In March of this year, a Tuareg armed rebellion in northern Mali and the consequent coup d’état that renegade soldiers staged in the Malian capital Bamaku empowered Salafi fighters, like Ansar al-Din group, to seize the northern part of Mali, including the ancient city of Timbuktu, known as the “City of 333 Saints.” By late June, reports had emerged that Ansar al-Din fighters were destroying various historically important mosques and tombs, many of which are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The “sacred door” of the fifteenth century Sidi Yahia mosque, closed for centuries due to local belief that it would only open at the end of time, was broken down in front of sobbing residents. Armed with hoes, pick-axes, shovels, and hammers, the rebels destroyed half of the town’s shrines in a matter of days, most notably the tombs of the medieval Muslim scholars Sidi Mahmud, Sidi Moctar, and Alpha Moya. A local teacher told Reuters that Sidi Mahmud’s mausoleum “doesn’t exist anymore” and his burial place was now “as bare as a soccer pitch.”
The city of Timbuktu was founded in the fifth century, but most of the monuments that have been destroyed are the legacy of the West African Askiya Dynasty. This period, spanning the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is considered to be Timbuktu’s golden age, when the city became an economic and cultural center on the African continent and home to universities and schools where students and scholars from various parts of Africa and the Islamic world studied and mingled.
The sacrilegious destruction done to Timbuktu’s heritage provoked the indignation of the international community, particularly Muslim and Arab regimes, intergovernmental bodies, and their sponsored media outlets. Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation all issued statements condemning what they considered an assault on “their” rich Muslim/Arab heritage. Even Saudi-owned media outlets like Al-Arabiya English, As-Sharq al-Awsat, and Al-Hayat have joined the bandwagon of reproving such attacks. They did so through featuring pieces by several “liberal” Arab authors who often criticize every aspect of Arab society and culture but their own despotic royal patrons. These writers spared no word in condemning the Salafis of Mali, describing them as “fanatic,” “criminal,” and “locusts…capable of overrunning any piece of land and leaving it barren and destroyed.” However, blame for these destructive acts ultimately lay, according to them, with the people of the Arab and Muslim worlds, who perpetuate the kinds of “cultures” that produce groups like Ansar al-Din.
While bemoaning the tragic fate of what they considered to be “their” heritage in Timbuktu, almost all Arab and Muslim regimes—and the authors and intellectuals their media empires feature—have acquiesced to what has been happening at the heart of the Muslim world since the rise of the first Saudi state in the eighteenth century. The actions of Salafis in Mali are trivial when compared with those committed by the Saudi regime. Indeed, the Saudi regime has set the precedent for Ansar al-Din in Mali and puritans in Muslim societies by systematically destroying Islamic historical and sacred sites and harassing, sometimes even butchering, those who attended them. Nevertheless, most Muslim nations, for different reasons, have not uttered a word of protest against the destruction of Islam’s holiest sites within the borders of the Saudi Kingdom.
Among international actors, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has displayed the most egregious hypocrisy, itself established in the aftermath of the 1969 arson attack on al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The organization’s zeal for protecting Muslim sites under Israeli occupation from destruction and its absolute indifference and disregard for sites bulldozed by the Saudi regime is astonishing. Worse, it has recently issued a statement on Timbuktu deploring “bigoted extremist elements” for destroying Mali’s “rich Islamic heritage.” The insincerity of the Organization’s Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, who is a respected figure, and his organization have eroded whatever credibility they have left today.
The following paragraphs will highlight very briefly both historical and current instances when the Saudi regime systematically engaged in acts far worse than those of Ansar al-Din in Timbuktu, yet they have been almost completely ignored by the same parties that condemned the destruction in Timbuktu. Hopefully, this will raise awareness about the gravity of the persisting tragedy in the Hejaz and put an end to this era of historical amnesia.
Karbala is the burial place of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein and is among the holiest sites for Shi`a Muslims. The city and her residents are one of the earliest victims of the Saudi-Wahhabi coalition’s campaign that targeted shrines and their attendants. In 1802, Wahhabi forces led by Abdulaziz ibn Sa`ud sacked the city, looted the shrine of Hussein, and massacred hundreds of pilgrims and residents. In a vivid account of the event, Stephen Longrigg wrote:
Forcing their way into the court of the shrine, the ferocious Purists began their task in the very Tomb [of Husain]. The rails, then the casings, then the huge mirrors of the shrine were torn down. Offerings of Pashas, Princes, and Kings of Persia, walls and roofing plated with gold, candlesticks, rich carpets and hangings, bricks of copper, doors studded with precious stones—all were seized and dragged forth. Within the Tomb nearly fifty persons were massacred, in the courtyard five hundred more.
Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, has not been spared from desecration. In the last decade, academics, urban planners, and journalists have documented the destruction and desecration of various sites around the Grand Mosque, most notably the ochre-colored Ottoman Ajyad fortress and Bayt al-Mawlid [the Prophet’s birthplace]. The house of the Prophet’s wife Khadija (d. 619), where Muhammad resided during the first years of his mission and where his only daughter Fatima was born, has also been demolished. Historically, the people and rulers of Mecca appreciated the significance of the house of Khadija, and it was converted into a small mosque during the Umayyad period, shading it by a dome and introducing into it a prayer niche. It played a central role in different religious ceremonies organized by rulers seeking to buttress their religious credentials among Mecca’s residents. Instructed by the Ottoman Sultan Mustafa II (d. 1703), the governor of Jeddah, Sulayman Pasha, held an annual ceremony there during the month of Ramadan to mark the anniversary of the day the Prophet received his first divine revelation. One writer describes the ceremony:
The Pasha was to execute these new responsibilities of his with great humility and solemnity… During this ceremony, men led by the Pasha and other dignitaries, would voluntarily walk along in congregation at a gentle pace from the Haram’s door known as the "Bab al-Haririyin" towards the house of "the Mother of the Believers," the Lady Khadijah, where the Prophet was residing at the time he received his first “Wahi," marking the beginning of his mission as a prophet and messenger of Allah… There, they would listen to the recitation of some Verses from the Qur’an and Orations (Hadith) of the Prophet and compositions in his praise, offer the Fatihah — (recitation of the opening chapter of the Qur’an)—towards the end in honor of the Prophet and make their way back towards the Grand Mosque and re-enter it through the entrance called "Bab ‘Ali." Sweets and refreshments would then be offered there to the congregation under the Dome of ‘Abbas.
Upon the remains of this once-sacred spot, the Saudi regime has built a toilet complex.
The city of Medina fell victim to the Saudi regime as well, which looted the Prophet’s Mosque and harassed its attendants. In the early nineteenth century, the Spanish explorer Domingo Badía y Leblich travelled to the Hejaz under the pseudonym Ali Bey al-Abbasi with a large caravan, claiming to be a descendant of an Abbasid prince born in Aleppo. On his way from Mecca to Medina, Ali Bey met the tefterdar [treasurer] and “the principal people employed in the temple at Medina,” with whom he became acquainted during his journey. About his conversation with them, he reports:
They informed me that the Wehhabites had destroyed all the ornaments of the sepulcher of the Prophet, and that there remained absolutely nothing; that they had shut and sealed the doors of the temple; and that Saaoud had taken possession of the immense treasures which had been accumulating for so many ages. The Tefterdar assured me that the value of the pearls and precious stones was above all estimation.
An important site in Medina that has also been largely destroyed is the Baqi’ Cemetery, located across from the Prophet’s Mosque. A large number of the earliest and most prominent figures of Islam from the seventh and eighth centuries are buried in this cemetery. Until the Saudi conquest of the Hejaz in the early twentieth century, the cemetery possessed around sixteen domed structures, “great and small, shading a number of these graves, either individually or in groups.”
For many, the Baqi’ with its shrines had been a place of spiritual retreat and renewal. Muhammad Kibrit (1603-1660), a literatus from Medina, outlines for us the design of the Baqi’ Cemetery in seventeenth-century Medina. He describes mosques and sites in the cemetery that no longer exist under Saudi rule. At the end of his commentary, Kibrit writes:
And in general, al-Baqi’ is a pastime for the aggrieved and an amusement for the infatuated…
God has irrigated the environs of Baqi’, from felicity
clouds of charity, forgiveness, and remission
upon its foothill my heart is residing
because in it my family, companions, and brothers have resided.
The tragic fate of the Baqi’ Cemetery, now barren and heavily policed by the Saudi authorities, has inflicted a deep wound in the collective memory of the Shi`a community, among others, and continues to be a major source of grievance against the Saudi regime. To the Shi`a, the cemetery derives its greatest significance from the tombs of four Shi`a Imams, which, Kibrit tells us in the seventeenth century, were shaded by “an elevated dome of old construction.” In sixteenth century pictorial representations, the dome appears as the largest in the cemetery.
When the Hejaz surrendered in 1925 for the final time to Abdulaziz b. Saud (d. 1953), the founder of the modern Saudi Kingdom, the shrines in the cemetery were razed to the ground, an event that sent shockwaves across the Muslim world. On 25 May 1926, an Iraqi newspaper published a letter sent by an eyewitness to the event:
…And the order was issued for the destruction and vandalism of the holy shrines, and the personnel began first by looting all that these sacred sites contain in the Baqi’: carpets, curtains, pendants, lanterns, and other things. Then they began to demolish those holy sites and mandated all the masons of Medina to join in the vandalism and destruction. The duty now is that all believers who wish through these pure Imams intercession and [noble] status from God the Almighty must be made aware of this catastrophe. [They should] all cooperate, whether Arab, Persian, Indian, or Turk, and thunder to their government to intervene, uplift this great disaster, and redress what has happened. Today, the eighth of Shawwal, the vandalism and destruction occurred to the sacred domes in the Baqi’. There is no might nor power except in God, the Sublime and Great. You must proceed and inform the clerics of Iraq about this catastrophic event.
