Mecca is a city in the Hejaz and the capital of Makkah province in Saudi Arabia. The city is located 73 km (45 mi) inland from Jeddah in a narrow valley at a height of 277 m (909 ft) above sea level. Its resident population in 2008 was 1.7 million, although visitors more than double this number every year during Hajj period held in the twelfth Muslim lunar month of Dhu al-Hijjah.
As the birthplace of Muhammad and a site of the composition of the Quran, Mecca is regarded as the holiest city in the religion of Islam and a pilgrimage to it known as the Hajj is obligatory upon all able Muslims. The Hijaz was long ruled by Muhammad’s descendants, the sharifs, either as independent rulers or as vassals to larger empires. It was absorbed into Saudi Arabia in 1925. In its modern period, Mecca has seen tremendous expansion in size and infrastructure. Because of this Mecca has lost many thousand years old buildings and archaeological sites. Today, more than 13 million Muslims visit Mecca annually, including several million during the few days of the Hajj. As a result, Mecca has become one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse cities in the Muslim world, although non-Muslims remain prohibited from entering the city.
Islamic tradition attributes the beginning of Mecca to Ishmael’s descendants. Many Muslims point to the Old Testament chapter Psalm 84:3-6 and a mention of a pilgrimage at the “Valley of Baca” that Muslims see as referring to the mentioning of Mecca as Bakkah in Qur’an Surah 3:96. Also the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus who flourished between 60 BCE and 30 BCE writes about the isolated region of Arabia in his work Bibliotheca historica describing a holy shrine that Muslims see as referring to the Kaaba at Mecca “And a temple has been set-up there, which is very holy and exceedingly revered by all Arabians” The Ptolemy may have called the city “Macoraba”, though this identification is controversial.
Some time in the 5th century CE, the Kaaba was a place of worship for the deities of Arabia’s pagan tribes. Mecca’s most important pagan deity was Hubal, which had been placed there by the ruling Quraysh tribe and remained until the 7th century CE.
In the 5th century, the Quraysh took control of Mecca, and became skilled merchants and traders. In the 6th century they joined the lucrative spice trade as well, since battles in other parts of the world were causing trade routes to divert from the dangerous sea routes to the more secure overland routes. The Byzantine Empire had previously controlled the Red Sea, but piracy had been on the increase. Another previous route that ran through the Persian Gulf via the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was also being threatened by exploitations from the Sassanid Empire, as well as being disrupted by the Lakhmids, the Ghassanids, and the Roman–Persian Wars. Mecca’s prominence as a trading center also surpassed the cities of Petra and Palmyra. The Sassanids however did not always pose a threat to Mecca as in 575 CE they actually protected the Arabian city from invasion of the Kingdom of Axum, led by its Christian leader Abraha. The tribes of the southern Arabia, asked the Persian king Khosrau I for aid, in response to which he came south to Arabia with both foot-soldiers and a fleet of ships into Mecca. The Persian intervention prevented Christianity from spreading easterward into Arabia, and Mecca and the Islamic prophet Muhammad who was at the time a six year boy in the Quraysh tribe “would not grow up under the cross.”
The Kaaba is a cuboid-shaped building in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and is the most sacred site in Islam. The Quran states that the Kaaba was constructed by Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic), and his son Ishmael (Ismaeel in Arabic), after the latter had settled in Arabia. The building has a mosque built around it, the Masjid al-Haram. All Muslims around the world face the Kaaba during prayers, no matter where they are. This is called facing the Qiblah.
One of the Five Pillars of Islam requires every Muslim to perform the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in his or her lifetime if able to do so. Multiple parts of the Hajj require pilgrims to walk seven times around the Kaaba in a counter-clockwise direction (as viewed from above). This circumambulation, the Tawaf, is also performed by pilgrims during the Umrah (lesser pilgrimage). However, the most dramatic times are during the Hajj, when about 6 million pilgrims gather to circle the building on the same day.
The pilgrimage, as established by Abraham, is believed to have been uncorrupted in its early years. Then the faith of Abraham failed to grip very many devoted followers. It was because “it presupposed too much initial spirituality in its adherents to grip a large community”.Although there were always a few people who continued to maintain Abraham’s teachings, this minority gradually came to have less power in Mecca, and soon the Kaaba became a shrine devoted to idols.
The early Arabian population consisted primarily of warring nomadic tribes. When they did converge peacefully, it was usually under the protection of religious practices. Writing in the Encyclopedia of Islam, Wensinck identifies Mecca with a place called Macoraba mentioned by Ptolemy. His text is believed to date from the second century AD, about 500 years before the coming of Muhammad, and described it as a foundation in southern Arabia, built around a sanctuary. It probably did not become an area of religious pilgrimage until around 500 A.D. It was then that the Quraysh tribe (into which Muhammad was later born) took control of Macoraba, and made an agreement with the local kinanah Bedouins for possession. The sanctuary itself, located in a barren valley surrounded by mountains, was probably built at the location of the water source today known as the Zamzam Well, an area of considerable religious significance to Muslims.
In her book, Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong asserts that the Kaaba was dedicated to Hubal, a Nabatean deity, and contained 360 idols that either represented the days of the year, or were effigies of the Arabian pantheon. Once a year, tribes from all around the Arabian peninsula, whether Christian or pagan, would converge on Mecca to perform the Hajj.
Imoticontends that there were multiple such “Kaaba” sanctuaries in Arabia at one time, but this was the only one built of stone. The others also allegedly had counterparts of the Black Stone. There was a “red stone”, the deity of the south Arabian city of Ghaiman, and the “white stone” in the Kaaba of al-Abalat (near the city of Tabala, south of Mecca). Grunebaum in Classical Islam points out that the experience of divinity of that period was often associated with stone fetishes, mountains, special rock formations, or “trees of strange growth.” The Kaaba was thought to be at the center of the world with the Gate of Heaven directly above it. The Kaaba marked the location where the sacred world intersected with the profane, and the embedded Black Stone was a further symbol of this as a meteorite that had fallen from the sky and linked heaven and earth.