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Mecca

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Mecca

Mecca is one of the most famous holy cities in the world, drawing thousands of pilgrims each year on the Islamic Hajj pilgrimage. Located in Saudi Arabia, the city of Mecca was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the place where Muhammad first began his religious teaching. Mecca is also home to the Great Mosque which all Muslims face five times daily when they pray. Read on to find out more about the history and significance of this fascinating city.

Pilgrimage

A devotional practice in which people go on a long journey (usually by foot) to travel to a place of special religious significance

Location of Mecca

The city of Mecca is located in southwest Saudi Arabia, in the region of Hejaz. The city sits in the hollow of a mountainous valley surrounded by the Saudi Arabian desert. This means that Mecca has a hot desert climate.

Mecca Map showing the location of Mecca StudySmarterMap showing the location of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Wikimedia Commons

Just to the west of the city is the Red Sea. Medina, the second most important city in Islam, is 280 miles north of Mecca. The capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, sits 550 miles northeast of Mecca.

Mecca Definition

Most scholars believe that Mecca/Makkah was the ancient name for the valley that the city sits within.

Mecca is referred to using several names within the Qur'an and Islamic tradition, including:

  • Bakkah - the name scholars think was around during the time of Abraham (Qur'an 3:96)
  • Umm al-Qura - meaning Mother of all Settlements (Qur'an 6:92)
  • Tihamah
  • Faran - synonymous with the Desert of Paran in Genesis

Mecca's official name used by the government of Saudi Arabia is Makkah. This pronunciation is closer to the Arabic than Mecca. However, few people know or use this term and the name Mecca has stuck in English usage.

The name Mecca in the English language has become synonymous with any special centre that lots of people want to visit.

History of the City of Mecca

Mecca was not always an Islamic site, so why is it so important in Islam?

Ancient Background

In Islamic tradition, Mecca is linked to the founding figure of monotheistic religion: Abraham (known in Islam as Ibrahim). According to tradition, Mecca was the valley where Ibrahim left his son Ishmael and wife Hagar under the command of Allah. When Ibrahim returned several years later, father and son created the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islamic tradition. This was the start of Mecca's significance as a holy site dedicated to Allah.

Monotheism: Belief that there is only one God, as opposed to polytheism: the belief in multiple Gods

Kaaba: The Kaaba is a black square building that houses the Black Stone. Muslims believe that the Black Stone was given to Adam and Eve by Allah to show them where to build a temple dedicated to his worship. It is the holiest site within Islam - the site which all Muslims face when saying their prayers every day. Scholars are agreed that the Black Stone also played a part in pre-Islamic religions and that it was probably worshipped by pagans in the years before Muhammad.

Mecca Painting of Muhammad fixing the Black Stone into the Kaaba StudySmarterPainting from 1307 depicting the Prophet Muhammad fixing the Black Stone into the Kaaba, Wikimedia Commons

Pre-Islamic Mecca

It is very hard to know when Mecca became a trading centre since we have no sources outside of the Islamic tradition that can verifiably be linked to Mecca prior to the birth of Muhammad.

We do know however that Mecca thrived because of the spice trade and trade routes in the area. The city was run by the Quraysh people.

At this time, Mecca was used as a pagan centre where several different deities and spirits were worshipped. Once a year the local tribes came together for a joint pilgrimage to Mecca, paying homage to the different deities.

Paganism

A polytheistic religion; Arabian paganism worshipped many deities - there was no one supreme god.

Deities

Divine beings

The Year of the Elephant

According to Islamic sources, in approximately 550 C.E, a man named Abraha launched an attack on Mecca riding an elephant. He and his army wanted to divert pilgrims and destroy the Kaaba. However, at the city boundary the lead elephant, who became known as Mahmud, refused to go any further. Therefore, the attack failed. Historians speculate whether a disease may have been the cause of the failed invasion.

Muhammad and Mecca

The Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 C.E, into the Banu Hashim clan of the ruling Quraysh tribe (of which there were ten main clans.) He received his divine revelations from the angel Gabriel in the cave of Hira on the mountain of Jabal an-Nur of Mecca's valley.

However, Muhammad's monotheistic faith clashed with the polytheistic pagan community of Mecca. Due to this, he left for Medina in 622. After this, the Quraysh of Mecca and Muhammad's community of believers fought several battles.

In 628, the Quraysh prevented Muhammad and his followers from entering Mecca for pilgrimage. Therefore, Muhammad negotiated the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah with the Quraysh, a ceasefire treaty that would also allow Muslims to enter Mecca on pilgrimage.

