The Holy City of Islam

Mecca…in brief

Mecca was a holy site for as long as the Arabs had any memory of the place, and whatever the surmises regarding the origin of that sanctity, the Muslims traced the holiness of its sanctuary back to Adam who was directed there and built a cube-like house (kacba) directly beneath an identical¬† structure in heaven. Adam’s Kacba was destroyed in the Flood, but at a later date Abraham too was directed to Mecca where he and his son Ishmael raised anew the foundations of the Holy House (Quran 2: 127). Mecca was taken over by pagans in the generations after Ishmael and idolatrous practices introduced there, though without entirely obliterating what the Quran calls the “religion of Abraham” (2: 135). In the early fifth century CE Ishmael’s descendents returned to Mecca under the name of Quraysh, themselves now pagans, and took control of the city. They brought prosperity, probably by associating bedouin pilgrimage to the shrine with the opportunity for trade at the local fairs.

This was the Mecca into which Muhammad was born ca. 570 CE: a town set down in a hot and inhospitable mountain defile, a settlement whose crude mud houses were prey to destructive flash-flooding during the occasional downpours in the vicinity. And in its midst was the Kacba, a ramshackle construction that the Quraysh rebuilt and roofed during the early manhood of Muhammad. Around the Kacba was an undefined open space that was regarded as taboo (haram) and in which a great many idols were set up. The Meccans were not sympathetic to Muhammad’s divinely-dispensed “warning”; indeed, the reaction to his preaching was so hostile that in 622 he was forced to leave his native city and migrate to Medina (q.v.). It took him eight years to force the Meccan Quraysh into submission, and in 630 the Prophet re-entered Mecca in triumph, cleansed the sanctuary of its idols, and reinstated the “religion of Abraham” in its pristine vigor. But he did not remain; Medina was now his home.

What Mecca gained in purity, it lost in commercial prosperity –the trade routes of the new Islamic empire did not pass through Western Arabia– and the town descended to provincial status. Henceforward its chief resources derived from endowment income, gifts of the faithful to the shrine and its overseers, and the annual pilgrimage (hajj) that the Quran obliged every Muslim to perform once in a lifetime (2: 196-198). With the seats of imperial power removed elsewhere, Mecca returned to the control of its local aristocracy, now constituted of those who could claim descent from the Prophet through Ali and Fatima. These were the ashraf (sing. sharif), and one or other of their number ruled Mecca and the Hijaz, with a nod of obeisance toward a distant caliph or sultan, from the tenth century onward.

on God and man.Mecca reentered the commercial life of the Islamic empire under the Mamluks (1250-1517), when trade quickened between Indian and other eastern ports and newly prosperous consumers around the Mediterranean. This eastern trade passed through the Red Sea on its way to Egypt, and Mecca shared in both the wealth and danger of the enterprise, the latter arising from European newcomers in eastern waters, the Portuguese who from their Indian bases had begun to cast covetous eyes upon the Red Sea lands. The task of defending Islam’s Holy Land fell to the Ottomans, who had wrested the guardianship of the Hijaz from the Mamluks in 1517. They were successful: the ports of India remained in the grip of the Portuguese, but the Europeans were turned from the Red Sea.

Though the center of international Muslim pilgrimage, Mecca was early on closed to outsiders, and though for long periods non-Muslims were even banned from entering Arabia, they were increasingly active in the affairs of Mecca in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s cholera appeared in Europe, an occurrence linked to Hajjis returning from Mecca, and European pressure forced the Ottomans to cooperate in a number of international conferences regulating sanitary conditions in and en route to Mecca. The slave trade too, which the British in particular opposed, directed European attention toward Mecca, which was still an emporium for African slavers. Finally, increasing numbers of pilgrims were colonial subjects of the British, Dutch and French, and reports of their mistreatment by the Grand Sharif quickly reached the ministries of Europe. By the late nineteenth century most of the European powers had established consuls in the port city of Jidda to lodge complaints with the Sharif, some forty-five miles distant in Mecca.

In November 1914, when the Ottomans joined the war against the Allied Powers, the Sharif was Husayn ibn Ali, and the British were already testing his allegiance to the Turks. Ottoman rule in the Hijaz was neither agreeable nor very profitable for their subjects, and so the Sharif armed with with British encouragement and funding, declared an armed revolt against the Turks in June 1916. Mecca soon fell to the Sharifians, and the city became self-governing for the first time since the days of the Prophet. Later Husayn proclaimed himself king of the Hijaz, and though his ambition to head a independent Arab state in the Fertile Crescent was never fulfilled, he held onto his throne until 1926, when the Hashimite kingdom was brought to an end by Ibn Sacud and his Wahhabi “Brethren.”

In 1926 Mecca was still very much a medieval town of narrow streets, crumbling buildings –most of the endowments had long since dried up– and a sterile economy. The Saudis brought relief from the capricious rule of Sharif Husayn, but it was not until the oil revenues of the Fifties had their effect that the city began to change its face. In 1956-1957 the shrine was greatly enlarged, pilgrimage facilities were improved and the city underwent rapid growth. Today Mecca is a modern city, though still transformed by the annual pilgrimage, which in the age of flight now brings enormous numbers of pilgrims to Islam’s holiest place.


Burckhardt, John Lewis. Travels in Arabia, London 1829; rp. New York 1968. A sharp-eyed and judicious Anglicized Swiss visitor to Mecca describes the city early in the nineteenth century.

Burton, Richard F. A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madina & Meccah,  originally published 1855; rp. of third, memorial edition of 1893, New York, 1964. The celebrated British soldier-adventurer makes the pilgrimage in disguise in the mid-nineteenth century.

Firestone, Reuven. Journeys into Holy Lands. The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis, Albany, 1990. Muslim traditions on the partriarchal origins of Mecca.

Hurgronje, C. Snouk. Mekka in the Nineteenth Century, translation by J. H. Monahan of C. Snouck Hurgronje, Mekka, vol. 2, Aus dem heutigen Leben (1889) Leiden, 1931. Photomechanical reprint 1970. A Dutch Orientalist resident in Mecca describes everyday life there in the 1880s.

Long, David. The Hajj Today. A Survey of the Contemporary Pilgrimage to Mekkah, Albany, 1979. An analysis of the effects of the modern pilgrimage on Mecca.

Ochsenwald, William. Religion, Society and the State in Arabia: The Hijaz under Ottoman Control, 1840-1908, Columbus, 1984. A detailed analysis of nineteenth century Ottoman rules of the Holy Cities and the Hijaz.

Peters, F. E. Mecca and the Hajj. A Documentary History, 3 vols., Princeton, 1993.  A collection of the narrative sources dealing with Mecca and the pilgrimage experience from the beginning to the 1920s.

Peters, F. E. The Last Caliph. A Literary History of the Life and Times of Husayn ibn Ali, Sharif of Mecca and King of the Hijaz, New York, 1993. Mecca under the last Hashimites.

Rutter Eldon. The Holy Cities of Arabia, 2 vols. 1928; reprinted as 1 vol. London & New York, 1930. An eyewitness account of Mecca and the pilgrimage during the first years of Saudi sovreignty.

A Shicite Pilgrimage: The Journey of an Iranian Notable to the Holy Cities of Arabia through Iran, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Egypt, edited, translated and annotated from the Original Nineteenth Century Persian Manuscript of the Safarnameh of Mirza Mohammad Hosayn Farahani, Austin, 1990. Mecca and the Hijaz through Shicite eyes late in the nineteenth century.

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