Off a dusty sidestreet in this historic town in western Kosovo,
the venerable stone domes of a 16th-century Turkish bathhouse rise
with time-weathered grace above a weedy courtyard.
Burned by Serb paramilitaries during the war two years ago, the
baths are closed, awaiting restoration.
Across the street stands the Bathhouse Mosque, which was also
burned. Today, though, it boasts a suburban-style glassed-in
veranda, lemon yellow walls, and a sterile whitewashed prayer room.
Nothing about its appearance hints that the mosque, too, was built
400 years ago by the Ottomans.
That is because a Saudi Arabian aid agency, the Saudi Joint
Relief Committee, rebuilt it last year. And the work that the group
has done here and elsewhere in Kosovo has drawn fierce criticism
for imposing Gulf aesthetics and fundamentalist Islam on a part of
the world where both are foreign.
"The Saudis have been very destructive" of the local Muslim
heritage, says Andras Riedlmayer, a Harvard conservationist who has
catalogued Kosovo's architectural history. "Their approach is to
say they will build everything bigger, better, newer, and more
That means they have painted or plastered over the decorative
frescoes that are a unique aspect of Balkan Muslim architecture,
but which violate the austere Wahabi religious precepts that rule
in Saudi Arabia. "The Saudi mission [in Kosovo] has to do with
their own sectarianism and agenda," says Dr. Riedlmayer.
The Saudi aid agency, which says it has spent $150 million in
Kosovo so far to provide emergency aid to former refugees and to
rebuild schools, hospitals, and houses, does more than just rebuild
In Pristina, the capital, a demolition gang paid by the committee
tore down the undamaged 18th century Kater Llula (Four Fountains)
mosque last year to build a new one on the site, complete with a
shopping mall on the ground floor.
Having survived the war, Kater Llula fell prey, say local
conservationists, to the Saudis' desire to spread their brand of
Islam in the Balkans. In doing so, complains Hadji Mehmetai, the
head of Pristina's Institute for the Protection of Historic
Monuments, they brushed aside his order to save the old mosque.
"They ignored my stop order, and now they are building a much
worse mosque with architectural elements that have nothing to do
with local traditions," says Mr. Mehmetai.
Historical buildings lost
The Saudis and local Islamic authorities are not the only ones to
disregard Mehmetai's rulings. In the past two years, he says, he has
issued 45 protection orders to save historical buildings,
constructed from timbers, mud bricks, and weathered tiles in
typical local style. Thirty-eight of them were ignored.
Mehmetai would be unwise to insist. Pristina's planning officer
was shot dead earlier this year for opposing the construction of
new office space on a site occupied by ancient buildings.
The United Nations administration that runs Kosovo, UNMIK, has
done little to help, according to Gonzalo Retamal, the head of
UNMIK's Culture Department. "The vision inside UNMIK is that
culture is not important," he says. UNMIK police, say foreign
administrators here, are simply too afraid of violent consequences
if they if they get involved in property disputes. …