Mecca, Saudi Arabia
There is no other way to say it – Mecca is the Mecca of all religious pilgrimage destinations. This one-time small trading post, home to an ancient, tiny shrine of the Abrahamic faith, has reigned supreme as the world’s most visited religious site for well over a thousand years. To visit the Grand Mosque of Mecca and the Holy Kaaba at least once in is one of the Five Pillars of the Islamic faith, and millions of Muslims make the trek annually in fulfillment of this obligation. Two to three million pilgrims visit Mecca during the annual Hadj, while tens of thousands will visit daily throughout the rest of the year. Mecca is the unchallenged holiest site in Islam, and is completely off-limits to non-Muslims. The Grand Mosque encompasses a vast space which includes three holy sites: the Tombs of Ishmael & Hagar; the Well of Zamzam; and the Holy Kaaba, the ancient temple first established by the Patriarch Abraham. All three of these places are considered integral parts of the great pilgrimage to holy Mecca.
The history of Mecca as a holy city dates back at least thirty-eight centuries, and its preeminence today can be traced directly back to those early times. The Muslim tradition of Mecca and the Holy Kaaba ties directly to the Biblical accounts which concern Abraham. In the days when Abraham’s wife Sarah could not give him a child, she offered him her slave Hagar in her stead, who subsequently bore him his first child, Ishmael. Later, Sarah did get pregnant, and she too bore a son, after which she ordered Hagar and Ishmael off. In fear for their lives, they fled south across the desert. The pair got as far as the center of the Arabian Peninsula near where it borders the Red Sea. Then, as Hagar frantically searched for water, the Angel Gabriel appeared and provided her with a spring. The two refugees settled on the spot, becoming the first residents of what would become the city of Mecca.
The timeline then becomes somewhat confused, involving Abraham’s presence in Mecca, the near-sacrifice of his son and the founding of the Kaaba. It is most likely that Abraham searched for his wife and son for some time before finding them in the desert. There he built them a home, as well as a shrine to honor God before departing. It is also possible that Ishmael returned to Canaan, then brought Abraham back to visit Mecca. There are also conflicting traditions as to whether Abraham performed the near-sacrifice of his son in Mecca or in Jerusalem. What is known for certain is that Hagar, Ishmael and his family lived out the rest of their lives in Mecca, establishing the shrine later became the Kaaba. After the death of Ishmael, his numerous descendents began to spread throughout Arabia. Mecca became the chief religious center of Arabian tribal life.
For the next two millennia or so, the descendants of Ishmael remained isolated in the deserts of Arabia, far way from the sprawling civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Eastern Mediterranean. However, this isolation did not last forever. In the year 570 AD, Muhammad, the son of Abdullah, was born in Mecca. Muhammad, the great Holy Prophet of Islam, spent much his life in Mecca. It was in Mecca that he first challenged the influence of pagan religions in the region, and also where he first developed a following. After years in exile, Muhammad returned to Mecca and cleansed the Kaaba of idol worship once and for all, and founding what would come to be known as Islam.
With Islam’s subsequent meteoric rise over the next century, the one-time small shrine skyrocketed into the world spotlight. Almost overnight, Mecca and the Kaaba became one of the world’s greatest religious pilgrimage centers. Oddly, Mecca never served as a political capital, either of an Islamic Caliphate or even a smaller Muslim state. However, its religious preeminence has never been challenged. For almost its entire history since, the city was governed by the Hashemite Sharifs, a dynasty consisting of direct descendents of Muhammad. Thanks to its favorable geography, Mecca has enjoyed nearly fourteen relatively conflict-free centuries. Even when the Holy City changed hands between Islamic dynasties, its spiritual importance spared it the usual ravages of war. Because of this Mecca has enjoyed many years of essentially uninterrupted growth, and today is among the world’s best preserved cities in the Middle East.
The Masjid Al-Haram is an absolutely awe-inspiring edifice of white brick and marble. Built around the Kaaba, the current incarnation of the Grand Mosque is largely an Ottoman-era structure dating from the 16th century, with some earlier elements and later renovations. It is large enough to accommodate hundreds of thousands of visiting pilgrims at prayer. The mosque is laid out in three great tiers in order to maximize viewing of the Kaaba at prayer times. An unequaled seven towering minarets call the faithful to worship. Originally there were six, but a Turkish Sultan added a seventh so that his six-minareted Blue Mosque in Istanbul would not offend. The Mosque contains a number of stations, which pilgrims usually visit before entering the Kaaba. The most important is the Hijr, where the Tombs of Ishmael and Hagar are located. Another famous feature is the sacred Well of Zamzam, which according to tradition is the same spring that was revealed to Hagar nearly four thousand years ago.
The Kaaba stands out like an enormous black stone set amidst a sea of white marble and white robed pilgrims. It is at once small compared to the surrounding mosque, yet at the same time looms ominously over the countless visiting worshippers. In actuality the Kaaba is also built of white stone, but is draped in black in honor of Abraham and Ishmael. The door set in the eastern wall is made of gold. The four corners of the Kaaba are named the Shami (northeast), the Iraqi (northwest), Yamani (southwest) and the Black Corner (southeast). The Black Stone, Islam’s holiest artifact, is imbedded in the latter. It is believed that this is the stone, either in whole or in part, upon which Abraham almost sacrificed his son. To touch the stone is the spiritual highlight of every Muslim’s life. Other treasures of the Kaaba include the Station of Abraham and the Stone of Ishmael.
The city of Mecca is located close to the mid-point of the Red Sea coast of the Arabian Peninsula, approximately 460 miles west of Riyadh. Despite its seeming isolation, Mecca is in fact one of the world’s most accessible cities, with an enormous transportation infrastructure designed to accommodate millions of visiting pilgrims every year. The Masjid Al Haram dominates the heart of the city. The mosque, and all of Mecca for that matter, is absolutely off-limits to non-Muslims. For Muslims, the mosque is open year-round. There is no cost of admission beyond any required or voluntary tithes and donations. Web: www.mecca.net/masjid-al-haram-kaaba (official website).
Over the centuries, the Sacred Mosque has grown to such an extant that it now encloses most of Mecca’s most important holy sites. However, there are a lot of other things to see in Mecca, several of which are mandatory stops on the Hajj. These include the Hill of Arafat and the Tent City of Mina, as well as the Plain of Muzdalifah, where pilgrims acquire pebbles for the stoning of the pillars. Non-mandatory sites that most visitors to Mecca go and see include the Cave of Hira and the Jannatul Mualla Cemetery. Just outside of Mecca is the city of Taif and the Masjid Abdullah ibn Abbas. One of the Prophet’s cousins, and one of his earliest converts, is buried there.