Second Casualty of War: Historic Architectural Sites ; Saudi Aid Agencies, among Others, Have Begun Renovating and Tearing Down Mosques, Historic Sites

Article excerpt

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 Islamic."

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 damaged mosques.

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. …


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