city located in an arid valley in al-Hijaz in western Saudi Arabia (21°27′ N, 39°39′ E) and about 73 km (45 mi.) from the Red Sea port of Jeddah, which serves the pilgrims to Mecca. To the south-east is the town of Ṭa'if, 88 km (55 mi.) away. Mecca must have existed since ancient times as the Ka῾bah (see below) was established in the nineteenth century BCE (Salama, 1994); it has been known by different names, such as Bakka, Umm al-Qura, Makkah, al-Balad al-Amim (surah 95.3 in the Qur'an), or “the safe land.” The climate is very hot. Around the Mecca Valley are mountains and wadis. The famous Mecca mountains, which have been frequently mentioned in autobiographies and geographical sources are Jabal Abi Qobais on the east, Jabal Qunaiga῾ on the west and Jabal Ḥira'. A few of the main antiquities of Mecca and its environs are mentioned below.
Both Bakka and Mecca are mentioned in the Qur'an. The holy mosque (al masjid al-Ḥaram) with the Ka῾bah at its center is the holiest place of Islam for Muslims. It is the first house of worship that Allah appointed (3.96; 48.24). During ancient times Mecca was famous for Arabia's foremost sanctuary, the Ka῾bah, which was built by Ibrahim (Abraham), and pilgrims thronged to it from distant places. The building of the Ka῾bah by Abraham and Ismail is mentioned in the Qur'an (2.125–127, 119–121). Local clans, such as the Jurhom, Khuzaa῾, and Quraysh, controlled it from time to time. All Muslims face the Ka῾bah for prayers. It was rebuilt several times. Mecca was the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, and the Qur'anic revelations were originally addressed to the people of Mecca to reform them socially and morally. It was at Jabal Ḥira' on which the angel Gibril (Gabriel) descended from heaven and revealed Islam to the prophet Muhammad and directed him to spread it. Jabal Ḥira' is located some 6 km (3.7 mi.) to the northeast of Mecca. Jabal Thawr is also situated at the same distance to the southeast. In this mountain Muhammad hid himself before his migration to Medina.
When Caliph Umar made a pilgrimage to Mecca in AH 17/638 CE, a wall was built around the Ka῾bah. This was enlarged by Caliph ῾Uthman in 26/646 and arcades were built. Since then the holy mosque has been under constant expansion and rebuilding and has achieved the current extent under the government of Saudi Arabia.
The names of the extant old quarters are Ajyad, al-Mesfala, al-Shubaika, al-Hojon, al-Ma῾abida, Shi῾b-῾Ali, Shi῾b-῾Amir, and Kudai. Of the several cemeteries in Mecca, al-Ma῾lat, north of the Ka῾bah, contains the burials of several venerable companions of the Prophet as well as of other followers and Muslim scholars; it has numerous inscribed tombstones, which provide important biographical information.
Because of Mecca's strategic location, it developed into an important commercial center where all principal trade and pilgrim routes, both internal and external, converged, linking Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and the cities of Basra, and Kufah.
Since antiquity quarrying and masonry have been known at Mecca. Mecca has long accommodated markets, mosques, baths, and different industries. The valleys near Mecca have been exploited for farming; the most important are Wadi Fatimah, Wadi Nu῾man, and Wadi ῾Oranal.
During the twentieth century, Mecca has expanded considerably, becoming a cosmopolitan city. Millions of pilgrims and other visitors arrive annually. Because of the continuous structural expansions for al-Ḥaram mosque, many of the cultural landmarks have disappeared from the center of the holy city. However, some of the remains still reflect ancient architecture of mixed elements, both local and foreign.
Islamic antiquities at Mecca and its vicinity are numerous. The two ancient mosques associated with the Ka῾bah and pilgrimage rites are Namira at Arafat and al-Khaif at Mina. During the cleaning of the Zemzem well in 1979, which springs from the eastern part of the Ka῾bah area a large number of antiquities were recovered, such as pottery vessels, ceramics, metal objects, and Islamic coins (some of them are dated to the Ottoman era and the beginning of the modern Saudi state).
Some Kufic inscriptions on columns in the al-Haram mosque dated to the reign of the ῾Abbasid caliph al-Mahadi (158–169/775–785) survive. These texts document the comprehensive expansion of the al-Ḥaram mosque during al-Mahadi's rule. Some inscriptions of the Mamluk and Ottoman periods are also found in the mosque, recording the expansion and amendments of al-Ḥaram by other caliphs and sultans. Various ancient reservoirs and dams remain in and around Mecca. Near Mina three dams were erected by al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf al-Thagafi, who ruled the Mecca emirate on behalf of the caliph Abdul Malik ibn Marwan for three years (73–75/692–694). Sad Athal, the biggest dam, which is built in stone, is about 140 m (460 ft.) long, 5.6 m (18.4 ft.) high, and 6 m (19.6 ft.) wide. One of the surviving water structures to date is at ῾Ain Zobaida, which was financed and erected by al-Sayida Zobaida, the wife of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. It covers an area of 40 km (24.8 mi.) southeast of Mecca, extending to Arafat and Mina as well. It was used until the beginning of the twentieth century.
[See also Medina.]
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Sa῾ad Abdul Aziz al-Rashid