Opposition complains Saudi indifferent to Turkish concerns over portico

In the wake of an expansion project being implemented within the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the Ottoman porticos are reportedly being removed by local authorities. (Photo: Today's Zaman, Ali Ünal)

February 11, 2013, Monday/ 16:59:00

Turkish opposition parties have complained that Saudi Arabia is not being sensitive to the importance of protecting historic Ottoman-era structures in Mecca after a number of news reports indicated that the Saudi government has started to demolish ancient porticos.

“We urge Saudi Arabia to recognize the importance of the historical Ottoman monuments in their country,” Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputy Ahmet Duran Bulut told Today's Zaman.

The fate of the Ottoman porticos within the Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque) in Mecca has been a concern for Turkey, which views it as an important part of a shared Islamic heritage, for a long time due to reports saying the 17th century porticos are being removed by Meccan authorities as part of an expansion project to create more space for the increasing number of pilgrims.

Bulut, who had also submitted a parliamentary question to Parliament recently enquiring about the recent situation of the Ottoman porticos in Mecca, called on the Turkish government to take urgent steps for the protection of monuments, which reflect the Turkish people's national and moral values, according to him.

Last year, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz ordered that the Ottoman porticos be preserved, ordering the demolition of only the porticos that were built in recent times, however, there are news reports stating that some Ottoman-era porticos were demolished in recently.

İhsan Özkes, Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy and former cleric, told Today's Zaman that his party was monitoring the situation of the porticos in Saudi Arabia closely, adding he had obtained information and photos showing the destruction of some of the porticos recently.

“A few months ago Saudi officials in Ankara told us that they will not demolish the Ottoman-era porticos. But according to the latest information I obtained, Saudi authorities have started to demolish these porticos,” Özkes said.

According to the Saudi government's planned project the destruction of the porticos will mean that the size of the mosque can be increased to 500,000 square meters, doubling its current size.

However, there has been debate among various circles in Turkey over whether the historic Ottoman portico within the Grand Mosque will really be demolished as part of the project or not. An Ottoman-era portico has become the latest issue of contention between Turkish authorities who that want to preserve the city's architectural heritage as well as the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and Saudi authorities who are pushing for redevelopment.

Özkes also complained that his party applied to the Saudi embassy 40 days ago in order to be able to visit Mecca for a fact-checking mission, but the Saudi authorities have yet to respond. “We mentioned to the Saudi authorities that our party wants to pay a diplomatic visit to Mecca to check the porticos but it seems that the Saudi side is wasting our time,” said Özkes.

The CHP deputy also submitted a parliamentary question over the matter. When asked whether he was satisfied by the reply of the government to his question, he replied no, saying necessary awareness should be shown by the government over the issue.

This is not the first time Turkey was distressed by a move by Saudi authorities to destroy Ottoman-era buildings in Mecca. In 2002, Ankara was very much concerned over the destruction of Mecca's Al Ajyad fortress, which was built in the late 18th century.

Agreeing with Özkes, Bulut also complained that Turkish government is being silent and not being sensitive to the issue. “I want the government to show sensitivity towards our country's valuable and historical monuments," said Bulut.

Turkey monitors situation of porticos closely

Turkey says it is concerned over the possible loss of Ottoman structures, an issue which the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been discussing with Saudi counterparts since 2010.

A senior Turkish diplomat, who spoke to Today's Zaman on the condition of anonymity, stated that Turkey is monitoring Saudi Arabia's steps regarding the portico issue for many years.

“We are in close contact with Saudi authorities over the matter. The two sides are trying to find an optimum balance which will both serve for the physical conditions of the mosque, but will also serve for the protection of heritage. We believe that Saudi authorities understand Turkey's concerns and are sensible over the matter,” said the official.

Turkish officials have raised their concerns over the matter at several meetings with the Saudi authorities and requested that the portico, the only remnant of Ottoman heritage in Mecca, be left intact.

The official also added that Saudi authorities say it will be carried out very carefully.

The project is being carried out by a Turkish company upon the request of the king. This company has been selected in order to identify which portico's sections in the mosque are from the Ottoman-era and which were built in the recent times. According to reports, 27 sections of the porticos had been built very recently.

The project is being carried out in two stages; in 2009 the first stage started and included the demolition of 350 hotels, offices and other buildings around the mosque. The second stage includes the expansion of the prayer area.

Previously, the Saudi project again drew the ire of Muslims when some sections of the portico were about to be demolished, but Saudi authorities explained that the demolished sections of the portico were built 10 years ago after their original forms were greatly damaged.

The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism refrained from commenting about the issue to Today's Zaman. The Turkish ambassador in Riyadh and Saudi officials in Ankara were not immediately available for comment.

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