Within two years, the Quraysh went back on their word and killed several Muslims who were on pilgrimage. Muhammad and a force of around 10,000 followers attacked the city and conquered it, destroying its pagan imagery in the process. He declared Mecca the holiest site of Islam and the centre of Islam's pilgrimage.

After conquering Mecca, Muhammad left the city once more to return to Medina. He left a governor in charge while he tried to unify the Arab world under Islam.

Early Islamic Period

With the exception of Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr's brief period of rule from Mecca during the Second Fitna, Mecca was never the capital of any of the Islamic caliphates. The Umayyads ruled from Damascus in Syria, and the Abbasids ruled from Baghdad in Iraq. Therefore, the city maintained its character as a place of scholarship and worship rather than a political or financial centre.

Second Fitna

The second civil war in Islam (680-692)

Caliphate

The rule of a caliph - a Muslim leader

Modern History

Below is a timeline of some of the most important developments in Mecca in recent history.

DateEvent
1813The Ottoman Empire took control of Mecca.
1916During World War One, the Allies were at war with the Ottoman Empire. Under British Colonel T.E Lawrence, and with the help of a local Ottoman governor Hussain, the Allies captured Mecca during the 1916 Battle of Mecca.After the battle, Hussain declared himself the ruler of the state of the Hejaz, including Mecca.
1924Hussain was overthrown by Saudi forces, and Mecca was incorporated into Saudi Arabia.The Saudi government destroyed most of the historic sites of Mecca as they feared it would become a pilgrimage site for deities other than Allah.
1979The Grand Mosque Seizure: An extremist Muslim sect under Juhayman al-Otaybi attacked and held the Grand Mosque of Mecca. They disapproved of Saudi government policies and attacked the mosque, claiming 'the coming of the Mahdi (redeemer of Islam.)' Pilgrims were held hostage, and there were significant casualties. The revolt was put down after two weeks but led to severe destruction of parts of the shrine, and impacted future Saudi policy.

Today, Mecca remains an important site of pilgrimage for Muslims despite the destruction of many of the original buildings. Indeed, the government of Saudi Arabia destroyed several key Islamic sites in order to provide enough infrastructure for the large numbers of pilgrims flocking to Mecca every year. Among the sites destroyed were the house of Muhammad's wife, the house of the first caliph Abu Bakr, and the site of Muhammad's birth.

Mecca and Religion

Mecca Pilgrims at the Kaaba in the Masjid al-Haram Mosque Study SmarterPilgrims at the Kaaba in the Masjid al-Haram Mosque (Moataz Egbaria, Wikimedia)

Mecca has a very special role within the religion of Islam. It is home to the largest mosque in the world: the Masjid al-Haram, as well as many of the sacred sites of Islam, including the Kaaba and the Zamzam Well.

Every year, millions of Muslims make their way to Mecca in Saudi Arabia as the destination of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. What is the difference between the two?

HajjUmrah
  • It is obligatory for all Muslims to perform at least one in their lifetime - it is a pillar of Islam.
  • Hajj can only be carried out at a specific time of year, over five/six days during the month of Dhu al-Hijjah.
  • Hajj required more rituals than Umrah.
  • Umrah is not obligatory but is advised in the Qur'an.
  • Umrah can be carried out at any time of year other than Hajj.
  • Umrah requires some rituals but not as many as Hajj.

The Masjid al-Haram

The Masjid al-Haram is also known as the Grand Mosque or the Great Mosque. At its centre is the Kaaba, covered in black and gold cloth. This is the destination of both the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. Another special site at the Masjid Mosque is the Zamzam Well, which is said to have been a miraculous gift of water from Allah to Ibrahim's wife Hagar and child Ishmael when they were abandoned in the desert without any water. It is said within some Islamic traditions that a prayer said in the Grand Mosque is worth a hundred thousand prayers anywhere else.

The Importance of Mecca

Mecca's significance resounds through Islam's history:

  1. Mecca was the site of the Prophet Muhammad's birth and upbringing in 570 C.E.
  2. Mecca was the site of the Qur'anic revelations of the Prophet Muhammad between 610 and 622 C.E.
  3. Mecca was the city where the Prophet Muhammad began his religious teaching.
  4. Mecca was the location of an important victory - although the Prophet left Mecca for Medina, he returned to win an important victory against the local polytheistic Quraysh tribe. From then on, he ensured that Mecca was dedicated to Allah alone.
  5. Mecca is the site of the Kaaba, the holiest place within Islamic rituals and traditions.
  6. Mecca is the site where Ibrahim, Hagar and Ishmael were located, and also where Adam and Eve built a temple to Allah.
  7. Mecca is the place where many Islamic scholars settled and taught.
  8. Mecca became the destination of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, bringing Muslims from across the world together.

