The ancient city of Bakkah (Arabic Makkah), known to most as Mecca, is in western Saudi Arabia. Its location is in the Sirat Mountains, inland from the Red Sea coast.
The city is on a small mountain 909 feet high in the dry beds of the Wadi Ibrahim and several of its short tributaries. In recent times, the city has undertaken some massive construction projects.
Mecca can accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims, or hajjis, as a result, but at what cost?
What Is Mecca?
Mecca is a holy city in Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. There Muslims undertake the hajj, a pilgrimage that takes place every year. It takes place during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar.
Hajj is a huge event due to its significance in Islam. It’s also a massive logistical challenge to have so many people from all walks of life. People from each corner of the world descend on this one small space all at once. But what goes on at the hajj?
The word “hajj” is Arabic for pilgrimage. It is a religious pilgrimage to Mecca and nearby holy sites in Saudi Arabia that lasts five days. Each year, millions of Muslims make the trip, traveling to Mecca from wherever they live.
In 2020, the authorities in Mecca had to institute special rules, which were part of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to control the spread of COVID-19.
Muslims pray five times each day. Since 624 AD, they have directed these prayers toward the Kaaba in Mecca and no longer face Jerusalem.
Each mosque marks Mecca’s direction (qibla in Arabic). It enables the faithful to know where they should face when they pray.
All Muslims must seek to undertake the hajj to the Kaaba once in their lives once they are able. It is the fifth pillar of Islam, one of the most fundamental principles of the faith.
Mecca is the birthplace of Muhammad and the site of his first revelation of the Quran. Thus, Muslims regard it as their holiest city. It contains the most venerated site of Islam, the Masjid al-Haram, or the Sacred Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Mecca.
The Masjid al-Haram is the world’s largest mosque. This vast building consists of corridors and galleries in the courtyard of the Kaaba, which is the cube-shaped building in the middle. Muslims consider the Kaaba to be the House of God.
The city is governed by a municipal council known as the Municipality of Mecca, which consists of 14 elected members headed by a mayor. The Government of Saudi Arabia appoints this council.
Mecca has seen very significant expansion in size and infrastructure in its modern period. It is home to the Abraj al-Bait, also known as the Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel, one of the world’s largest, tallest buildings.
Mecca has lost some archaeological sites and historical structures during this expansion. One example is the Ajyad Fortress.
Where Is Mecca?
Mecca is an oasis town 43 miles inland from Jeddah on the Red Sea in the sandy Valley of Abraham (Wadi Ibrahim). Muslim scholars use the word “Mecca” when referring to the sacred space in the city. This area directly encircles and incorporates the Kaaba. Some historians believe that it is the early name for the valley located therein. The Quran mentions the City of Makkah in the chapter (or Surah) about al Imran:
Indeed the first House [of Worship], established for mankind was that at Makkah
Mecca has a population of a little over two million people. It is the capital of Hejaz Province and is the top pilgrimage destination for Muslims. It’s also the capital of the Makkah Region, which includes neighboring Jeddah.
The Hejaz is at the base of the Sirat Mountains, a beautiful strip of the Arabian Peninsula and the site of many sacred shrines. Unfortunately, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia does not afford the protection of these shrines, nor does it try to preserve other buildings of historical significance.
As Wahhabis, they feel that such preservation would be tantamount to idolatry. The Kingdom’s religious council made their position clear in a 1994 proclamation, which stated that the conservation of historical buildings would promote polytheism.
Mecca is also the site of Jabal al-Nour, the “Mountain of Light.” This mountain houses the Ghar Hira, a gap in the mountains. Muslims believe the Ghar Hira is the spot where Muhammad received the first verses of the Quran. These verses came from God through the Angel Gabriel.
The city is near Mount Arafat, and the second day of the hajj is the “Day of Arafat.” Pilgrims go there to say noon and afternoon prayers on the plain around the holy mountain. Muhammad led pilgrims there on his final hajj and once said that “Hajj is Arafat.”
Men and women walk together through many of the rituals of the hajj. The Grand Mosque does not segregate worshipers. It is the only prominent mosque that does not do so.
