Mecca, or Makkah, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed, is the
holiest city of Islam. It is the religious center for more than 1.5
billion Muslims throughout the world. All Muslims face Mecca when they
pray. A pilgrimage to Mecca, known as a Hajj, is one of the five duties
required of a Muslim if he can afford it and if he is not in ill
health. Traditionally, non-believers are forbidden to enter the city.
Mecca lies in a narrow valley surrounded by barren hills. Long wide streets lead to the Great Mosque in the center of the city. The Great Mosque is a vast courtyard enclosed by colonnades. Inside the Great Mosque stands the Kaaba, a stone building, often destroyed and rebuilt, that Muslims believe was first built by Abraham at the command of God. The Kaaba houses the sacred Black Stone, probably a meteorite, which the Muslims believe was sent from Heaven.
The main pilgrimage to Mecca is made during the Muslim calendar month of Dhu-l-Hijja. Pilgrims entering Mecca must put on two seamless garments. The rituals in Mecca include walking around the Kaaba seven times, kissing the Black Stone, drinking at the sacred well of Zamzam, and going back and forth seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa. The entire area surrounding Mecca for several miles is called the Haram, or sanctuary. Here no fighting may take place, no plant may be uprooted, and no living thing may be killed except for food or sacrifice. A pilgrimage to Mecca was a long and arduous journey for those who traveled by caravan routes or in crude sailing vessels. Many pilgrims fell ill en route from exertion or from disease.
During the pilgrimage month, merchants from all over the world bring their goods to Mecca to sell to the pilgrims. Approximately 2 to 3 million visitors entered the city in 2008.
Even before Mohammed's time, Mecca was a flourishing trade and religious center where idols were set up in the Kaaba. In 630 A.D., Mohammed, who had earlier fled the city, returned to Mecca from Medina, destroyed the idols in the Kaaba, and established Mecca as the spiritual capital of Islam.
In 930 A.D. the Karmathians sacked the city and carried off the Black Stone, which was not returned to the Kaaba until 951. Egypt established sovereignty over Mecca during the 13th century. For most of the period from 1517 to 1916 the city was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. In 1916, Husein ibn Ali, the reigning sharif, or religious ruler, of Mecca, revolted against the Turks and set up the independent kingdom of Hejaz. In 1924, Mecca fell to Ibn Saud, and the city subsequently became part of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.