For the Islamic religion, there is no holier city than Mecca (Makkah). This is the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and was central to the development of Muslim faith and practice. Mecca is located in the western edge of modern-day Saudi Arabia, close to the other holy city of Islam, Medina. One of the Five Pillars of Islam, the Hajj, is a mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca; each Muslim must make at least one trip to Mecca in his lifetime. Mecca is also the geographical focus of Islamic prayer; Muslims around the globe face Mecca when they pray.
Muhammad began his religious preaching in the city of Mecca. He was originally married to a wealthy older woman and protected by an affluent family in the city. At that time, Mecca was a polytheistic culture where many gods were worshiped. Travelers would arrive from surrounding regions to worship various deities at the Ka'bah, a temple-like structure containing idols. Muhammad’s message of monotheism did not sit well with Mecca’s merchants or politicians, who depended on idol-worship for their livelihoods. However, since he was protected, Muhammad only suffered ridicule for his proclamations. When the family members guarding him from harm were gone, Muhammad left Mecca.
Muhammad travelled from Mecca to a city now called Medina. There, he was welcomed as a master negotiator and arbiter of disputes. The people of Medina were more receptive to Muhammad’s message, but their interest rapidly increased when Muhammad became a successful caravan raider. As his wealth and military power grew, so did his religious following. Muhammad’s forces from Medina engaged in several direct skirmishes with soldiers from Mecca, mostly as a result of his raids on Meccan caravans. Ultimately, Muhammad marched a massive army against Mecca, conquering it and displacing its political leaders.
When Muhammad conquered Mecca, he removed all of the idols from the Ka'bah, dedicating it to the worship of Allah alone. Islam commands daily prayers to be performed facing the Ka'bah; this is why Muslims worldwide face in a very specific direction in order to pray. Since Muhammad’s time, the structure has been repaired and rebuilt after conflicts and natural disasters. The current Ka'bah is more or less a cube made of polished black stone. It sits in the center of a massive mosque, the Masjid al-Haram. Muslims who arrive in Mecca for their Hajj (pilgrimage) march several times around the Ka'bah as part of a ritual.
Mecca’s history impacted the holy text of Islam, the Qur'an (Koran). Those verses spoken by Muhammad during his time in Mecca, in the first half of his religious career, reflect a significantly more moderate, tolerant, and forgiving tone. After moving to Medina and experiencing success as a bandit, Muhammad’s pronouncements in the Qur'an are noticeably more aggressive and militant.
Today, Mecca is a fairly large, modern city whose population explodes during the days of the Hajj. Mecca’s native population averages just more than 1.5 million; however, Saudi Arabia arranges special pilgrimage permits for religious visitors to the holy city. Depending on the year, it is not unusual for more than 2 million people to arrive in Mecca for the Hajj. Mecca is considered off-limits to all non-Muslims. Per official Saudi Arabian law, only those who are “true” Muslims may enter the city. This rule also forbids those who, according to Saudi interpretation, are members of false sects of Islam.