City authorities prohibit non-Muslims from entering the city. To enter, one must be a Muslim. The enforcement of this prohibition is rigorous. Mecca even has road signs to guide Muslims to avoid the city.
The minimum punishment is deportation from the country. The authorities check everyone’s documentation. They refuse entry to anyone not showing proof of being Muslim.
Most countries need a visa to travel to Saudi Arabia. The diplomatic missions issue these special permits for pilgrims. They issue hajj visas using a quota system based on the number of Muslims in a country. King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah is the gateway, with hajj-designated terminals. From there, pilgrims traveling to Mecca can go by car, train, taxi, or bus.
A Brief History of Mecca
– Creation and Early Islamic Tradition
According to Arabic tradition, God cast Adam and Eve from Paradise. Eve landed near the Red Sea, where the Port of Jeddah now lies. Adam fell to earth in modern-day Sri Lanka. They wandered for many years alone. Then God reunited them on Mount Ararat.
They eventually died, with Adam buried in Mecca. Noah’s Ark passed around his disinterred body seven times. Muslims now make a ritual of this event in circumambulating the Kaaba during the hajj. These seven circles, done in an anticlockwise direction, constitute the tawaf. They symbolize the unity of believers, praying and supplicating together.
Islam teaches that Abraham and his older son Ishmael built the Kaaba. They erected the shrine where the Angel Gabriel instructed them. The angel brought the Kaaba, and the people prayed at the stone.
Before that, in Mecca, Allah commanded Abraham to leave Ishmael and his mother, Hagar. In Mecca, Allah brought forth water from the Well of Zamzam, which saved the lives of Ishmael and Hagar. This well then allowed Mecca to develop into a habitable place. Thus, from the earliest times, Mecca became a place of pilgrimage. It has made its mark as a spot where people could worship.
Many historians stress the prominence and power of the pre-Islamic Mecca. Yet, the city is absent from any known histories written in the three centuries before the rise of Islam. It also does not appear in any geographies of that period.
The Kaaba was a holy site for the many Bedouin tribes in the Arabian Peninsula before Islam. They arrived in Mecca once a year to worship Allah in the Kaaba (though they believed in many deities).
Then they traded with each other in the city. They forbade violence within Mecca during this sacred month. This rule allowed trade to flourish. Mecca became an important commercial center as a result.
The birth of Muhammad in 570 AD would forever transform Mecca. It went from being a trading post with a notable temple to the birthplace and center of Islam.
Muhammad was in his 40s when the revelations began as he sat in a cave on Jabal al-Nour, the Mountain of Light. These revelations restored the ancient religion of the One God to the Arab people and transformed Mecca into the holiest city in the Islamic world.
– A Short History of Hajj Lockdowns
Muslims undertaking the hajj pilgrimage in any other year would drink from a holy well and kiss the Black Stone. Then, before leaving Mecca, they would gather pebbles for the ritual stoning of the devil. They would cast these pebbles at a series of symbolic pillars.
The hajj went ahead in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic with only 1000 pilgrims. The Hajj and Umrah Ministries had asked Muslims planning to take part to delay booking. This was because there was too much uncertainty over the pandemic.
The Hajj Minister expressed concern for the safety of pilgrims, and he urged people to “wait before concluding contracts until the situation is clear.” Authorities had already suspended the umrah, which is the lesser pilgrimage. It was a safeguard to try to lessen the spread of the coronavirus.
After that, Saudi Arabia shut down almost all activities in Mecca and Medina. The Kingdom set a 24-hour curfew in the holy cities, shutting down nearly all commercial activity. Only pharmacies, grocery stores, gas stations, and banks remained open.
The Kingdom had already banned prayer in mosques and restricted entry and exit from Riyadh, Jeddah, and the two holy cities. Cars could only carry one passenger at a time.
In the COVID-19 edition of the hajj, the Black Stone was off-limits to touching and kissing. The authorities in Saudi Arabia issued bottled water from the holy Zamzam well. This year, they would not let pilgrims drink from cups at the mosque.
They even sterilized the pebbles pilgrims hurl at the devil. They were eager to prevent a coronavirus outbreak from marring the pilgrimage.
