or outright ban because they're deemed insufficiently Islamic. This month members of the religious police--officially the "committee for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice"--gave three days notice to shopkeepers to get rid of all red roses, red boxes, teddy bears and other Valentine's Day gifts. Odes to Cupid are considered a "pagan" ritual.