RIYADH–ISTANBUL (Reuters–Marmara)–Turkey and Saudi Arabia are entangled in a rift over an Ottoman-era fortress–which Saudi officials have opted to move to make room for a government-sponsored redevelopment project.
Turkey is insisting that the Ottoman fortress should not be moved since it is an icon of the Ottoman Empire. Saudi officials and UNESCO representatives say that if Turkey views itself as an heir to the Ottoman Empire–it must take responsibility for that era’s mistakes–as well.
"It is very difficult to see Turkey as the Ottoman heir. If Turkey views itself as the descendent of the Ottoman regime–in that case it must take responsibility for all ‘dirty deeds’ perpetrated by the Ottomans–among them it should recognize the Armenian Genocide and all other human rights violations," said a UNESCO representative.
Meanwhile–Saudi Arabia on Wednesday denied that an Ottoman-era fortress near the Muslim holy city of Mecca was being destroyed and said the historic structure had been dismantled and would be rebuilt at another site.
Islamic Affairs Minister Saleh bin Abdul-Aziz bin Mohammad al-Sheikh expressed "astonishment" at reports that Turkish officials had protested the Saudi move and said it was decided the al-Ajyad fort should be moved to make way for a development project.
"What has been carried out–after being approved by the Saudi leadership–is to lift the fortress in accordance with detailed plans to rebuild. This is an act of preservation," SPA quoted Sheikh as saying.
Turkey said on Monday it had protested to the UN cultural organization UNESCO about the demolition of the fort–comparing the move to the destruction of giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan by the country’s former Taliban rulers.
Sheikh rejected the Turkish charges.
"Saudi Arabia is acting within its sovereign rights and no one is allowed to intervene in the state’s sovereignty," he said.
Sheikh said the fort–used for decades to defend Mecca–was not very old and had not been designed to last very long but Saudi Arabia was keen to preserve it.
"The fort–built from small rocks and part of it being made of mud–is not made to last for a long time and rebuilding it is part of preserving it," he said.
The minister said Saudi Arabia intended to build a complex at the site that would benefit Muslim pilgrims to Mecca.
Saudi media have said the multi-million-dollar project–due to be completed in 2005–included 11 high-rise residential towers and a five star hotel. Media reports said the project also involved rebuilding the castle.
A Saudi newspaper earlier blasted the Turkish objections–saying Turkey was not qualified to discuss Islamic heritage.
"Turkey is the last country to talk about preserving Islamic or human heritage because Turkey did not hesitate to cancel its history with a military decision…until it became a country with no identity," Okaz said in a reference to Kemal Ataturk–who converted Turkey into a secular state from an Islamic one.
Okaz said Turkey was "ignorant and hostile" for comparing the fortress to the Buddhist statues and likening Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan’s vanquished rulers.