Then, in April 2021, Saudi authorities made another declaration. They would only allow immunized people to perform the umrah pilgrimage. This pilgrimage takes place from the start of Ramadan.
The ministry said it would consider three categories of people immunized. The first category was those administered a single dose of the vaccine 14 days prior. The second was those who had received two doses. The third was those who have recovered from the infection.
People wondered, was this the first lockdown in history? It was not. Some other historical events prevented Muslims from visiting Mecca in the past.
Here are some examples:
- The attack on Kaaba by the Yemeni governor Abraha (The Year of the Elephant). The residents of Mecca fled as his army advanced. Abraha’s army could not sustain the siege as “divine” powers struck them.
- Qarmatians’ massacre of pilgrims. The Shiite Qarmatian State (present-day Bahrain) raided Mecca in 930. The attackers massacred tens of thousands of pilgrims. They then desecrated the Well of Zamzam by throwing in the bodies of murdered pilgrims. The Qarmatians then banned the pilgrimage for more than ten years.
- Epidemic outbreaks. The 19th century saw outbreaks of meningitis, cholera, and the plague. Authorities did not allow the pilgrimage in 1814 because of a plague epidemic, killing 8000 people in the Hejaz region. In 1837 and 1846, there were devastating cholera outbreaks. These outbreaks resulted in the suspension of the hajj.
- Kaaba seizure by Juhayman al Otaybi. Juhayman was critical of the Kingdom’s ruling family and called for a return to what he deemed the original Islam. In 1979, he raided the Kaaba during morning prayer, forcing the Kaaba to remain closed for two weeks. Then Saudi forces, with the help of France, contained the rebellion.
There were also times when certain pilgrims could not attend the hajj. For example, in 2014, Saudi Arabia halted the issuance of visas for Ebola-stricken countries such as Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.
It’s been four decades since the last lockdown orchestrated by Juhayman. His armed takeover of the Grand Mosque made the holiest place in Islam a killing field. Additionally, the leaders were part of a broader movement of religious and social conservatism and were reacting against modernism.
Although the authorities executed Juhayman, his actions stopped all efforts at modernization. For example, one of his demands was the removal of female TV presenters. As a result, no female presenter appeared on TV after the Haram incident.
Is Mecca the Real Capital of Islam?
Mecca is the most significant city in the Islamic religion. It is where Muhammad was born and where he founded the religion of Islam. Muslims turn toward Mecca when they pray each day.
Yet, the first capital of Islam was Medina, which is now the second holiest city after Mecca. Medina represents glorious Islamic history. It is home to the Prophet’s Mosque, one of the first built by Muhammad. It’s also where one will find the Masjid Quba, the second largest mosque in Medina and the oldest in Islamic history. It is one of the most important and prestigious sacred sites in Islam.
Ali ibn Abi Talib ruled as the fourth caliph from 656 to 661 and was one of the central figures in Shia Islam. In January 657, he decided to transfer his government headquarters from Medina to Kufa in Iraq. Historians believe that he made this change for several reasons. Mainly, he was anxious to save Medina from civil strife and desecration by enemy forces.
Damascus was the Islamic capital under the Umayyad caliphs, who built the Great Mosque. The Islamic capital moved to Baghdad in 750, when the Abbasid Dynasty captured Damascus. Later on, Turkish and Persian forces ruined Baghdad.
In 836, the Abbasid dynasty caliph al-Mu’tasim moved the capital from Baghdad to Samarra. He had founded Samarra on the Tigris River in Iraq. Al-Mu’tasim and his son, the caliph al-Mutawakkil, built several Abbasid structures.
Their plan included a network of canals and streets, which were to have many houses, mosques, palaces, and gardens. The ruins of the caliph’s home include six palace complexes and two racetracks for horses. It also had space for at least 125 other large buildings stretched across a 25-mile length of the Tigris.
Mecca kept on drawing pilgrims from all over the Islamic world as the religion grew. More and more Muslims came to participate in the hajj pilgrimage.
The city also drew a perennial population of scholars. It pulled in devout Muslims who yearned to live near the Kaaba. Saudi inhabitants moved there to serve the pilgrims.
The city has regained its status as the natural capital of Islam, the city toward which Muslims turn when they pray.
