Pronounced "Makkah," also called "Om Al-Qura" in Arabic, which means the mother of all cities, the holy city of Mecca is located in the west of the Arabian Peninsula between Mount Sarawat and the Red Sea. It is the most important city for Muslims since it is the birthplace of Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and home to the Ka'bah (the cube), the holiest Islamic shrine. Five times a day, millions of Muslims turn toward Ka'bah while performing their prayers. Each year, more than 2 million Muslim come to Mecca for hajj (pilgrimage). It is essential for each Muslim who can, to participate in the hajj at least once in his or her lifetime. A much larger number visit Mecca throughout the year to perform umra. While not obligatory, umra is nevertheless considered a highly regarded ritual in Islam.
The history of Mecca goes back long before the birth of Islam in the 7th century. According to ancient tradition, Adam and Eve, after they were cast away from heaven and after 200 years of lonely wandering, came together to Jaba Arafat (the mount of recognition), near the city of Mecca. It is also believed that Adam was instructed by God to build the Ka'bah as the first house of worship on Earth. Later, the Ka'bah was rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Once the construction was completed, God commanded Abraham to climb a nearby mountain and call on mankind to pilgrimage to the ancient house "Al-Bayt al- Atiq," a call that is answered to the present. Historians have also noted the commercial importance of Mecca throughout history. Strategically located at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Africa, and the east, Mecca became a center where caravans carrying goods met and trade agreements were consummated. The Koran mentions "the summer caravan and the winter caravan" with thousands of camels carrying the goods of Yemen through Mecca. The Quraysh tribe, which inhabited Mecca for several centuries before the revelation of Islam, played a central role in economic activities, facilitating agreements, and financing caravans. These roles gave the tribe wealth and prestige among Arab tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet, it was neither wealth nor prestige that explains the Quraysh legacy that lives today. Rather, it was the birth of Muhammad, Islam's prophet, that made the name Quraysh the most honorable of all Arabs.
Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570. At the age of 40, Muhammad received a divine message from God through Gabriel, as he was sitting in a cave (ghar hir'a) in a fountain of light (jebel innor) on the outskirts of Mecca. There, he was declared the messenger of God to all mankind.
Muhammad started preaching monotheism to his own people; only a small number of Meccans followed him, as the overwhelming majority opposed him. More than a decade later, Muhammad and his followers migrated (hijra) to Medina, a city located 200 miles north of Mecca, where they formed the center of the Islamic state. The Islamic calendar begins with this event, and is thus named the hijri calendar.
Eventually, Muhammad and his followers captured Mecca. Muhammad performed hajj, died, and was then buried in Medina, making Medina the second holiest site for Muslims. Mecca today is home to more than 1.5 million Muslims descended from people who migrated from countries as far away as China and Russia. The Ka'bah remains the focal point of the city, surrounded by the holy mosque. The height of Ka'bah is 13 meters, while its dimensions follow: northeast wall, 12.63 meters; eastern wall, 11.22; western wall, 13.10 meters; and northwestern wall, 11.03 meters. It is covered in black material woven in golden Koranic calligraphy. Worshippers are seen circling the Ka'bah 24 hours a day, 7 days a week throughout the year. Approximately 1.3 billion Muslims turn to the Ka'bah for prayers every day. However, the Ka'bah itself is not the object of worship. The object of worship is Allah or God.