Mecca

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This article is about the holy city in Saudi Arabia. For other uses, see Mecca (disambiguation)

Mecca or Makkah (in full: Makkah al-Mukarramah; Arabic: مكة المكرمة) 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 Jeddah, 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. 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.

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 commonly spelled by westerners, to 'Makkah'. See below for the reasons.

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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 al-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 Medina.

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. 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
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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

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. Later, Muhammad led the Muslims and conquered Mecca.

Non-Muslims and Mecca

Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter Mecca. Road blocks are stationed along roads leading to the city. The most celebrated case of a non-Muslim visiting Mecca was that of the British explorer Sir Richard Burton in 1853. Burton disguised himself as an Afghan Muslim to visit and write his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah.

Is Mecca the city of the Valley of Bakkah?

See main article: Bakkah

Some have identified Mecca as the ancient city Bakkah, the Biblical "valley of Baca" in Psalm 84, but this association is controversial. It is known that the name Bakkah was changed to Mecca at some time, which is the location identified in the Qur'an. Some Muslims also believe it is the same location as mentioned in the Old Testament, but this is contestable.

The spelling of the name

For most English-speakers, Mecca has long been the accepted spelling for the holy city. The word is a transliteration of the original Arabic, and has become part of the English language. In an effort to distinguish between the metaphorical and official references to the holy site, the Saudi Arabian government in the 1980s began promoting a new transliteration, 'Makkah al-Mukarramah', which is even closer to the original Arabic. This new usage has been adopted in many places and by certain organization, such as on the U.S. Department of State website, but it is not part of the active vocabulary of English-speakers at large.

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