Mecca or Makkah (in full: Makkah al-Mukarramah is the capital city of Saudi Arabia's
Makkah province, in the historic Hijaz region. It is located at 21°25′ N 39°49′ E, 73 kilometers inland
from Jaddah, in the narrow sandy Valley of Abraham, 277 meters (909 feet) above sea level. 80 km from the Red Sea.
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 come 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'.
The importance of Mecca
For Muslims, a pilgrimage to Mecca is required as one of the Five Pillars of the faith. In recent years,
about two to three million have gathered for the major pilgrimage or Hajj, during the Muslim month of Dhu'l-Hijjah, and many
more perform the minor pilgrimage or Umrah, which may be performed at any time of year. Few non-Muslims have ever seen the
rites and rituals of the Hajj as non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from entering Mecca and Madinah.
The focal point of Mecca is the Ka'bah, the "House of God" believed by Muslims to have been built by
Abraham and his son Ishmael, and 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 and is alleged to have health benefits. 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 Iblis (the Devil), symbolised by
stone columns, is ritually stoned. In some years the highly excited crowds have crushed people to death during this ritual.
They then proceed to the Hill of Arafat (sometimes called the Mountain, but it is only 70 meters high), a site for prayers,
where Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final Sermon.
The holy mosque centre, showing the Ka'bah after the Friday prayers
The importance of Mecca for Muslims is inestimable. All Muslims, wherever they are on the earth, are
required to pray five times a day in the direction of the Ka'bah in Mecca (located at 21°25′24″ N 39°49′24″ E).
The direction of prayer is known as the qiblah.
Muslims regard the al-Masjid al-Haram (or 'The Sacred Mosque') as the holiest place on Earth. Both
the mosque and the city itself are strictly off-limits to non-Muslims.
Muhammad, the final prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca in 571 CE. When he was forty years old, he
received the first revelation in a cave called Hira in Jabal al-Nour (Mountain of Light), approximately 2 miles from Makkah.
In the year 622 CE, after an attempt on his life, he moved to Yathrib (now Madinah), which also became a holy city.