Sami Angawi, an expert on the region's Islamic architecture, said 1400-year-old buildings from the early Islamic period risk being demolished to make way for high rise towers for Muslims flocking to perform the annual pilgrimage to Islam's most revered city.

"We are witnessing now the last few moments of the history of Makka," Angawi said on Thursday. "Its layers of history are being bulldozed for a parking lot," he added.

Angawi estimated that over the past 50 years at least 300 historical buildings had been levelled in Makka and Medina, another revered city containing Muhammad's tomb.

Fear of idolatry

Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's dominant doctrine that promotes a strict interpretation of Islam, was largely to blame for the destruction, he said.

"They (Wahhabis) have not allowed preservation of old buildings, especially those related to the prophet. They fear other Muslims will come to see these buildings as blessed and this could lead to polytheism and idolatry."

The Washington-based Saudi Institute, an independent news gathering group, says most Islamic landmarks have been destroyed since Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932.

At the heart of the Hajj, the
Kaaba is oldest structure in Makka

It cited a 1994 edict by the kingdom's senior council of religious scholars which ruled that preserving historical buildings might lead to polytheism.

Angawi, who founded the Haj Research Centre in 1975 to study and preserve Makka's and Medina's rich history, claims to have identified a home of Muhammad.

But he is reluctant to publicise its location, fearing it would be demolished like Dar al-Arqam - the first school in Islam where the prophet taught.

Scholarly support

Angawi's views were echoed elsewhere. In London, Geoffrey King, Islamic art and archaeology specialist at the School of Oriental and African and Studies, said the fate of Islamic historic sites in Saudi Arabia was "depressing".

"The religious authorities have failed to appreciate the significance of these buildings to Muslims and scholars worldwide," said King, who taught for several years in the kingdom and stressed many young Saudis agreed with him.
 
Followers of Wahhabism say Muslims should focus on Makka's Grand mosque, which contains the Kaaba - an ancient structure that more than four million Muslims visit each year as part of Hajj and Umra pilgrimages.

Real estate dream

Real estate firms see massive demand for new accommodation to house up to 20 million pilgrims expected to visit Islam's most important city annually over the coming years as the authorities relax entry restrictions for pilgrims. 

Some 20 million Muslims visit
Makka every year

"The infrastructure at the moment cannot cope. New hotels, apartments and services are badly needed," the director of a leading real estate company said, estimating that developers are spending around $13 billion on projects in the city.

Dominating these is the 10 billion riyal Jabal Omar scheme. Covering a 230,000-sq-m area adjacent to the Grand mosque, the seven-year project consists of several towers containing hotels, apartments, shops and restaurants.

Angawi said these developments will dwarf Makka's Grand mosque and are a sign of crass commercialisation.

Hot debate

"Makka is being treated like a bad copy of any city when it is a sanctuary. The house of God is being commercialised and these developments are disrespectful and totally out of proportion."

But the Jabal Omar Development Company, the firm behind the project, said it was changing Makka for the better, not least by demolishing more than 1000 poorly built homes that clung precariously to the hillsides around the Grand mosque.

The firm said around 70,000 residents of 29 different nationalities used to live on the Jabal Omar site before selling and moving into better quality housing elsewhere.

The residents of a similar neighbourhood close by seem to be equally eager to attract developers.

But Angawi is not convinced of the developers' motives.

"We have to accommodate these new pilgrims, but do we have to do it in towers and skyscrapers? Making money seems to be the bottom line here," he said. 

"We are destroying physical links to our past and turning our religion and history into a legend."