Mosques face new danger
by Peter Ford
Off a dusty side street 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 Wahhabi religious precepts that rule in Saudi Arabia. ‘The Saudi mission [in Kosovo] has to do with their own sectarianism and agenda,’ says Mr. 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 Prishtina, the capital, a demolition gang paid by the committee tore down the undamaged 18th-century Kater Lula (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 Lula fell prey, say local conservationists, to the Saudis’ desire to spread their brand of Islam in the Balkans. In doing so, complains Haxhi Mehmetaj, the head of Prishtina'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. Mehmetaj.
Historic buildings lost
The Saudis and local Islamic authorities are not the only ones to disregard Mehmetaj'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. Mehmetaj would be unwise to insist. Prishtina'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 get involved in property disputes. That attitude has persisted. ‘The people attentive to vernacular buildings are a beleaguered minority,’ says Andrew Herscher, co-director with Riedlmayer of the Kosovo Cultural Heritage Project. ‘There are so many forces putting pressure on the old buildings, sometimes it feels like a losing battle. ‘What's happening in Prishtina now is more deleterious than what happened during the war,’ he adds.
Local people do not always help, either. In the western Kosovo town of Rahovec, the local hodja, the Muslim cleric, oversaw the destruction of the town's oldest mosque, the 17th-century Market Mosque, to build a new one from reinforced concrete. ‘The old one was too small,’ says Shani Sulka, sitting amid the dusty clutter of girders and scaffolding at his building site. ‘The new one will have space for school rooms, and the future value for teaching is greater than the historic value of what used to be here.’
A confused hierarchy of municipal authorities, local and regional institutes to protect historic monuments, and UNMIK - each with overlapping responsibilities - has made it easier for those who just want to get on with the job they have in mind. It was that confusion, say local officials, that allowed Saudi-financed bulldozers last year to destroy the facade of the oldest library in this part of the Balkans, next to the Hadum mosque in Gjakova. Though burned by the Serbs, the 17th-century library was still restorable, experts agree, but it did not fit with the plan for a new religious compound that the Saudi Joint Relief Committee had funded. The bulldozers also damaged gravestones around the mosque - which the Saudis had planned to remove since their location is not in keeping with Wahhabi practice - and workers had begun to plaster over exterior frescoes before the UN authorities intervened to stop the work.
Saudi aid officials insist that they merely finance projects drawn up by the local Islamic authorities, but local and foreign conservationists say the end results are too out of keeping with local tradition, and too similar to Saudi mosques, to make that claim credible. At the same time, the Saudi committee's deputy director, Walid al-Omran, argues that donors are entitled to a say about how their money is spent. ‘Once we donate the money, why shouldn't we give an idea about how the mosque should look?’ he asks. That, says Herscher, goes to the heart of the problem. ‘These Islamic monuments were really damaged, and it takes a lot of money to put them right,’ he says. ‘The only resources are coming from the Islamic world; you can't say they are screwing up the process, because without them there would be no process.’
UNMIK's culture chief Retamal echoes that lament. ‘For two years, we have asked donors for money to protect monuments, but they don't care,’ he says. ‘The only people who give any money are the Arabs, and our ability is limited because UNMIK and the international donors don't give sufficient importance to culture. ‘People can come in and do what they like,’ he adds. And unless outside donors and the local administration pay more attention, he warns, ‘it will continue to happen.’
This article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, 25 July 2001