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Al-Medina al-Munawara is known primarily for the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque and his tomb inside it. Visitors to the city can find only a few scattered and poorly maintained monuments. Yet this city in the Hijaz region of western Saudi Arabia has a great ancient history. This negligence in preserving Medina’s heritage, particularly in the face of development and expansionist projects, has left a generation ignorant of their hometown. City residents draw upon their memories and the stories told by city elders to redraw the features of the city and reconnect with its history.
AGSIW spoke with Moath Alofi, a native of Medina, who has explored his city and its region, on foot and by air, in a multifaceted program of documentation, photography, and art. His postings on Instagram have garnered over 26,000 followers and have fostered a greater appreciation for the city and its heritage. Moath is now the head of cultural programs with Al-Madinah Region Development Authority.
AGSIW: How did you start your documentation project in the city of Medina?
Moath: I was born and raised in Medina, and since I was a kid I considered walking its neighborhood and streets as a journey. I usually go to the prophet’s mosque on foot to explore the road between my house and the mosque. Later, I left the city for 10 years to study and when I came back two things caught my attention. The first was the disappearance of many landmarks in the city due to the ongoing redevelopment projects, mainly the prophet’s mosque expansion project. The second was that most of my acquaintances had left the city. As I have always been an explorer since my childhood, I decided to tour the city and discover not only the changes that had occurred but also the many historical places and monuments that I had never been to before. I traced what’s left of the essence of the city. Thus, I started a journey to reacquaint myself with my own city.
By the end of 2013, I created an Instagram account, and I wrote in the bio: “Searching for the city of Madinah.” I simply drove my car around the city and took photos of buildings, graffiti, writings on walls, roads. I am very interested in the sentimental side of these paintings, which make the city different than any other place. People started to get interested in what I was documenting and sent me questions on my findings and later tour requests. Over time numerous newspapers and magazines in different Gulf countries contacted me asking for materials to publish. They wanted to see this new and different Medina that I am showing in my photos. From here my mission started to take a different path.
Flying over a volcano in Khaybar in the region of Medina with the Erth team for aerial documentation (Moath Alofi)
AGSIW: Why do you think documenting the changes in the Medina region is important?
Moath: Most of the people’s knowledge of Medina is limited to the prophet’s mosque and the mosque of Quba. Accordingly, my goal was to shed light on the underappreciated places in the city. The expansion project has affected 8-12,000 buildings with unique architecture and many roads and neighborhoods in the city. These changes have created a deep sense of nostalgia among the elderly citizens in Medina, which we always hear in their discussions. My major in environmental management and sustainable development has profoundly influenced me with sustainability concepts. From my study, I learned that we have to preserve our heritage for the next generation. I want to keep my findings for the next generation to know and remember the city of Medina.
The good thing is that the current expansion project is postponed and under study. Only a third, approximately, of the affected houses were pulled down and the rest are still intact.
AGSIW: Some of your findings are displayed in the exhibition the “Doors of Barlik.” Tell us about it and what you are trying to show in it.
Moath: This was my first art project. At the beginning of the expansion project around the prophet’s mosque, some houses were demolished. Many subcontractors were collecting anything that could be reused from these houses and selling them, including the houses’ doors. To me, these doors represent the house’s identity. It is the first tangible piece of the house structure. Moreover, I found that many of these doors have writings, drawings, and traces of human use on them, which increase the door’s aesthetic. In other words, these doors have the full story of the house and its people. Thus, I collected the doors that attracted me and took them to my studio. Even before I became involved in the art scene, I believed that these doors could be exhibited as an artwork combining documentation with conceptualism. Through these doors, I started to study about gentrification and urban planning.
AGSIW: You also have “Al Tashahhud Alakheer” or “The Last Tashahhud” project. What is it about?
Moath: In 2014, as I was driving to explore the Medina rejoin I found a mosque in a remote area 200 kilometers [about 125 miles] away from the city where there was no telephone signal. So, to me, this mosque was a shelter and a connection booth. On a visual level, the mosque was standing in the middle of a deserted area covered with lava, which allowed me to take stunning photos. Later I drove around the same area and discovered several other mosques all in remote areas and accordingly no one prays in them. In other words, most of these mosques are abandoned. They are shelters that need to be sheltered. This was strange to me as I kept thinking about the prophet’s supplication: “The earth has been made for me a place for praying and a thing to perform Tayammum, therefore any one of my followers can pray wherever the time of a prayer is due.” Another supplication says: “He who builds a mosque for God, God will build a house for him in the paradise.” Keeping this in mind I started to think if we really need a structure to pray in in these remote areas.
