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 Mecca (Makkah in Arabic) is the center of the Islamic world and the birthplace of both the Prophet Muhammad and the religion he founded. Located in the Sirat mountains of central Saudi Arabia, 45miles inland from the Red Sea port of Jidda (Jeddah), ancient Mecca was an oasis on the old caravan trade route that linked the Mediterranean world with South Arabia, East Africa, and South Asia. By Roman and Byzantine times it had developed into an important trade and religious center, and was known as Macoraba.

According to ancient Arabian traditions, when Adam and Eve were cast from Paradise they fell to different parts of the earth; Adam on a mountain on the island of Serendip, or Sri Lanka, and Eve in Arabia, on the border of the Red Sea near the port of Jidda. For two hundred years Adam and Eve wandered separate and lonely about the earth. Finally, in consideration of their penitence and wretchedness, God permitted them to come together again on Mt. Arafat, near the present city of Mecca. Adam then prayed to God that a shrine might be granted to him similar to that at which he had worshipped in Paradise. Adam's prayers were answered and a shrine was built. (This is a pre-Islamic legend and the Koran, the Islamic holy scripture, says nothing whatsoever of Adam’s connection with Mecca or of a shrine he prayed at).

This shrine passed away during the era of the flood, and many generations later Abraham and his son Ishmael were directed to rebuild the ancient tabernacle. According to one Islamic tradition, in 1892 BC God ordered Abraham to emigrate with his son, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar to the valley at Mecca. Here Hagar lived with her son in a small house, and Abraham came to visit her on occasion. Abraham was then ordered by God to make Hagar’s house into a temple where people could pray. Therefore, he demolished the house and built the Ka’ba.

God gave Abraham precise instructions concerning how to rebuild the shrine and Gabriel showed him the location. It is said that God sent a cloud to shade Abraham, and he was told to construct the shrine directly upon the shadow of the cloud, neither exceeding or diminishing its dimensions. Legends say the shrine was built from the stones of five sacred mountain: Mt. Sinai, the Mount of Olives, Mt. Lebanon, Al-Judi, and nearby Mt. Hira. Upon the completion of the shrine, Gabriel brought a magic stone for the sanctuary. Different sources speculate that this stone was a meteorite or a great white sapphire from the Garden of Eden, that it had been concealed on the nearby sacred mountain of Abu Qubays during the period of the flood, and that it was later restored to Abraham for inclusion in his version of the Ka’ba. Whatever its origin, the stone was most probably a sacred object of the pre-Islamic Arabian nomads who settled around the Zamzam spring that flows at the center of old Mecca.

Nearly all scholars trace the sanctity of Mecca to the Ka’ba edifice built at God’s express command by Abraham and Ishmael. Mention must be made, however, of the Zamzan spring and the nearby holy hills of Safa and Marwa (these hills have since disappeared under the leveling topography of modern Mecca). These geographical formations certainly predated the mythical construction of the Ka’ba and could therefore have given birth to the original sanctity of the place. Whatever the original cause of Mecca’s sanctity, the Ka’ba was destined to become the most important ritual site of the nomadic tribes that inhabited the great Arabian deserts.

With the passage of centuries, the original Abrahamic observances at the Ka’ba were progressively diluted by the addition of various pagan elements (these arriving via the caravan routes that led to Mecca). The pilgrims of pre-Islamic times visited not only the house of Abraham and the sacred stone of Gabriel but also the collection of stone idols (representing different deities) housed in and around the Ka’ba. There were said to be 360 different deities including Awf, the great bird, Hubal the Nabatean god, the three celestial goddesses Manat, al-Uzza and al-Lat, and statues of Mary and Jesus. The most important of all these deities, and chief of the Meccan pantheon, was known as Allah (meaning “the god”). Worshipped throughout southern Syria and northern Arabia, and the only deity not represented by an idol in the Ka’ba, Allah would later become the sole god of the Muslims.

The city of Mecca achieved its major religious significance following the birth and life of the Prophet Muhammed (570-632AD). In 630 Muhammed took control of Mecca and destroyed the 360 pagan idols, with the notable exception of the statues of Mary and Jesus. The idol of Hubal, the largest in Mecca, was a giant stone situated atop the Ka’ba. Following the command of the Prophet, Ali (the cousin of Muhammed) stood on Muhammed’s shoulders, climbed to the top of the Ka’ba and toppled the idol.

Following his destruction of the pagan idols, Muhammad joined certain of the ancient Meccan rituals with the Hajj pilgrimage to Mt. Arafat (another pre-Islamic tradition), declared the city a center of Muslim pilgrimage and dedicated it to the worship of Allah alone. Muhammed did not, however, destroy the Ka’ba and the  sacred stone it housed. Rather, he made them the centerpiece of the Muslim religion based on his belief that he was a prophetic reformer who had been sent by god to restore the rites first established by Abraham which had been corrupted over the centuries by the pagan influences. Thus, by gaining both religious and political control over Mecca, Muhammed was able to redefine the sacred territory and restore Abraham's original order to it.

