What is Mecca?
The Ka’ba (the most sacred place in Islam is the Ka’ba in Reality of “Mecca” , Saudi Arabia) is a mosque (built by Abraham according to Muslim tradition) constructed around a black stone. The Prophet Muhammad stipulated Mecca as the holy city of Islam and also the direction (Qibla) in which to offer prayers. It is believed that the Kaba was the first place to be created on Earth and is also the one place where heavenly bliss and power touches the earth directly. The Holy City is 277 meters (909 feet) above sea level and is located in the Hijaz region of western Saudi Arabia. The city lies inland 73 kilometers east of Jiddah, in the narrow, sandy Valley of Abraham. The importance of Mecca for Muslims is inestimable and each year, thousands of Muslims from around the world join in a pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj).
The Religious Significance of Mecca
It is the duty of every Muslim (in addition to prayer) to visit Mecca if they can afford it at least once in their lifetime. Every year, around three million people gather for the pilgrimage (Hajj) during the Muslim month of Dhu’l-Hijja. Many others perform the minor pilgrimage called Umrah at various times throughout the year. Non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from ever setting foot inside the holy cities of Mecca and Medina so it is common knowledge that any non Muslim has ever seen the rituals of Hajj. The most famous incident of a non-Muslim visiting Mecca was the visit by the British explorer Sir Richard Burton in 1853 who disguised himself as an Afghani Muslim to visit and write Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Mecca.
Muslims believe that Abraham and his son Ishmael built what is the focal point of Mecca, the Kaba or “The House of God”. It is famously covered in a gold covered black fabric. You are to circle the Kaba seven times and may also try and touch or kiss the cornerstone which is the Black Stone. You’re to drink from the well of Zamzam as the water has special properties. Hardly anyone has ever returned from Hajj without a large bottle of Zamzam water. The Masjid al Haram (Sacred Mosque) is for Muslims the holiest mosque on Earth.
Both the mosque and the city itself are strictly off limits to non-Muslims. Pilgrims also travel to the village Mina where stone columns symbolize the Devil who is ritually stoned. They then proceed to the hill Arafat, a site for prayers, where Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final sermon. An interesting factoid is that Arafat is sometimes called a mountain but its only 70 m high.
Mecca or Makkah?
The transliteration for the Arabic name of the holy city has always been “Mecca” for English speakers. However, the word has come to mean a completely different thing also. Vegas for example shall be referred to as a gambling Mecca or Mecca for gamblers. Muslims haven’t taken this connotation well so another way to spell the name of the Saudi city is Makkah al-Mukkaramah, since the 1980s, which has also gained popular acceptance. While this new usage has been officially adopted by the U.S. Department of State, its spread is still incipient among anglophones at large.