Friday, December 31, 2010

How is history viewed in Saudi Arabia?

Last August I had a post about the gigantic clock in Mecca. The main focus of my post was to address some of the bizarre pseudoscientific geological claims about Mecca. Just in passing, I had also mentioned the oddity of the presence of such a large structure next to a serene and spiritual center for Muslims. Indeed, it is not just the clock that is the problem, but it is also the construction of other high rises and luxury hotels:
It is an architectural absurdity. Just south of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Muslim world’s holiest site, a kitsch rendition of London’s Big Ben is nearing completion. Called the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, it will be one of the tallest buildings in the world, the centerpiece of a complex that is housing a gargantuan shopping mall, an 800-room hotel and a prayer hall for several thousand people. Its muscular form, an unabashed knockoff of the original, blown up to a grotesque scale, will be decorated with Arabic inscriptions and topped by a crescent-shape spire in what feels like a cynical nod to Islam’s architectural past. To make room for it, the Saudi government bulldozed an 18th-century Ottoman fortress and the hill it stood on.
The tower is just one of many construction projects in the very center of Mecca, from train lines to numerous luxury high-rises and hotels and a huge expansion of the Grand Mosque. 
While this commercialization is appalling, the destruction of history around the city is completely nuts. Then there was this in the article (tip from Laura Sizer):
And, they add, it has been facilitated by Saudi Arabia’s especially strict interpretation of Islam, which regards much history after the age of Muhammad, and the artifacts it produced, as corrupt, meaning that centuries-old buildings can be destroyed with impunity.
Now I know that many of the graves, tombs, and historical monuments in Arabia were destroyed (sigh!) by Wahabis in the early 19th century. But I didn't know about this particular idea of a corrupt history after seventh century AD. Does any one know more about it? This is truly medieval thinking (no pun intended). Even so, people like al-Tabari and Ibn-Khaldun must be rolling in their graves after hearing such disregard for history.

No wonder Saudi Arabia needs a big clock. They are completely stuck in time.

I'm curious about this ahistorical fetish, as I did not hear about it in Pakistan, and ancient as well as recent history is taught in schools. From my recent trip to Egypt, it was clear that they are proud of both their pre-Islamic and post-Islamic sites. Though, I do think it was nuts that Saladin's son, Al-Aziz, tried to dismantle the great pyramids at Giza in the 12th century. After several months of trying, he gave up. He did leave one of the pyramids a little damaged. But then, conquerers at the time used to do these type of things. The wonderful temple at Luxor has Greek and Roman modifications, as well as a 16th century mosque in its compound. Similarly the spectacular beauty of a palace of Alhambra is interrupted by an intrusive palace built by Charles V. But in all these cases, they are at least going after the artifacts of their rivals. Saudis, on the other hand, are showing disregard for their own history; they seem to be considering history itself as a rival. So I'm now curious about how history is taught in Saudi Arabia.

In any case, you can check out pictures of the construction of the clock. Please also check out this entertaining post at Tabsir: Ibn Big Ben.

Here is a view of Kaaba from the top of the clock tower:

Also see:


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