Even now, signs in four languages warn visitors that there is no proof that the Prophet Muhammad was born there, “so it is forbidden to make this place specific for praying, supplicating or get [sic] blessing.” Wahhabism, the prevailing Saudi strain of Islam, frowns on visits to shrines, tombs or religio-historical sites, on grounds that they might lead to Islam’s gravest sin: worshipping anyone other than God.In recent years, the twin forks of Wahhabi doctrine and urban development have speared most physical reminders of Islamic history in the heart of Mecca.A 61-page report, published recently in Saudi Arabia’s Journal of the Royal Presidency, suggested separating the Prophet’s tomb from Medina’s mosque, a task “that would amount to its destruction,” Alawi says.
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After blue markings appear on sites mentioned in Islamic histories, says Nawwab, then the bulldozers come–often in the dead of night.
“Everything happens at night,” she told TIME by phone from Saudi Arabia.
But activists charge that the recent destructions are part of a much wider government campaign to rub out historical and religious sites across the Kingdom.
Over the last few years, mosques and key sites dating from the time of Muhammad have been knocked down or destroyed, as have Ottoman-era mansions, ancient wells and stone bridges.
“Every time has the right to make changes on the existing urban set-up,” he said. The Kaaba is what’s important.” If Mecca’s new skyline is impossible to ignore, what with 48 searchlights beaming from the top of the Clock Tower, other changes to the landscape are more insidious.
“Everyone’s focused on [the two mosque expansion projects], but people are not focusing on what we’re losing in the meantime,” says Saudi activist, poet and photographer Nimah Ismail Nawwab.
A fence went up at the base of the mountain, warning would-be visitors that it was just a mountain, like any other.
Six small mosques in Medina where Muhammad is believed to have prayed have been locked.
One exception has been Turkey, whose Ottoman heritage has also long been under threat.