Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Mecca (pronounced /ˈmɛkə/), also spelled Makkah (occasionally Bakkah) (English: /ˈmækə/; Arabic: مكة Makkah and in full: Arabic: مكّة المكرمة transliterated Makkah Al Mukarramah [mækːæt ælmukarːamæ]) is a city in Saudi Arabia, and the holiest meeting site in Islam, closely followed by Medina.
Muslim tradition attributes the beginning of Mecca to Ishmael's descendants. In the 7th century, the Islamic prophet Muhammad proclaimed Islam in the city which was by then an important trading center. After 966, Mecca was led by local sharifs. When the authority of the Ottoman Empire in the area collapsed in 1916, the local rulers established the Hashemite Kingdom of Hejaz. The Hejaz kingdom, including Mecca, was absorbed by the Saudis in 1925. In its modern period, Mecca has seen tremendous expansion in size and infrastructure.
The modern day city is the capital of Saudi Arabia's Makkah Province, in the historic Hejaz region. With a population of 1.7 million (2008), the city is located 73 km (45 mi) inland from Jeddah in a narrow valley at a height of 277 m (909 ft) above sea level.
Every year, millions of Muslims perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca walking seven times around the Kaaba and more than 13 million people visit Mecca annually.
Mecca is the original English transliteration of the Arabic and is still most commonly used in English dictionaries, by international organisations in their English language literature and in academic writing.
Ptolemy may have called the city "Macoraba", though this identification is controversial. Archeology found no inscriptions or mentionings of Mecca from before that time, even though other cities and kingdoms in that region are well documented.
According to Islamic tradition, the history of Mecca goes back to Abraham (Ibrahim) who built the Kaaba with the help of his eldest son Ishmael in around 2000 BCE when the inhabitants of what was then known as Bakkah had fallen away from the original monotheism of Abraham through the influence of the Amelkites. However, outside of Islamic tradition, little is known about the Kaaba before the 5th century CE.
Around the 5th century CE, the Kaaba was a place of worship for the deities of Arabia's pagan tribes. Mecca's most important pagan deity was Hubal, which had been placed there by the ruling Quraysh tribe and remained until the 7th century CE.
In the 5th century, the Quraysh took control of Mecca, and became skilled merchants and traders. In the 6th century they joined the lucrative spice trade as well, since battles in other parts of the world were causing trade routes to divert from the dangerous sea routes to the more secure overland routes. The Byzantine Empire had previously controlled the Red Sea, but piracy had been on the increase. Another previous route, that from the Persian Gulf via the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was also being threatened by exploitation from the Sassanid Empire, as well as being disrupted by the Lakhmids, the Ghassanids, and the Roman–Persian Wars. Mecca's prominence as a trading center surpassed the cities of Petra and Palmyra.
By the middle of the 6th century, there were three major settlements in northern Arabia, all along the south-western coast that borders the Red Sea, in a habitable region between the sea and the great desert to the east. This area, known as the Hejaz, featured three settlements grown around oases, where water was available. In the center of the Hijaz was Yathrib, later renamed Medina, from "Madinatun Nabi," or "City of the Prophet." 250 mi (400 km) south of Yathrib was the mountain city Ta’if, north-west of which lay Mecca. Although the area around Mecca was completely barren, it was the wealthiest of the three settlements with abundant water via the renowned Zamzam Well and a position at the crossroads of major caravan routes.
The harsh conditions and terrain of the Arabian peninsula meant a near-constant state of conflict between the local tribes, but once a year they would declare a truce and converge upon Mecca in an annual pilgrimage. Up to the 7th century, this journey was intended for religious reasons by the pagan Arabs to pay homage to their shrine, and to drink from the Zamzam Well. However, it was also the time each year that disputes would be arbitrated, debts would be resolved, and trading would occur at Meccan fairs. These annual events gave the tribes a sense of common identity and made Mecca an important focus for the peninsula.
Camel caravans, said to have first been used by Muhammad's great-grandfather, were a major part of Mecca's bustling economy. Alliances were struck between the merchants in Mecca and the local nomadic tribes, who would bring goods – leather, livestock, and metals mined in the local mountains – to Mecca to be loaded on the caravans and carried to cities in Syria and Iraq. Historical accounts also provide some indication that goods from other continents may also have flowed through Mecca. Goods from Africa and the Far East passed through on route to Syria including spices, leather, medicine, cloth, and slaves; in return Mecca received money, weapons, cereals and wine, which in turn were distributed throughout Arabia. The Meccans signed treaties with both the Byzantines and the Bedouins, and negotiated safe passages for caravans, giving them water and pasture rights. Mecca became the center of a loose confederation of client tribes, which included those of the Banu Tamim. Other regional powers such as the Abyssinian, Ghassan, and Lakhm were in decline leaving Meccan trade to be the primary binding force in Arabia in the late 6th century.