The Middle East’s descent into chaos has been accompanied by a growing threat to the region’s historic sites. The breakdown of states and growth in extremism have exposed these ancient sites to looting and destruction. The drivers, however, are varied. Extremist groups like ISIS profit from the smuggling of antiquities, but there are also religious motivations. Extremist movements such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, which adhere to a strictly puritanical view of Islam, perceive heritage sites, including Islamic, as a sinful distraction from faith. The result has been the tragic destruction of Islamic heritage sites in Mali, Syria and Iraq.  

But the threat to ancient sites stems not only from extremists – public development plans, too, have been at times neglectful of the region’s rich archaeological heritage. This can be seen in the demolition of thousands of sites in Mecca and Medina to make way for more building and expansion.   

The multiple threats to the region’s historical monuments have prompted Saudi conservationist, Rana al-Kadi, to push for the preservation of Islamic heritage in the Middle East. A PhD graduate in Conservation and Restoration of Architectural Heritage from the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid in Spain, Kadi has just finished a series of talks in Washington, DC on the preservation of Islamic architecture, one of which was hosted at the Library of Congress. Upon her return to Saudi Arabia, she plans to use her expertise to educate the public on Islamic architecture from a professional perspective, as opposed to merely a religious one.

Kadi was first impressed by Islamic architecture when she lived in Andalusia in southern Spain, a region that saw Muslim rule from North Africa and the Levant for over 700 years beginning in 700 AD. The Islamic empire was at its peak during this period, which resulted in architectural masterpieces such as the Alhambra palace. When Kadi visited these historical sites, the detail and beauty weighed upon her. “When you see a beautiful painting, you stare to understand the view of the artist. When I look at Islamic architecture, I think about their message ... the view from the top was so beautiful, to the limit hard to see,” she says.

As both an Arab and a Muslim, Kadi felt a mixture of pride and curiosity at seeing such stunning structures, built during an Islamic golden era whose lands stretched from Spain to Central Asia, yet realizing how little education she had back in Saudi Arabia about this period’s history of Islamic architecture. "When I was living in Spain, I was fascinated with Islamic architecture, and seeing how the Spanish preserved it.” Kadi noted that coloring books for Spanish kindergarteners contained Quranic phrases taken from buildings. “Imagine you’re living out the importance of these values [of preservation] every day in Spain, yet you know it’s going wrong in Saudi Arabia,” Kadi exclaims.

With an urge to learn more, she began to explore the heritage of such sites in Spain while sharing her findings on social media. With her photography and videos, documenting the intricate designs, she quickly gathered a large following back in the Arab world. “I felt like my contribution was important to make people aware of this heritage,” Kadi says. “I felt people were hungry to know more. If we lack this, we need to focus on it.”

Many of her Arab followers responded to her pictures of Islamic architecture in Spain with feelings of nostalgia for an Arab world having lost its empire. “They keep saying, ‘Oh, we lost it! We lost it!’ But from my point of view, Islam is not a period of time. It’s a way of living. We are already losing our Islamic manners and culture!” Kadi exclaims.

And so, for Kadi, preserving Islamic heritage in the Middle East is not simply a matter of raising awareness of the importance of history, but changing perceptions of Islam among Arab Muslims, and pushing back against puritanical views that do not understand the value of Islamic heritage, or worse, deem it blasphemous. Part of her job, she says, is making Arab societies more aware of how “Islam” is an expansive umbrella term that includes science and art, and not just religion. “We’ve reached this point where religion is detached from real life. Whenever you say Islamic, people [instantly] think it’s religious... But it’s not only religion, it’s a way of life and a culture. It’s much bigger than religion.”

Kadi argues Arab society often submits ownership of anything with the word “Islam” to religious scholars, giving them the ultimate say in the fate of historic buildings and other sites. Consequently, Kadi says, religious scholars often do not see the importance of preservation by international standards, citing religious texts when issuing decisions, instead of taking into account the cultural and historic context of the sites. Currently, most of the books available in the Arab world written about Islamic architecture and history are by religious scholars. “Islamic scholars talk about architecture as if it’s [only] theirs,” she says. “Can I read about Islamic architecture from the perspective of professional architects?”

Religious extremists in Saudi have long believed that historic sites or tombs must be destroyed to prevent places or people from being venerated instead of God. Kadi, however, says the conflict resides not as much with hardline religious views, but more with the lack of appreciation of the value of these historic sites when moving forward with large development projects.

One commonly-cited example of destruction of Islamic heritage was the series of decisions made to accommodate ever-increasing demands of pilgrims arriving into the holy cities of Mecca and Medina by bulldozing the historic sites surrounding the Ka'aba to make room for facilities such as shopping malls and hotels. Kadi argues that the decision to bulldoze the sites was more a buckling under pressure by officials to accommodate pilgrims in time for the coming Hajj, in addition to prioritizing commercial interests over cultural ones. “They’re doing a great job of organizing all the pilgrims, but they’re doing it wrong from an architectural perspective. You can’t imagine how hard it is for me to visit these sites [because of the lack of the architectural religious consideration],” Kadi says.

Following the massive leveling effort, surrounding the Ka’aba now are glitzy skyscraper hotels and luxury shopping malls that clash with the Ka’aba’s humble and spiritual origins. Kadi explains that if Saudi officials had consulted better with historians and architects, they might have made more of an effort to preserve the historic sites. Instead, Kadi argues the new architecture has betrayed the Islamic philosophy of the original site, with pilgrims now glancing down upon the Ka’aba from far above, distorting its original grandeur and replacing its spirituality with consumerism. “Historically, when humans build religious architecture, they build large structures like the Pyramids, Roman temples, and even churches to show how small a human being can be, but if you build high-rises above the Ka’aba and you’re now looking down at it, you lose the spiritual impression,” she adds.

Islamic architecture, Kadi says, has a deep functional philosophy imbued into it. When you look at an Islamic building, every brick and every pattern has a meaning to it. “It’s all about linking stories together and converting the Quranic verses into art. [For example,] even the continuous use of one pattern reflects unity and suggests that all humans are equal,” she says.

Kadi’s first major initiative in Saudi Arabia, which is currently awaiting government approval, aims to educate, entertain and instill the values of Islamic heritage through a public heritage space. But Kadi wants to go further: she aims to lobby the Saudi education ministry to include Islamic heritage in the school curriculum, and be a public advocate for international tourism to not only showcase the kingdom’s rich Islamic heritage, but transfer this appreciation to locals.

However, not everyone has welcomed Kadi’s efforts with open arms. For a society as conservative as Saudi Arabia’s, a woman speaking freely on any topic relating to Islam can be controversial. “They didn’t accept me in the beginning,” she explains. “But then I think they measured the value of my content and passion and started appreciating me as a person.”

The challenges of a Saudi female architect fighting both on an ideological and practical level to preserve Islamic heritage are obvious, but Kadi is optimistic. Not only is she coming with highly valued experience, having taught courses on Islamic ribbed vaults in Spain, she says attitudes are changing quickly in Saudi Arabia, with women having a much larger role in the workplace than in previous years. Saudi society is connected now to social media, which has been changing perceptions as more youth are exposed to liberal, open minded attitudes. “Social media was an open door to change the mentality of closed-minded people,” Kadi says. “You cannot expose the country [to new ideas] if the people are not ready, so social media has opened that door... Society is ready.”

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