Destroying Ottoman castle to build hotel is 'cultural massacre'

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The Independent Online

The destruction of an Ottoman-era fortress in Mecca to make way for a hotel complex was described as a "cultural massacre" yesterday.

Saudi authorities allegedly demolished the al-Ajyad castle to build accommodation and a shops for pilgrims visiting the holy city, an action Turkey has compared to the vandalism of Afghanistan's Taliban militia.

"The destruction of the al-Ajyad fort, part of the common cultural heritage of humanity, is an act equivalent to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan," the Turkish Culture Ministry said yesterday.

Turkey says it was given assurances last year from Saudi authorities that the castle would be preserved. Now it has learnt that the fort, which was built in 1780 on Bulbul mountain to protect the city and its Muslim shrines from invaders, has been destroyed. The Saudis have not confirmed the destruction of the fort.

Istemihan Talay, Turkey's Culture Minister, has asked Unesco, the UN agency responsible for the preservation of cultural relics, to protest to Saudi Arabia. "This is a crime against humanity and Unesco should expose this disgraceful and ugly destruction and cultural massacre," the minister said.

Ottoman Turks once ruled a vast empire ranging from the Arabian peninsula to the Bal-kans and north Africa, and the destruction of the fort has angered many in Turkey.

The front-page headline of yesterday's Hurriyet newspaper read: "King Fahd is erasing Turkish footprints".

Orhan Arslan, deputy chairman of Turkey's pro-Islamic Great Unity Party, said: "The Saudis appear to have made destroying Ottoman relics their goal. Ottoman cultural heritage is being eradicated."

Mr Talay said Turkey would press for the al-Ajyad castle to be rebuilt. It is already helping in the reconstruction of the Ottoman-era Mostar bridge in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was destroyed by artillery in the war of 1993.

The Ottoman empire finally disintegrated at the start of the 20th century, when Turkey became a secular state. The Turks suspect that the Saudis saw the fort as an unwelcome reminder of Turkish rule.