According to the original words of Muhammed, the Hajj pilgrimage is the fifth of the fundamental Muslim practices known as the 'Five Pillars of Islam'. The Hajj is an obligation to be performed at least once by all male and female adults whose health and finances permit it. The pilgrimage takes place each year between the 8th and 13th days of Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Before setting out, a pilgrim should redress all wrongs, pay all debts, and plan to have enough money for their journey and the support of their family while away.

As pilgrims undertake the journey they follow in the footsteps of many millions before them. When the pilgrim is about 10 kilometers from Mecca he enters the state of holiness and purity known as Ihram, and dones special garments consisting of two white seamless sheets that are wrapped around the body. Entering the great Mosque in Mecca, the pilgrim first walks seven times around the Ka’ba shrine in a counterclockwise direction; this ritual is called turning, or tawaf. Next, entering into the shrine, the pilgrim kisses the sacred stone. The stone is mounted in a silver frame in the wall, four feet above the ground, in the southeast corner of the shrine. It is of an oval shape about twelve inches in diameter, composed of seven small stones (possibly basalt) of different sizes and shapes joined together with cement. Legend tells that the stone was originally white but became gradually darkened by the kisses of sinful mortals (some traditions say by the sins of 'offsprings of Adam').

During the next few days the pilgrim walks a ritualized route to other sacred places in the Mecca vicinity (Mina, Muzdalifah, Arafat, the Mount of Mercy and Mt. Namira) and returns to the Ka’ba on the final day (the word Hajj probably derives from an old Semitic root meaning 'to go around, to go in a circle'). Once a believer has made the pilgrimage to Mecca they may add the title al-Hajji to their name. In different Islamic countries returning pilgrims will use a variety of signs to  indicate they have made the Hajj; these include painting pictures of the Ka’ba (and the pilgrim’s means of transportation to the shrine) upon the walls of their homes, painting the entrance doorway of the house bright green, and wearing hats or scarves of green color. A so-called Minor Pilgrimage, known as the Umra, contains some but not all of the rites of the Hajj and may be performed at any time of the year.

The area around the Ka’ba was enclosed by a wall in 638 to create a defined space for the tawaf ritual of circumambulation. In 684 the mosque was further enlarged and ornamented with numerous mosaic and marble decorations. In 709 the Umayyad capiph Al-Walid placed a wooden roof upon marble columns to protect the arcades of the mosque and between 754 and 757 the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur carried out further enlargements including the first minaret. During the next 700 years numerous modifications were carried out although no major alterations to the form of the building occurred until the Ottoman period in the 16th century. Large scale renovations and remodeling was undertaken in 1564 during the reign of the Ottoman sultan Sulayman the Magnificent, who rebuilt the minarets and replaced the wooden roofs of the arcades with stone domes. The next major rebuilding of the mosque occurred in the 20th century under the direction of the Saudi royal family and resulted in the Mecca mosque being the largest in the world.

The Ka’ba today stands in the midst of an open courtyard known as the al-masjid al-haram, the ‘sanctuary’. The cubical (the word Ka’ba means “cube”), flat-roofed building rises fifty feet from a narrow marble base on mortared bases of a local blue-gray stone. Its dimensions are not exactly cubical: the northeastern and southwestern walls are forty feet long, while the other two walls are five feet shorter. The structure’s corners, rather than the walls, are oriented toward the compass points. The east and west walls are aligned to the sunrise at the summer solstice and sunset at the winter solstice. The south wall is directed to the rising of the bright star Canopus. The northeastern wall has the only door of the building, about seven feet above the ground level. Inside is an empty room with a marble floor and three wooden pillars supporting the roof. There are some inscriptions on the walls, hanging votive lamps, and a ladder leading up to the roof. The entire Ka’ba structure is draped with a black silk covering, called a kiswa, upon which passages from the Koran are embroidered in gold.

Opposite the northwestern wall of the Ka’ba is an area of special sanctity called the Hijr, which Muslim tradition identifies as the burial place of Hagar and Ishmael (and here, too, Ishmael had been promised by God that a gate into heaven would be opened for him). In Muhammad’s time, the Hijr was a place used for discussion, prayer and, significantly, for sleep. The sleepers in the Hijr appear to have gone there specifically to have dreams of divine content: Muhammed’s grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, was inspired to discover the Zamzam well while sleeping there; the mother of the Prophet had a vision of her son’s greatness; and at the Hijr Muhammed himself was visited by Gabriel before beginning his miraculous Night Journey to Jerusalem.

