ISTANBUL The destruction of a dilapidated 18th-century Ottoman fortress in Saudi Arabia has developed into a major diplomatic row between the Saudis and Turks, a dispute that highlights the two countries’ extreme differences on the place of Islam in society.
Despite Turkish protests, the Saudis earlier this month bulldozed the al Ajyad fortress, which overlooked the Muslim holy city of Mecca, to make way for a massive apartment complex, shopping center, five-star hotel and parking garage.
The Saudis claim the new facilities, to be developed by a construction group owned by the family of Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden, are necessary to house the millions of Muslim pilgrims to Mecca. In Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire that formerly ruled Arabia, the action amounted to a “cultural massacre.”
The Turkish government filed an official complaint with UNESCO, and nationalist politicians have compared the Saudis’ action to the Taliban’s destruction last summer of Buddhist monoliths in Afghanistan.
Turkish government officials said they received promises from the Saudis last summer that the fortress wouldn’t be demolished during the construction project. The Saudis claim they never heard from senior-level Turkish officials about the project until this month.
Built in 1780 by the Ottomans to protect Mecca from invaders, the mud-brick fortress had fallen into ruin in recent decades and plans were made to have it removed.
The Saudis claim they will rebuild the fortress in another place, but Turkish reports say it could never be rebuilt in a historically accurate way.
The Saudis and other fundamentalist Muslims look down on modern Turkey, which was the center of Islamic learning during Ottoman times, as having turned its back on its heritage to gain favor with the West.
In Turkey, a strictly secular state since the republic was founded in 1923, the Saudis are looked at with suspicion owing to their financing of Islamic schools and mosque complexes around the world. They have been blamed for financing Islamic extremist groups in Turkey that have become highly critical of the secular government.
Hundreds of nationalist Turks took to the streets in front of the Saudi Embassy in Ankara last weekend, where they burned pictures of Saudi King Fahd and held placards equating him to bin Laden. “Down with Saudi Dictatorship” said one sign in the demonstration that was carried on Turkish news channels.
The Hurriyet newspaper ran an article by Ottoman expert Murat Bardakci, who said the “Saudis should also demolish the Holy Kaaba,” the holiest structure in Islam, because it was completely restored by Turkish builders in 1612. He noted that the architectural plans and timbers for the structure and surrounding the al Haram mosque were all shipped from Istanbul.
Turkish nationalists have long protested Saudi actions to rid Arabia of its Ottoman legacy, including the removal of a Turkish-built railroad line and its garrisons.
Turks also were outraged by the recent opening in Riyadh of a museum dedicated to Lawrence of Arabia, the British military leader who led the Arab revolt against Turkish rule during World War I.
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, on a four-day visit to Washington this week, stressed repeatedly his country’s post-September 11 “role model” status as a Muslim-majority country with a secular, democratic government and strong ties to the United States and the West.
Without mentioning Saudi Arabia by name, Mr. Ecevit said Turkey’s government “is perhaps the strongest antidote to the contentions of certain circles in both Islamic and Christian countries that Islam and human rights, or Islam and democracy can never successfully coexist.”
Saudi media outlets have struck back with demeaning editorials about Turkey being “the last country” to talk about protecting the holy sites.
The Jeddah-based Arab News ran a cartoon showing the diminutive Mr. Ecevit wearing an oversized hat of the European Union, while a larger, veiled woman representing Turkey wept.
Mohammed Bassam, the Saudi ambassador to Turkey, held a news conference on Monday to try to cool tempers after the rally in front of his embassy. Mr. Bassam pledged that the fortress would be rebuilt and that Turkish considerations had been taken into account.
“I appreciate the feelings of my Turkish brothers related to the Ajyad fortress,” said Mr. Bassam, who noted Saudi Arabia’s “hundreds of years of history with Turkey.”
But he couldn’t help needling the Turks for not caring for their own historical monuments, and he noted the recent flooding of precious Roman mosaics in the Zeugma Valley by a massive dam project in southeastern Turkey on the Euphrates River.
*David R. Sands contributed to this article from Washington.