By: David Usborne
Fresh plans are being drawn up to erect a modern complex on the site of what scholars of Islam contend is the birthplace of the Prophet Mohamed as part of a sweeping multi-billion-dollar redevelopment of the pilgrimage city of Mecca that has already ravaged many sacred sites and structures.
If approved, the project, details of which have been obtained by The Independent, would entail the demolition of a small library steps away from the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque, which sits directly on top of what are believed to be the remains of the house of the Prophet’s birth.
Hopes that the library, which stands on a raised plinth, and the site beneath it would be spared rose briefly last year when Saudi Arabia’s royal family backed off earlier plans to replace it, either with a sprawling metro rail station to drop off pilgrims or an enormous new library dedicated to King Abdul Aziz, founder of the modern kingdom.
But the construction company in charge of redeveloping the area, the Saudi Binladin Group, proposes that it be razed to make way instead for the imam’s residence and an adjacent presidential palace.
The Saudi royal family are adherents of the Wahabi faith, an 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.
The kingdom’s rulers, who deny Mohamed was born in what is known as the House of Mawlid, are opposed to preserving relics of the Prophet because they say it encourages shirq, the sin of worshipping idols other than God.
The rush to transform Mecca at a cost of tens of billions of dollars into a shiny metropolis of skyscrapers and hotels, and the giant expansion of the mosque itself to accommodate ever greater numbers of pilgrims continues pell-mell with scant regard for archaeological preservation of any kind.
Ottoman-era columns in the mosque bearing inscriptions pertaining to the Prophet have been toppled, while the house of his wife, steps from the library, is the site of a giant toilet block.
For critics, the destruction of the Mawlid House would be the final straw. “The last remaining historical site in the kingdom is the birthplace of the Prophet Mohamed, probably the most important site to the Muslim and Shia community around the world,” Dr Irfan al-Alawi, a historian and executive director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation said. “Most people are not even aware there are plans now to destroy it.”
Building a grand new residence and a presidential palace would almost certainly mean encroaching on what remains of the house. Once the site is overbuilt with new concrete and marble all opportunity for archaeological exploration would presumably be lost.
The small library – a squat stucco building which rarely opens for visitors – is one of the last existing structures standing in the way of the bulldozers. It was built in the early 1950s as a means of protecting what lies beneath it.