The Ka’ba, the Zamzan well, the Hijr and the hills of Safa and Marwa are now all enclosed in a vast structure called the Haram al-Sharif, ‘The Noble Sanctuary’. Ringed by seven towering minarets and sixty-four gates, this truly monumental building has 160,000 yards of floor space, is capable of holding more than 1.2 million pilgrims at the same time and is the largest mosque in the Islamic world.

It is interesting to note that prior to the age of the European world explorations, the pilgrimage to Mecca was the single largest expression of human mobility. As the religion of Islam rapidly spread across the world from Indonesia and China in the far east to Spain, Morocco and West Africa in the west, ever increasing numbers of pilgrims made the long, and often dangerous, journey to Mecca. Some came by boat, braving the Red Sea, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Others spent months in camel caravans slowly crossing great tracts of land. The most important pilgrimage caravans were the Egyptian, the Syrian, the Maghribi (the trans-Saharan route), the Sudanese (the sub-Saharan, savanna route), and the those from Iraq and Persia.

Forbidden to persons not of the Muslim faith, Mecca came to symbolize for Europeans the secrets and mysteries of the orient, and as such became a magnet for explorers and adventurers. A few of these daring travelers, such as John Lewis Burckhardt from Switzerland (who, in 1812, was also the first European to visit the ruins of Petra) and Sir Richard Burton from Great Britain were able to convincingly impersonate Muslim pilgrims, gain entrance to Mecca, and write wonderfully of the holy city upon their return to Europe. Other explorers were neither so lucky or divinely guided; many of them disappeared or were caught and sold into slavery. To this day, Mecca remains strictly closed for persons not of the Muslim faith.

Nowadays about 2,000,000 persons perform the Hajj each year, and the pilgrimage serves as a unifying force in Islam by bring together followers from diverse countries and language groups. In a certain sense Mecca is said to be visited by all Muslims every day; this because five times each day (three times in the Shi’a sect) millions upon millions of devout believers kneel to pray. Wherever the place of prayer - be it an established mosque, a remote place in the wilderness or the interior of a home - Muslims face towards Mecca and are united to the Ka’ba by an invisible line of direction called the qibla.

Readers interested in more detailed information about Mecca and the great Muslim pilgrimage will enjoy the excellent writings of Michael Wolfe and F.E. Peters, listed in the bibliography.  

Additional notes on Mecca

On the walls of ordinary houses all over Egypt, one can still see colorful two-dimensional mementos of the sacred journey to Mecca. A lively tradition of domestic mural painting has preserved a formulaic combination of inscriptions and images of the Ka’ba and of the Prophet’s mosque. Images usually show the various modes of travel to the holy places, typically including planes, trains, ships, camels, and often depict the pilgrim on a prayer carpet. These murals serve a protective purpose in addition to certifying publicly and proudly that the house’s inhabitants are due the special status and prestige accorded to those who have accomplished the hajj and received the honorific title of hajji. It is especially significant that family and friends of the pilgrim execute the paintings while the travelers are away, so that the dwelling undergoes its ritual transformation even as its inhabitants do.

Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims
by John Renard  

Folklore notes on Adam

Adam was formed by god out of a handful of dust taken, according to tradition, from the Holy Rock of Sakhrah in Beyt el Maddas. When god formed Adam He left the figure lying lifeless for forty days, some say forty years, while notice was given to the Angels and the Jinn to be ready to worship him as soon as god put breath into his nostrils. At first Adam was male and female in one body, man on one side and female on the other. In due time the female part separated from the male and became a complete woman. Adam and the woman mated but they were not happy as the female refused to submit to Adam, saying that as they were made from the same dust, he had no right to order her about. So she was turned out of Paradise and, consorting with Iblis (Satan), became the mother of devils. She is called El-Karineh by the Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, and Lilith by the Jews (La Brusha by the Sephardim Jews). She is the deadly enemy of all women, especially those who have recently become mothers. When El-Karineh was driven out of Paradise, god created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs, which had been extracted while he slept. Adam and Eve were happy together until Satan succeeded in getting back into Paradise concealed in a serpent’s fangs. Once there, Satan persuaded Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit. Adam, having been persuaded by his wife to share her offense, was, as a punishment, cast out of Paradise together with Eve, Satan and the Serpent. All four of them fell to the earth, each coming to a different place: Adam at Serendib or Ceylon; Eve at Jiddah; Satan at Akabah; and the Serpent at Isfahan in Persia. Two hundred years passed before Adam and Eve met once more at Jebel Arafat, the mountain of Recognition, near Mecca. During these two hundred years, Eve had borne offspring of the seeds of devils and Adam had many children by female Jinns.

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