The destruction of historical sites and the violent mistreatment of pilgrims has been a consistent policy upheld to this day by the current Saudi regime. Saudi religious police prohibit visitors from approaching the tombs of the Shi`a Imams in the Baqi’ Cemetery, and there are yearly reports and many more undocumented accounts of visitors to the cemetery being harassed, cursed, arrested, beaten, and told they are infidels.
The Saudi regime continues to bulldoze Mecca’s and Medina’s monuments, constructing on their ruins skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and shopping malls. Among the few surviving sites, Ottoman-carved columns dating back to the seventeenth century in the Grand Mosque, the green dome that adorns the mosque housing the Prophet’s tomb, and the sixth century house where the Prophet was born are all under threat of destruction. With pre-modern Mecca almost wiped out, the annual spiritual journey to Mecca and Medina has been turned into “a new spectacle.” In the words of the Saudi Minister of Hajj, the pilgrimage now resembles “twenty Super Bowls in one stadium, when two million will come, and . . . these two million people will actually be taking part in playing the game.”
Unfortunately, the acquiescence of governments and regional bodies and the blackout imposed on the matter by their media empires have allowed the cleansing of the Hejaz to continue largely unopposed. They helped to anesthetize the general public to the gravity of what has happened to sites of great historical and religious significance, lulling it with illusory nostrums that celebrate King Abdullah’s large commercial development schemes in the Hejaz. In one instance, a self-ascribed “liberal” and “independent” Kuwaiti daily, al-Qabas, informs its readers, in a piece that mentions the word tatwir [development] more than half a dozen times, that Mecca is “heading to become the capital of hotels in the world.” Not once have al-Qabas and mainstream media outlets in the Gulf broached the bitter consequences of Saudi “development” schemes; that the soon-to-be “capital of hotels” is actually being “choked” and built on the ruins of Islam’s earliest surviving material legacy. In the words of a Kashmiri writer, “Modern Mecca [now] feels as if it were built by a people without history or tradition — a sprawling imitation of modernist architecture.”
Given the complicit nature of governments and regional organizations in this destruction, people themselves must take up the responsibility and pursue the legal and international mechanisms the twentieth century has given birth to in order to save whatever remains of Islam’s heritage in the Hejaz and to rebuild what has been destroyed already. In the aftermath of the events of Timbuktu this year, the International Criminal Court’s Chief Persecutor Fatou Bensouda described the fighters’ assault on historical mosques and tombs as a “war crime,” since such attacks targeted “undefended civilian buildings which are not military objectives.” Citing Article 8 in the Rome Statute, Bensouda argued that international law protects historical monuments and buildings dedicated to religion from destruction. Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, called the destruction of Timbuktu’s tombs an “attack against humanity.” Similarly, the Saudi regime’s destruction of ancient tombs, mosques, and shrines in the Hejaz is tantamount to war crimes and crimes against humanity that must be stopped. There is a legal, diplomatic, and moral ground that would support the prosecution of those responsible for destroying Islam’s undefended historical buildings and mausoleums in the Hejaz, beginning with the aged Saudi King and ending with his religious police on the ground tasked with terrorizing pilgrims.
The world came together in an international campaign organized by UNESCO from the 1960s to the 1980s to save Temples of Ramses II at Abu Simbel and the Sanctuary of Isis at Philae from the rising waters of the Nile when Egypt’s High Dam was being constructed. The international community assembled funds and expertise to save a heritage it identified with and took pride in. Similarly, archeologists, Assyriologists, and scholars of Babylonian history were outraged at the cultural devastation of Mesopotamia’s heritage in the Iraq Museum in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. Meanwhile, the scholarly and international community remains largely indifferent to the cleansing of Islam’s material legacy in its birthplace. Like the heritage of Pharaonic Egypt and Babylonian Mesopotamia, Islam’s heritage should be embraced, defended, and rebuilt before an essential chapter of the past is gone beyond recovery.
 Stephen Hemsley Longrigg, Four Centuries of Modern Iraq (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), 217.
 Sultan Ghalib Al-Qu’aiti, The Holy Cities, the Pilgrimage and the World of Islam: A History from the Earliest Traditions till 1925 (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 2007), 224-5.
 Ali Bey, Travels of Ali Bey, 2:159.
 Al-Qu’aiti, The Holy Cities, 428.
 Muhammad ‘Abd Allah Kibrit, Al-jawahir al-thamina fi mahasin al-madina, ‘A’idh al-Ridadi, ed. (Riyadh: n.p., 1998), 534-35.
 Hasan b. Ali (d. 670), Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin (d. 659), Muhammad al-Baqir (d. 732), and Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. 765)
 Kibrit, Al-jawahir al-thamina, 530.
 Anonymous, Al-Iraq, May 25, 1926. Cited in Ali al-Wardi, Lamahat ijtima’iyya min tarikh al-Iraq al-hadith (Baghdad: n.p., 1969-80), 6-supplement:307-8.
 Basharat Peer, “Modern Mecca,” New Yorker, April 16, 2012, 75.