Mecca is a city in the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia that is also capital of the Makkah Region. The city is located 70 km (43 mi) inland from Jeddah in a narrow valley at a height of 277 m (909 ft) above sea level, and 340 kilometres (210 mi) south of Medina. Its resident population in 2012 was roughly 2 million, although visitors more than triple this number every year during the hajj ("pilgrimage") period held in the twelfth Muslim lunar month of Dhu al-Hijjah.
As the birthplace of Muhammad and the site of Muhammad's first revelation of the Quran (specifically, a cave 3 km (2 mi) from Mecca), Mecca is regarded as the holiest city in the religion of Islam and a pilgrimage to it known as the Hajj is obligatory for all able Muslims. Mecca is home to the Kaaba, by majority description Islam's holiest site, as well as being the direction of Muslim prayer. Mecca was long ruled by Muhammad's descendants, the sharifs, acting either as independent rulers or as vassals to larger polities. It was conquered by Ibn Saud in 1925. In its modern period, Mecca has seen tremendous expansion in size and infrastructure, home to structures such as the Abraj Al Bait, also known as the Makkah Royal Clock Tower Hotel, the world's fourth tallest building and the building with the third largest amount of floor area. During this expansion, Mecca has lost some historical structures and archaeological sites, such as the Ajyad Fortress. Today, more than 15 million Muslims visit Mecca annually, including several million during the few days of the Hajj. As a result, Mecca has become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Muslim world, despite the fact that non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the city.
Mecca is governed by the Municipality of Mecca, a municipal council of fourteen locally elected members headed by a mayor (called an Al-Amin) appointed by the Saudi government. As of May 2015, the mayor of the city was Dr. Osama bin Fadhel Al-Bar.
Mecca is the capital of the Makkah Region, which includes neighboring Jeddah. The provincial governor was prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud from 2000 until his death in 2007. On 16 May 2007, prince Khalid bin Faisal Al Saud was appointed as the new governor.
The early history of Mecca is still largely disputed, as there are no unambiguous references to it in ancient literature prior to the rise of Islam. The Roman Empire took control of part of the Hejaz in 106 AD, ruling cities such as Hegra (now known as Mada'in Saleh), located to the north of Mecca. Even though detailed descriptions were established of Western Arabia by Rome, such as by Procopius, there are no references of a pilgrimage and trading outpost such as Mecca. The first direct mention of Mecca in external literature occurs in 741 AD in the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle, though here the author places it in Mesopotamia rather than the Hejaz.
Given the inhospitable environment and lack of historical references in Roman, Persian and Indian sources, historians such as Patricia Crone and Tom Holland have cast doubt on the claim that Mecca was a major historical trading outpost.
In the Islamic view, the beginnings of Mecca are attributed to Ishmael's descendants. The Old Testament chapter Psalm 84:3–6, and a mention of a pilgrimage at the Valley of Baca, that Muslims see as referring to the mentioning of Mecca as Bakkah in Quran Surah 3:96.
Some time in the 5th century, the Kaaba was a place of worship for the deities of Arabia's pagan tribes. Mecca's most important pagan deity was Hubal, which had been placed there by the ruling Quraysh tribe and remained until the 7th century.
In the Sharḥ al- Asāṭīr, a commentary on the Samaritan midrashic chronology of the Patriarchs, of unknown date but probably composed in the tenth century C.E., it is claimed that Mecca was built by the sons of Nebaioth, the eldest son of Ishmael.
In the 5th century, the Quraysh took control of Mecca, and became skilled merchants and traders. In the 6th century they joined the lucrative spice trade, since battles elsewhere were diverting trade routes from dangerous sea routes to more secure overland routes. The Byzantine Empire had previously controlled the Red Sea, but piracy had been increasing. Another previous route that ran through the Persian Gulf via the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was also being threatened by exploitations from the Sassanid Empire, and was being disrupted by the Lakhmids, the Ghassanids, and the Roman–Persian Wars. Mecca's prominence as a trading center also surpassed the cities of Petra and Palmyra. The Sassanids however did not always pose a threat to Mecca, as in 575 CE they protected Mecca city from invasion by the Kingdom of Axum, led by its Christian leader Abraha. The tribes of southern Arabia asked the Persian king Khosrau I for aid, in response to which he came south to Arabia with foot-soldiers and a fleet of ships into Mecca. The Persian intervention prevented Christianity from spreading eastward into Arabia, and Mecca and the Islamic prophet Muhammad, who was at the time six years old in the Quraysh tribe, "would not grow up under the cross."