What Powers the Holy City of Mecca?
Mecca imports its food since water and arable land are scarce. Its economy is service-oriented and commercial. Facilities related to the hajj and transportation are the primary services. Its services have increased in recent years, and so the city can now host more pilgrims.
The city is also adapting itself to tourism. It encourages Muslim visitors to experience its cultural and historic sites. Some of these sites are part of the hajj, such as the Grand Mosque.
Another site is Safa and Marwah, two small hills located in the Grand Mosque. Muslims must travel between these two hills seven times.
The Maqam Ibrahim is yet another site. It is a stone associated with Abraham and his son Ishmael when they rebuilt the Kaaba.
The ease and affordability of airplane travel have done wonders. It has boosted the number of pilgrims joining the hajj.
Air travel has also increased the demand for workers. Thousands of Saudis now live and work year-round in Mecca. They oversee the hajj and staff the shops and hotels that cater to pilgrims. Shopping malls and freeways are showing up as the city expands.
Salafi Islam (the sect to which Wahhabis belong) dominates Saudi Arabia. Their doctrine views glorifying shrines and historical landmarks as idolatry. So the government approves the demolition of such structures. It razes them to make room for new roads and buildings.
The hajj pilgrimage is becoming one of the Saudi Kingdom’s main economic engines. Its target is 30 million pilgrimage visitors per year by 2030. The city is developing the infrastructure to support that figure.
The government is thinking about de-seasonalizing the hajj to reduce congestion. At present, the number of people living in the city revolves around the Islamic calendar.
The city of Mecca influences the holiness of individuals. It also builds the identities of Islamic communities in an intense way around the globe.
A pilgrimage to Mecca is among the Five Pillars of Islam. It draws men and women from a great variety of ethnic and cultural identities together. They unite in the shared experience of the annual hajj. Mecca has this unique claim upon Muslims from all parts of the world.
Mecca and Medina: The Two Sanctuaries
The official name of Medina is al Madinah al Munawwarah or the Enlightened City. It is the capital of Medina Province in Saudi Arabia. The city existed for over 1500 years before Muhammad’s migration (the Hijrah) from Mecca.
The Prophet received a more significant part of the Quran in Medina.
First called Yathrib, Medina lies 250 feet above sea level on a fertile oasis. The Prophet’s Mosque, which Muhammad himself helped to build, is in the city center. Mecca is also home to the Mosque of two Qiblahs. This mosque commemorates the change in the prayer direction from Jerusalem to Mecca. At al-Rimlah, one can find the tomb of Hamza, uncle of the Prophet, and his companions. They fell at the Battle of Uhud, in which the Prophet was wounded. The cave in the flank of Uhud where the Prophet took refuge is also still there.
Historians believe that the Prophet’s Mosque is one of the first-ever built. It became the archetype of mosque architecture that followed. The mosque has undergone several modifications in the modern era.
Today, the Kingdom continues to expand its size. The city authorities want to accommodate the millions of pilgrims who visit the mosque each year. Pilgrims come from the world over to pay respects to the Prophet’s tomb.
The Government of Saudi Arabia pays special attention to these holy sites. They’ve even gone as far as regulating tobacco in the two cities. The Saudi Ministry of Health adopted this radical approach to making Mecca and Medina not only smoke-free but also tobacco-free.
Expanding the Holy City in Saudi Arabia
The hajj is among the world’s most significant yearly Muslim gatherings. The only pilgrimage to record a more extensive crowd was the one to the mosques of Husayn ibn Ali and Abbas. These pilgrimages were in Karbala, Iraq, in 2012, and attendance reached three million.
Mecca has a growing resident population. This fact, along with the annual pilgrims, is creating challenges for the authorities. The infrastructure and services are lacking. Thus, the government controls the number of hajj and umrah visas it issues.
The holy sites have limited spaces, which raises concerns about overcrowding. Thus, both cities have been the focus of a range of development plans for decades.
Saudi Arabia has a special responsibility as guardian of these two holy sites, a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. The Kingdom shows its dedication to this responsibility by the superb maintenance and the extension plans for the two cities.
