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Archaeology heartbreak: How precious ancient sites of Islamic world are being destroyed

Many pieces of ancient history within the Islamic world have long been considered unsalvageable. A combination of extremist groups in North Africa and the Middle East destroying remnants of the past, and construction works around Holy Sites, have resulted in thousands of years of history being lost.

The phenomenon is particularly prevalent in Saudi Arabia.

For centuries, the Kaaba – the black cube at the centre of Mecca – has been encircled by arched porticos erected three centuries ago by the Ottomans – placed above carved marble columns dating back to the 8th century.

In 2014, these precious pieces of history were reduced to rubble, making way for the Saudi government’s expansion of Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

The authorities claimed it was necessary to accommodate the millions who visit Islam’s holiest point – an argument which many concede is entirely plausible.

Yet, activists claim it is one in a string of aggressive acts from the government in a bid to scrub-out historical and religious sites across the kingdom.

In London, the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation predicts some 98 percent of the Saudi kingdom’s historical and religious sites have been destroyed since 1985.

Just months before the Saudi government approved the demolitions, the BBC, during its January 2014 podcast ‘Beyond Belief: Archaeology and Religion’ explored just how difficult a job Islamic researchers have in excavating pieces of history from that part of the world.

Ernie Rea, the podcast’s host, put the question to Professor Tim Insoll, archaeologist and Al-Qasimi Professor of African and Islamic archaeology at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (IAIS).

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Mr Rea asked: “The study of archaeology in Islam is quite problematic because a lot of the evidence has been destroyed because it reeks of idolatry.”

Prof Insoll replied: “I would say there are incidents of where this sort of evidence has been destroyed.

“We had one in Timbuktu where there was some shrine destruction going on.

“But there are still many shrines surrounding it.

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“I think the issue is to do with the understanding of Islamic practice – that there are different varieties within practice in the overall structure of Islam.

“I think where the destruction has taken place from which we could’ve learned an immense amount is in Saudi Arabia itself.

“In particular the great sites of Mecca and Medina.

“If work had been possible there then we would have learned a lot.

“Both Saudi and foreign archaeologists have not been able to work in particularly those two sites and more generally in Said Arabia until in the last 10 years or so.

“Those two sites are so sensitive in some ways.

“There is for example in Mecca immense rebuilding that is going on that must be destroying the archaeological record.”

Many of the Ottoman and Abbasid columns in Mecca were inscribed with intricate Arabic calligraphy marking the names of the prophet Muhammad’s companions and key moments in his life.

One column believed to have been torn down supposedly marked the spot where Muslims believe Muhammad began his heavenly journey on a winged horse.

In 2013, the then King Abdullah appeared to show some respect towards the historical sites after he retracted expansion plans of the masjid an-Nabawi in Medina that would have destroyed three of the world’s oldest mosques.

The new king, Salman, seems not to have gifted such care, however, as contraction and expansion continues throughout the metropolis that is Mecca.

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