Authorities in Saudi Arabia have started dismantling some of the oldest sections of Islam's most important mosque as part of a controversial multibillion-dollar expansion.
Photographs reveal workers with drills and mechanical diggers have started demolishing some Ottoman and Abbasid sections on the eastern side of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.
The building, also known as the Grand Mosque, is the holiest site in Islam because it contains the Kaaba - the point to which all Muslims face when praying. The columns are the last remaining sections of the mosque which date back more than a few hundred years and form the inner perimeter on the outskirts of the white marble floor surrounding the Kaaba.
The photos, taken over the past few weeks, have caused alarm among archaeologists and have surfaced as Prince Charles, a long-term supporter of preserving architectural heritage, visited Saudi Arabia with the Duchess of Cornwall.
Human rights campaigners criticised the timing of his tour after the Saudis shot seven men in public despite major concerns about their trial and the fact that some of the men were juveniles at the time of their alleged crimes.
Many of the Ottoman and Abbasid columns in Mecca were inscribed with intricate Arabic calligraphy marking the names of the Prophet Muhammad's companions and key moments in his life. One column, which is believed to have been ripped down, is supposed to mark the spot where Muslims believe Muhammad began his heavenly journey on a winged horse, which took him to Jerusalem and heaven in a single night.
To accommodate the ever-increasing number of pilgrims heading to the twin holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the Saudi authorities have embarked upon a massive expansion project. Billions of dollars have been poured in to increase the capacity of the Masjid al-Haram and the Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina, which marks where Muhammad is buried. Prominent Wahabi cleric and imam of the Grand Mosque, Abdul Rahman al-Sudais, is in charge of the expansion and the Saudi Binladin Group - one of the country's largest firms - has the construction contract.
Although there is little disagreement over the need to expand, critics have accused the Saudi regime of wantonly disregarding the archaeological, historical and cultural heritage of Islam's two holiest cities.
In the past decade Mecca has been transformed from a dusty desert pilgrimage town into a gleaming metropolis of skyscrapers that tower over the Masjid al-Haram and are filled with shopping malls, luxury apartments and five-star hotels.
But the transformation has come at a cost. The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimates 95 per cent of Mecca's millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past two decades. Dozens of key historical sites dating back to the birth of Islam have been lost, and there is a scramble among archaeologists and academics to encourage the authorities to preserve what little remains.
Many senior Wahabis are vehemently against the preservation of historical sites linked to the prophet because they believe it encourages shirq - the sin of idol worshipping.
But Dr Irfan al-Alawi, executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation which obtained the photos from inside the Grand Mosque, says the removal of the Ottoman and Abbasid columns will leave future generations of Muslims ignorant of their significance.
"Many of these columns signified certain areas of the mosque where the Prophet sat and prayed," he said. "The historical record is being deleted. A new Muslim would never have a clue because there's nothing marking these locations now. There are ways you could expand Mecca and Medina while protecting the historical heritage of the mosque itself."
There are signs that King Abdullah has listened to concerns about the historical destruction of Mecca and Medina. Last October, the Independent revealed how new plans for the Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina would result in the destruction of three of the world's oldest mosques on the west side of the main complex. However, new plans approved by King Abdullah appear to show a change of heart with the bulk of the expansion now slated to take place to the north of the Masjid an-Nabawi.
However key sites are still at risk. The Independent has obtained a presentation the Saudis used to illustrate how the expansion of Mecca's main mosque will look. It is clear that the Bayt al-Mawlid, an area believed to be the house where Muhammad was born in, will have to be removed.