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Mecca

Mecca mĕk´ə [key] or Makkah măk´ə [key], city (1993 pop. 966,381), capital of the Hejaz, W Saudi Arabia. The birthplace c.AD 570 of Muhammad the Prophet, it is the holiest city of Islam , and the goal of the annual Muslim hajj . It is c.45 mi (70 km) from its port, Jidda , and is in a narrow valley overlooked by hills crowned with castles. Unlike those of most Middle Eastern cities, many of the buildings, constructed of stone, are more than three stories high.

At the center of Mecca is the Great Mosque, the Haram, which encloses the Kaaba , the focus of Muslim worship. Next to the Kaaba is Zamzam, a holy well used solely for religious and medicinal purposes. Also near the Great Mosque is the Abraj Al-Bait , a complex of tall hotels and a shopping mall clustered around the Makkah Royal Clock Tower, which has the world's largest clock face and also is one of the tallest buildings in the world. The commerce of the city, which has little arable land and must import most of its food, depends heavily on the millions of pilgrims who visit Mecca during the annual hajj. Muslims are the only people allowed to reside in Mecca. The city is home to two colleges and the Umm al-Qura Univ. (1979). Roads link Mecca with many other cities in Saudi Arabia, such as Medina and Jidda .

Mecca was an ancient center of commerce and a place of great sanctity for idolatrous Arab sects before the rise of Muhammad. Muhammad's flight (the Hegira) from Mecca in 622 is the beginning of the rise of Islam. He captured the city shortly after. Although Mecca never lost its sanctity, it declined rapidly in commercial importance after its capture by the Umayyads in 692. It was sacked in 930 by the Karmathians and taken by the Ottoman Turks in 1517. The Wahhabis held it from 1803 to 1813. In Mecca, in 1916, Husayn ibn Ali proclaimed his independence from Turkey and maintained himself as king of the Hejaz until Mecca fell to Ibn Saud in 1924.

The oil boom in Saudi Arabia significantly improved services in Mecca, resulting in greater numbers of pilgrims, and at times the hajj has become a turbulent religious and political event. In Nov., 1979, Muslim fundamentalists occupied the Great Mosque in Mecca; after a 2-week siege, more than 100 rebels were killed. Iranian pilgrims rioted in July, 1987, during the hajj, clashing with Saudi troops and ending with the death of more than 400 people. The huge crowds associated with the increased number of pilgrims, which since the 1990s have grown to exceeded 2.5 million annually, have also resulted in several deadly stampedes, in which hundreds have sometimes died.

See G. De Gaury, Rulers of Mecca (1954, repr. 1982); E. Guelloz, Pilgrimage to Mecca (1982).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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