By the middle of the 6th century, there were three major settlements in northern Arabia, all along the south-western coast that borders the Red Sea, in a habitable region between the sea and the great mountains to the east. Although the area around Mecca was completely barren, it was the wealthiest of the three settlements with abundant water via the renowned Zamzam Well and a position at the crossroads of major caravan routes.
The harsh conditions and terrain of the Arabian peninsula meant a near-constant state of conflict between the local tribes, but once a year they would declare a truce and converge upon Mecca in an annual pilgrimage. Up to the 7th century, this journey was intended for religious reasons by the pagan Arabs to pay homage to their shrine, and to drink from the Zamzam Well. However, it was also the time each year that disputes would be arbitrated, debts would be resolved, and trading would occur at Meccan fairs. These annual events gave the tribes a sense of common identity and made Mecca an important focus for the peninsula.
The Year of the Elephant is the name in Islamic history for the year approximately equating to 570 CE. According to Islamic tradition, it was in this year that Muhammad was born. The name is derived from an event said to have occurred at Mecca. According to early Islamic historians such as Ibn Ishaq, Abraha the Christian ruler of Yemen, which was subject to the Kingdom of Aksum of Ethiopia, built a great church at Sana'a known as al-Qullays in honor of the Aksumite king Negus. It gained widespread fame, even gaining the notice of the Byzantine Empire. Abraha attempted to divert the pilgrimage of Arab people from Kaaba to al-Qullays and appointed a man named Muhammad ibn Khuza'i to Mecca and Tihamah as a king with a message that al-Qullays was both much better than other houses of worship and purer, having not been defiled by the housing of idols. When Muhammad ibn Khuza'i got as far as the land of Kinana, the people of the lowland, knowing what he had come for, sent a man of Hudhayl called ʿUrwa bin Hayyad al-Milasi, who shot him with an arrow, killing him. His brother Qays who was with him fled to Abraha and told him the news, which increased his rage and fury and he swore to raid the Kinana tribe and destroy the temple. Ibn Ishaq further states that one of the men of the Quraysh tribe was angered by this, and going to Sana'a, slipped into the church at night and defiled it; it is widely assumed that they did so by defecating in it. Abraha marched upon the Kaaba with a large army, which included one or more war elephants, intending to demolish it. When news of the advance of Abraha's army came, the Arab tribes of the Quraysh, Banu Kinanah, Banu Khuza'a and Banu Hudhayl united in defense of the Kaaba. A man from the Himyarite Kingdom was sent by Abraha to advise them that Abraha only wished to demolish the Kaaba and if they resisted, they would be crushed. Abdul Muttalib told the Meccans to seek refuge in the hills while he with some leading members of the Quraysh remained within the precincts of the Kaaba. Abraha sent a dispatch inviting Abdul-Muttalib to meet with Abraha and discuss matters. When Abdul-Muttalib left the meeting he was heard saying, "The Owner of this House is its Defender, and I am sure he will save it from the attack of the adversaries and will not dishonor the servants of His House." Abraha attacked Mecca However, the lead elephant, known as Mahmud, is said to have stopped at the boundary around Mecca and refused to enter. It has been theorized that an epidemic such as by smallpox could have caused such a failed invasion of Mecca. The reference to the story in Qur'an is rather short. According to the al-Fil sura, the next day, [as Abraha prepared to enter the city], a dark cloud of small birds sent by Allah appeared. The birds carried small rocks in their beaks, and bombarded the Ethiopian forces and smashed them like "eaten straw".
Camel caravans, said to have first been used by Muhammad's great-grandfather, were a major part of Mecca's bustling economy. Alliances were struck between the merchants in Mecca and the local nomadic tribes, who would bring goods – leather, livestock, and metals mined in the local mountains – to Mecca to be loaded on the caravans and carried to cities in Syria and Iraq. Historical accounts also provide some indication that goods from other continents may also have flowed through Mecca. Goods from Africa and the Far East passed through en route to Syria including spices, leather, medicine, cloth, and slaves; in return Mecca received money, weapons, cereals and wine, which in turn were distributed throughout Arabia. The Meccans signed treaties with both the Byzantines and the Bedouins, and negotiated safe passages for caravans, giving them water and pasture rights. Mecca became the center of a loose confederation of client tribes, which included those of the Banu Tamim. Other regional powers such as the Abyssinian, Ghassan, and Lakhm were in decline leaving Meccan trade to be the primary binding force in Arabia in the late 6th century.
Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570, and thus Islam has been inextricably linked with it ever since. He was born in a minor faction, the Hashemites, of the ruling Quraysh tribe. It was in Mecca, in the nearby mountain cave of Hira on Jabal al-Nour, that, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad began receiving divine revelations from God through the Archangel Gabriel in 610 AD, and advocated his form of Abrahamic monotheism against Meccan paganism. After enduring persecution from the pagan tribes for 13 years, Muhammad emigrated (see Hijra) in 622 with his companions, the Muhajirun, to Yathrib (later called Medina). The conflict between the Quraysh and the Muslims, however, continued: The two fought in the Battle of Badr, where the Muslims defeated the Quraysh outside Medina; while the Battle of Uhud ended indecisively. Overall, Meccan efforts to annihilate Islam failed and proved to be costly and unsuccessful. During the Battle of the Trench in 627, the combined armies of Arabia were unable to defeat Muhammad's forces.
In 628, Muhammad and his followers wanted to enter Mecca for pilgrimage, but were blocked by the Quraysh. Subsequently, Muslims and Meccans entered into the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, whereby the Quraysh promised to cease fighting Muslims and promised that Muslims would be allowed into the city to perform the pilgrimage the following year. It was meant to be a ceasefire for 10 years. However, just two years later, the Quraysh violated the truce by slaughtering a group of Muslims and their allies. Muhammad and his companions, now 10,000 strong, marched into Mecca. However, instead of continuing their fight, the city of Mecca surrendered to Muhammad, who declared peace and amnesty for its inhabitants. The pagan imagery was destroyed by Muhammad's followers and the location Islamized and rededicated to the worship of God. Mecca was declared as the holiest site in Islam ordaining it as the center of Muslim pilgrimage, one of the faith's Five Pillars. Then, Muhammad returned to Medina, after assigning Akib ibn Usaid as governor of the city. His other activities in Arabia led to the unification of the peninsula.
Muhammad died in 632, but with the sense of unity that he had passed on to his Ummah (Islamic nation), Islam began a rapid expansion, and within the next few hundred years stretched from North Africa into Asia and parts of Europe. As the Islamic Empire grew, Mecca continued to attract pilgrims from all across the Muslim world and beyond, as Muslims came to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
Mecca also attracted a year-round population of scholars, pious Muslims who wished to live close to the Kaaba, and local inhabitants who served the pilgrims. Due to the difficulty and expense of the Hajj, pilgrims arrived by boat at Jeddah, and came overland, or joined the annual caravans from Syria or Iraq.
Mecca was never the capital of any of the Islamic states but Muslim rulers did contribute to its upkeep. During the reigns of Umar (634–44 CE) and Uthman ibn Affan (644–56) concerns of flooding caused the caliphs to bring in Christian engineers to build barrages in the low-lying quarters and construct dykes and embankments to protect the area round the Kaaba.
In 930, Mecca was attacked and sacked by Qarmatians, a millenarian Ismaili Muslim sect led by Abū-Tāhir Al-Jannābī and centered in eastern Arabia. The Black Death pandemic hit Mecca in 1349.
In 1517, the Sharif, Barakat bin Muhammed, acknowledged the supremacy of the Ottoman Caliph but retained a great degree of local autonomy.
In 1803 the city was captured by the First Saudi State, which held Mecca until 1813. This was a massive blow to the prestige of the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire, which had exercised sovereignty over the holy city since 1517. The Ottomans assigned the task of bringing Mecca back under Ottoman control to their powerful Khedive (viceroy) of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha. Muhammad Ali Pasha successfully returned Mecca to Ottoman control in 1813.
In 1818, followers of the Salafi juristic school were again defeated, but some of the Al Saud clan survived and founded the Second Saudi State that lasted until 1891 and led on to the present country of Saudi Arabia.
Mecca was regularly hit by cholera outbreaks. Between 1830 and 1930 cholera broke out among pilgrims at Mecca 27 times.
Following the 1924 Battle of Mecca, the Sharif of Mecca was overthrown by the Saud family, and Mecca was incorporated into Saudi Arabia.
On 20 November 1979 two hundred armed Islamist dissidents led by Saudi preacher Juhayman al-Otaibi seized the Grand Mosque. They claimed that the Saudi royal family no longer represented pure Islam and that the Masjid al-Haram (The Sacred Mosque) and the Kaaba, must be held by those of true faith. The rebels seized tens of thousands of pilgrims as hostages and barricaded themselves in the mosque. The siege lasted two weeks, and resulted in several hundred deaths and significant damage to the shrine, especially the Safa-Marwa gallery. Pakistani forces carried out the final assault; they were assisted with weapons, logistics and planning by an elite team of French commandos from the French GIGN commando unit.