The holy cities have always been an essential priority for Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom even has a government ministry with a budget allocated for pilgrimages. The Government of Saudi Arabia controls the flow of pilgrims through quotas. Each country can send one pilgrim for every thousand Muslim citizens.
Saudi Arabia has the unique position of being in control of modern Islam due to its sovereignty over these two cities. The titles of the king include “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.” The ruling family, the house of Saud, is the “Keeper of the Keys,” which refers to their access to the Kaaba shrine.
The Shi’ites of Saudi Arabia and Iran have raised strong objections to the Saudi control of the two holy cities. They have different views on Mecca and on how the carrying out of the hajj. This conflict manifests itself in arguments over Saudi building plans in Mecca. Shi’ites also oppose the Saudi destruction of historical and religious sites to make way for new buildings.
What Is the Significance of Mecca?
The Prophet Muhammad began his religious preaching in Mecca. The city is also his birthplace, and it was central to the development of the Islamic faith and practice. Each follower of Islam must make at least one trip to Mecca in his lifetime to fulfill the hajj as the fifth pillar of Islam. Also, Muslims around the globe face Mecca when they pray. It is the geographical focus of Islamic prayer.
The hajj is a difficult journey. Muslims believe it offers an opportunity to wash past sins clean and start afresh with God. Muslims believe completion of the hajj brings forgiveness of sin. It moves them closer to reaching paradise after death. They trace the rites of the hajj back to Abraham and Ishmael, following a route the Prophet Muhammad once walked.
Hagar, Abraham’s wife, ran between two hills seven times, searching for water for her dying son. Pilgrims also trace her path. Many people who depend on crutches and canes insist on walking the routes. They complete the journey despite the physical challenges.
Islamic tradition says Muhammad got his first revelation in Mecca in the year 610. He then began to teach monotheism against Meccan animism. The Meccans did not accept Muhammad’s instruction at first because it was a threat to their polytheistic culture and belief system.
Muhammad fled Mecca because of persecution for his new faith. He then reappeared with a host of supporters and won Mecca in the name of Islam in the year 630. Muhammad cleansed Mecca of all its idols and all the cult images in the Kaaba when he took possession of the city. The Prophet also ended the tradition of idol worship by smashing the statue of Hubal. He destroyed 360 other idols at the Kaaba and rededicated the structure to Allah, the one true God.
The Quran states that the Kaaba was the first house built in Mecca for humanity to worship Allah. Mecca is thus the holiest city of Islam and the goal of the annual Muslim hajj.
Muslims say that Mecca and Medina have a unique sense of spirituality. Believers have described an overwhelming emotional feeling. They say that this feeling encompasses them when they enter these cities. They report a sense of unity, especially those making the hajj pilgrimage. The hajj is a deep, personal experience where many people come to realize their equality before Almighty God.
Muslims consider the Kaaba to be the most sacred spot on earth. The cube-shaped structure is about 50 feet high and around 35 by 40 feet at its base. Located at its eastern corner is the Black Stone of Mecca. A ring of stone surrounds its broken pieces, which are held together by a heavy silver band.
Every Muslim who makes the pilgrimage must walk around the Kaaba seven times. During this ritual, he or she kisses and touches the Black Stone.
Traveling to Mecca
In the old days, traveling to Mecca was long and often dangerous. Pilgrims came to Saudi Arabia by sea and then did the overland trek on camelback. It could take two years to go there and back. Now, of course, pilgrims from around the world go there by plane.
Visitors can stay in the Raffles Makkah Palace, the Makkah Hotel, or Hilton Suites Makkah. Mecca also has a range of other hotels to suit both small and large budgets. Some pilgrims choose to stay in the tent city at Mina, which can hold up to three million people.
The city also has several spots to dine and even feast. Examples are Albaik (for quick bites) and the Oasis (vegetarian friendly). There’s also Al Tazaj (for lovers of Middle Eastern cuisine).
The Mecca pilgrimage is a colossal undertaking. Huge crowds cram into small holy sites. As we have seen, pilgrims are vulnerable to contagion, stampedes, and violence. Yet, the spiritual rewards are great. That is why pilgrims have made their way to worship since the days of ancient Mecca.