However, just as important to note is spheres in which Mecca does not have influence, notably as a political, governmental, administrative or military centre for Islam. From Muhammad onwards, no Islamic community held its political or military centre in Mecca. Instead, early Islamic cities that were key political or governmental centres included Medina, Kufa, Damascus and Baghdad. This has led Bianco Stefano to conclude that:

...various urban and cultural centres such as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Isfahan and Istanbul overshadowed the holy cities in the Arabian peninsula, which in spite of their religious eminence lost political and cultural importance...Mecca and Medina remained provincial cities compared to the leading Islamic capitals.1

Mecca - Key takeaways

  • Mecca is located in Saudi Arabia. To its west is the Red Sea, and Medina sits 280 miles north of Mecca.
  • Many scholars believe that the name Mecca derives from the valley in which Mecca sits within. Although most English-speaking people call the city Mecca, its official name is Makkah.
  • According to Islamic tradition, Mecca is the place where Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ishmael built the Kaaba dedicated to the worship of Allah.
  • Mecca was an important pagan centre pre-Islam. Muhammad's monotheistic faith clashed with the local Meccan religion, but Muhammad won an important battle and destroyed paganism in Mecca. From then on the city was dedicated to the worship of Allah.
  • Mecca is home to the Masjid al-Haram Mosque, which houses the Kaaba, the Black Stone and the Zamzam Well. It is the destination of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages.

1. Stefano Bianca, 'Case Study 1: The Holy Cities of Islam - the Impact of Mass Transportation and Rapid Urban Change' in Urban Form in the Arab World, 2000.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mecca

Mecca is a holy city in Saudi Arabia, and the centre of the Muslim faith.

The city of Mecca is located in southwest Saudi Arabia, in the region of Hejaz.  

The black box is the Kaaba - a square building that houses the Black Stone, believed to have been given to Adam and Eve from Allah. 

It is the birth place of the Prophet Muhammad and also houses the holy Kaaba.

No, Mecca is the holiest place in Islam - only Muslims can visit.

Final Mecca Quiz

Question

Which country is Mecca located in? 

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Answer

Saudi Arabia

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Question

Which region is Mecca located in? 

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Answer

The Hejaz Region

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Which sea sits just west of Mecca? 

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Answer

The Red Sea

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How far away is Medina from Mecca?

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Answer

280 miles

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Question

What is the official name of Mecca?

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Answer

Makkah

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Question

Who was Ibrahim?

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Answer

Abraham, the founding father of monotheistic religion. 

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Question

What is the Islamic story about Ibrahim and Mecca?

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Answer

Mecca was the valley where Ibrahim left his son Ishmael and wife Hagar on the command of Allah. When Ibrahim returned several years later, father and son created the Kaaba to dedicate Mecca to Allah. 

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Question

What is the Kaaba?

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Answer

A black square building that houses the Black Stone. It is the holiest site in Islam. 

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Question

What is the Black Stone?

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Answer

The stone given by Allah to Adam and Eve to show them where to build a temple dedicated to his worship.

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Which important Islamic figure was born in Mecca?

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Answer

The Prophet Muhammad

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Question

What was the name of the treaty which Muhammad negotiated with the Quraysh of Mecca?

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Answer

The Treaty of Hudaybiyyah

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Question

Which tribe ruled Mecca before Muhammad conquered the city?

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Answer

The Quraysh tribe

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Who captured Mecca in 1813?

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Answer

The Ottomans

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When was Mecca incorporated into Saudi Arabia?

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Answer

1924

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Why did the Saudis destroy most historic sites in Mecca?

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Answer

They feared it would become a site for worship of other deities. They also needed enough infrastructure for all the pilgrims to Mecca.

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What are the names of the two big Islamic pilgrimages?

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Answer

The Hajj and the Umrah

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What is the name of the great mosque in Mecca?

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Answer

The Masjid al-Haram

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What is the Zamzam Well?

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Answer

The well which Allah made to give miraculous water to Hagar and Ishmael when they were abandoned in the desert without water. 

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What was Mecca never a centre of?

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Answer

Politics, military, government, administration

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What was the Year of the Elephant?

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Answer

A failed attack on Mecca in 550 C.E where the lead elephant, Mahmud, refused to go into Mecca. 

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