In the last two years, I have covered an area of approximately 2,000 kilometers [1,243 miles] outside the city of Medina and found more than 90 abandoned mosques with primitive architecture. Over time I began to understand that some of these mosques were either built by people living in the rejoin to get their hands on the lands around the mosque and build a gas station, for instance. And, of course, many others build the mosques for charity to serve the travelers. Thus, through “The Last Tashahhud” exhibition, I am trying to draw attention to the conditions of these mosques to either maintain them or stop the practice of building them without proper maintenance.
AGSIW: You are a member of the Erth team. Can you tell us about the team’s findings so far? Have you found anything related to the pre-Islamic history of the region?
Moath: Erth means heritage in Arabic. This project boosted my work as I realized after two years of searching that the whole region of Medina is a treasure needing to be documented and shown. Through social media, I got connected with the Erth team for aerial documentation and I met sport pilot Captain Abdul Aziz al-Dakheel who shares an interest in exploring and has the hobby of taking aerial photos of the kingdom. We decided to cooperate and document the Medina region. He gave me the wings to see Medina from a very different perspective. We fly above what is known as Desert Kites, which are 6-9,000-year-old structures located in different Harrat [volcanic fields] in the Medina region. I did a series on these findings under the name of [People of Pangaea]. These structures correspond to the Neolithic era and remain a real enigma in the whole world. The Erth team was the first to document these spots in Saudi Arabia with high-resolution photos. In addition to that, we found an area that is believed to be a site for one of the Prophet Muhammad’s battles. The location is still buried under the sand, but we found some remnants that might prove our assumptions. We are waiting for the professional’s investigation and confirmation.
AGSIW: Who do you work with to help fund and analyze this project?
Moath: The team, which consists of 12 members, is organizing the work among them voluntarily. Regarding the equipment and technical fund, Captain al-Dakheel is our funder.
Because of our unique findings and outcomes, we started to work closely with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage to document different areas in the region, and the commission gave the team a permit to fly above the city of Medina; such a license is usually hard to get. In addition to that, the team has honorary members who are experts in different fields and contribute to the project with their knowledge and sources, and we provide them with high-quality data.
AGSIW: How is this project connected to Vision 2030’s goal to develop Saudi national identity and ancient cultural heritage and the goal to diversify the economy?
Moath: Yes, some of our goals align seamlessly with the vision. Our primary goal as the Erth team is to document Medina’s historical monuments and second to show the topography of the kingdom and its richness to the whole world. All of these efforts would, of course, attract tourists and would even boost the film and art industry in Saudi Arabia.
AGSIW: You named your studio “ALMTHBA.” What does this name mean?
Moath: I named the studio after a rock that the bedouins in the Medina region use to build their houses. As the region is known for its rocky terrain, the bedouins take these rocks from the mountains and big rocks around them to build shelters, storage areas, and houses. I see the studio as a seed for my future projects. ALMTHBA has three pillars: research, tours, and art. When I first started the documentation project I contacted the artist and the art platforms in the country because I believed that art and media are the creative fields that my photos and my artistic vision can be part of. Now my project is more than mere documentation, and there is a lot of research into it. I view ALMTHBA as a project that represents me, but I also want it to be a small hub for the likeminded.
AGSIW: Your photos are being displayed in numerous exhibitions, both nationally and internationally, as artworks that demonstrate the cultural heritage in Medina, in particular, and in Saudi Arabia, in general. Is this the message you wanted to be addressed?
Moath: These photos are exhibited as an artwork, but my work combines different elements together, and at the end of the day it depends on the audience and what they get out of my exhibitions. My artworks represent Saudi Arabia’s real beauty. I show photos of beautiful mosques, yet they carry the story of abandonment. I also show pictures of doors, and it would be great if they helped in pushing for better long-term development planning for the city of Medina.
is an MPhil/PhD student in the anthropology department at University College London and a non-resident fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.
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