Mecca

The holiest city of Islam. Mecca was the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, houses the great mosque containing the Ka’aba, Islam’s holiest shrine, and is the focus of the pilgrimage that all Muslims are encouraged to make at least once during their lifetime. Mecca lies some forty-five miles inland from the Red Sea port of Jiddah on the Arabian Peninsula, within the modern nation of Saudi Arabia, whose ruling family is charged with its protection and administration. A very old city, it stands on what in the ancient world were trade routes linking the eastern Mediterranean with the incense-producing areas of southern Arabia, and as an important trade center, it was multicultural in Muhammad’s time. Local tribal elders rejected Muhammad’s teaching once he had received his call from God on Mount Hira, outside the city, and the Prophet was forced to start the first Islamic community in Medina, to the north. He later retur ned to Mecca, where he cleansed the Ka’aba of its pagan idols and established it as the holiest of Islam’s shrines. About a half-million people reside in modern Mecca (nonMuslims are not allowed to live there), but during the annual pilgrimage season the population of the city swells by 2 to 3 million. Responsibility for the city, particularly its holy sites and the millions of pilgrims who make their way there every year, is taken very seriously by the Saudi government and gives the nation a special status among Muslim countries. SEE ALSO: hajj; Medina; Muhammad

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