Under Saudi rule, it has been estimated that since 1985 about 95% of Mecca's historic buildings, most over a thousand years old, have been demolished.
Historic sites of religious importance which have been destroyed by the Saudis include five of the renowned "Seven Mosques" initially built by Muhammad's daughter and four of his "greatest Companions": Masjid Abu Bakr, Masjid Salman al-Farsi, Masjid Umar ibn al-Khattab, Masjid Sayyida Fatima bint Rasulullah and Masjid Ali ibn Abu Talib.
It has been reported that there are now fewer than 20 structures remaining in Mecca that date back to the time of Muhammad. Other buildings that have been destroyed include the house of Khadijah, the wife of Muhammad, demolished to make way for public lavatories; the house of Abu Bakr, Muhammad's companion, now the site of the local Hilton hotel; the house of Muhammad's grandson Ali-Oraid and the Mosque of abu-Qubais, now the location of the King's palace in Mecca; Muhammad's birthplace, demolished to make way for a library; and the Ottoman-era Ajyad Fortress, demolished for construction of the Abraj Al Bait Towers.
The reason for much of the destruction of historic buildings has been for the construction of hotels, apartments, parking lots, and other infrastructure facilities for Hajj pilgrims. However, many have been destroyed without any such reason. For example, when the house of Ali-Oraid was discovered, King Fahd himself ordered that it be bulldozed lest it should become a pilgrimage site.
The pilgrimage to Mecca attracts millions of Muslims from all over the world. There are two pilgrimages: the Hajj and the Umrah.
The Hajj, the 'greater' pilgrimage is performed annually in Mecca and nearby sites. During the Hajj, several million people of varying nationalities worship in unison. Every adult, healthy Muslim who has the financial and physical capacity to travel to Mecca and can make arrangements for the care of his/her dependents during the trip, must perform the Hajj at least once in a lifetime.
Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, is not obligatory, but is recommended in the Qur'an. Often, they perform the Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, while visiting the Masjid al-Haram.
Mecca has been the site of several incidents and failures of crowd control because of the large numbers of people who come to make the Hajj. For example, on 2 July 1990, a pilgrimage to Mecca ended in tragedy when the ventilation system failed in a crowded pedestrian tunnel and 1,426 people were either suffocated or trampled to death in a stampede. On 24 September 2015, 700 pilgrims were killed in a stampede at Mina during the stoning-the-Devil ritual at Jamarat.
Mecca houses the Masjid al-Haram, the largest mosque in the world. The mosque surrounds the Kaaba, which Muslims turn towards while offering daily prayer. This mosque is also commonly known as the Haram or Grand Mosque.
As mentioned above, because of the Wahhabist hostility to reverence being paid to historic and religious buildings, Mecca has lost most of its heritage in recent years and few buildings from the last 1,500 years have survived Saudi rule.
Expansion of the city is ongoing and includes the construction of 601 m (1,972 ft) tall Abraj Al Bait Towers across the street from the Masjid al-Haram. The towers were the third tallest building in the world when completed in 2012. The construction of the towers involved the demolition of the Ajyad Fortress, which in turn sparked a dispute between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The Zamzam Well is home to a celebrated water spring. The Qishla of Mecca was an Ottoman castle facing the Grand Mosque and defending the city from attack. However, the Saudi government removed the structure to give space for hotels and business buildings near to the Grand Mosque. Hira is a cave near Mecca, on the mountain named Jabal Al-Nūr in the Tihamah region of present-day Saudi Arabia. It is notable for being the location where Muhammad received his first revelations from God through the angel Jibreel, also known as Gabriel to Christians.
Population density in Mecca is very high. Most long-term residents of Mecca live in the Old City, and many work in the industry known locally as the Hajj Industry. Iyad Madani, Saudi Arabia's minister for Hajj, was quoted as saying, "We never stop preparing for the Hajj." Year-round, pilgrims stream into the city to perform the rites of Umrah, and during the last weeks of Dhu al-Qi'dah, on average 4 million Muslims arrive in the city to take part in the rites known as Hajj.
Pilgrims are from varying ethnicities and backgrounds, mainly Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Many of these pilgrims have remained and become residents of the city. The Burmese are an older, more established community who number roughly 250,000. Adding to the Hajj-related diversity, the oil-boom of the past 50 years has brought hundreds of thousands of working immigrants.
Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter Mecca under Saudi law, and using fraudulent documents to do so may result in arrest and prosecution.