Mecca or Makkah (in full: Makkah al-Mukarramah; Arabic مكة المكرمة ) is the capital city of Saudi Arabia's Makkah province, in the historical Hijaz region. It is located at , 73 kilometers inland from Jaddah, in the narrow, sandy Valley of Abraham, at a height of 277 meters (909 feet) above sea level.
The city is revered as the holiest site of Islam, and a pilgrimage to it is required of all Muslims who can afford to go. The term Mecca has into common usage metaphorically to mean any all-important site for any particular group of people.
In the 1980s the government of Saudi Arabia changed the official English transliteration of the city's name from Mecca, as it had been known to Westerners for centuries, to Makkah. See below for the reasons.
The importance of Makkah
For Muslims, a pilgrimage to Makkah is required as one of the Five Pillars of the faith. Every year about three million gather for the major pilgrimage or the Hajj, during the Muslim month of Dhu'l-Hijjah, and many more perform the minor pilgrimage or the Umrah, which may be performed at any time of year. Few non-Muslims have ever seen the rites and rituals of the Hajj (non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from entering Makkah and Madinah).
The focal point of Makkah is the Ka'bah, the "House of God" believed by Muslims to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, and which is covered in a gold-embroidered black fabric. The Pilgrims circle the Ka'bah seven times and may also try to touch or kiss its cornerstone, the Black Stone. Pilgrims then drink from the well of Zamzam. The water of Zamzam is believed to have special properties. Few pilgrims return from the Hajj without a large plastic bottle of the Zamzam water.
During the Hajj the pilgrims travel to Mina, a small village, where the Devil, symbolised by stone columns, is ritually stoned. They then proceed to the Hill of Arafat (sometimes called the Mountain, but with a height of only 70 m), a site for prayers, where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final Sermon.
The importance of Makkah for Muslims is inestimable. All Muslims, wherever they are on the earth, pray five times a day in the direction of the Ka'bah in Makkah (located at ). The direction of prayer is known as the qiblah.
The al-Masjid al-Haram (or The Sacred Mosque), is for Muslims the holiest mosque on Earth. Both the mosque and the city itself are strictly off limits to non-Muslims.
The Prophet Muhammad
The prophet Muhammad was born in Makkah in 571 CE. In the year 622 CE he Migrated to Madinah, which also became a holy city.
Non-Muslims and Makkah
Makkah is off limits to all non-Muslims. Road blocks are stationed along roads leading to the city. The most celebrated incident of a non-Muslim visiting Makkah was the visit by the British explorer Sir Richard Burton in 1853. Burton disguised himself as an Afghani Muslim to visit and write Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Mecca.
The Holy Sites
The religious center of the Makkah is the Haram Mosque and the well of Zamzam.
The present Haram, meaning "sanctuary", dates from 1570 (978 AH), and takes the form of a central quadrangle surrounded by stone walls. Around the inner sanctuary is a marble pavement, the al-Mataf. The holiest shrine of Islam, the Ka'bah, is situated at the heart of the Holy Mosque's central courtyard.
The Haram Mosque dates back to 638 (7 AH) when the ever increasing number of Muslims led the second caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab (Umar), to develop the site.
Is Makkah the city of the Valley of Bakkah?
Some have identified Makkah with an ancient city called Bakkah, identified with the Biblical "valley of Baca" in Psalm 84, but this identification is controversial. However, the Qur'an does identify Bakkah as the location of the first mosque, which can be taken to imply that Mecca and Bakkah are the same location. One school of thought has it that Bakkah is just an alternative pronunciation of Mecca. See the main article at Bakkah for a detailed discussion of this.
The spelling of the name
For most anglophones, Mecca has long been the accepted spelling for the holy city. The word is a transliteration of the original Arabic, and has become part of the English language. Mecca now refers to more than just the geographical location, and is used to describe any center of activity sought by a group of people with a common interest. Las Vegas, for example, is considered the Mecca of gambling (even though gambling of money is strictly prohibited by Islamic law). Many Muslims find these out-of-context uses offensive.
In an effort to distinguish between the metaphorical and official references to the holy site, the Saudi Arabian government began promoting a new transliteration, Makkah al-Mukarramah, in the 1980s. Many English-speaking Muslims now consider this the preferred spelling, and closer to the original Arabic. While this new usage has been officially adopted by U.S. Department of State, its spread is still incipient among anglophones at large.
Incidents in Makkah
The Hajj brings together huge numbers of pilgrims. With such a vast number of people in one place at one time, failures of crowd control and other problems can lead to disaster. Some of the recent tragedies have included:
- In November 1979, a group of ca. 200 militant Muslims occupied Mecca's Grand Mosque. They were driven out by Saudi troops after heavy and bloody fighting.
- On July 31, 1987, Iranian pilgrims riot, causing the deaths of over 400 people.
- On July 9, 1989, two bombs exploded, killing one pilgrim and wounding another 16. Saudi authorities beheaded 16 Kuwaiti Shiite Muslims for bombings after originally blaming Iranian terrorists.
- On July 2, 1990, a stampede inside a pedestrian tunnel leading to Mecca led to the deaths of 1402 pilgrims.
- In 1994, another stampede killed 270 pilgrims.
- On April 15, 1997, over 340 Muslim pilgrims are killed in a tent fire.
- On February 1, 2004, 244 Muslim pilgrims were killed and another 244 injured in a stampede during the stoning of the devil ritual.
Perceived failure to prevent these events, or to react appropriately to them, has led to strong criticism of the Saudi Arabian authorities by Muslims. It should be said that such events are common enough across all religious celebrations.
Last updated: 10-25-2005 07:52:08