The Enduring Call of Islam's Holiest City

Mecca, Saudi Arabia

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Muslims circle the Kaaba during the hajj pilgrimage.

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The birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, Mecca is the destination for some 3 million Muslims who each year undertake the pilgrimage known as the hajj. Beyond Mecca's iconic imagery—tens of thousands of white-robed pilgrims swirling around the sacred Kaaba, a cubical shrine covered in thick black silk hand-embroidered with Koranic verses in golden thread—lies a spiritual power deeply rooted in the city's history.

While Mecca today is the holiest city to Muslims, it was an oasis town and major crossroads on Arab trade routes long before Muhammad's birth in the year 570. Governed by merchants, it witnessed constant blood feuding among nomadic, kinship-based tribes that roamed the surrounding desert. Yet Mecca was also a thriving religious center full of shrines, says F. E. Peters, author of The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places. "How far back it goes, we don't know."

But for a month every year, desert clans declared a moratorium on fighting and embarked on a pilgrimage, descending on Mecca to trade and worship at the shrines of 360 polytheistic idols. The city's religious focal point was a hollow stone temple, the Kaaba, surrounded by effigies but devoted to the powerful pre-Islamic god Allah (which in Arabic means "the god").

After Muhammad rose to power, he swept the idols from around the Kaaba and dedicated its space, and the hajj, to Allah, now God, the only recognized deity for Islam's monotheistic believers. The hajj is the once-in-a-lifetime obligation of all Muslims. The journey serves to remind them of their mortality, to foster spiritual unity, and to commemorate Islam's beginnings.

Those beginnings lie in the ancient story of Abraham and his first son, Ishmael. Banished by Abraham's jealous wife, Sarah, Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, wandered the desert in exile, searching for water. Eventually, God commanded a spring to appear, saving the two from death. According to Islamic tradition, Abraham later visited the spot and erected a temple to serve as God's house on Earth: the Kaaba. Today, the Kaaba stands empty, save for lamps to illuminate its interior.

The modern-day hajj consists of rituals re-enacting the stories of Ishmael, Hagar, and Abraham, as well as visits to sites central to Muhammad's life. Pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba, walk between two nearby hills to commemorate Ishmael and Hagar's wandering, and dip their shawls, future burial shrouds, in the Well of Zamzam, which channels water from Mecca's holy spring.

Surrounding the well and the Kaaba is the Great Mosque, now an air-conditioned supercomplex. Yet Mecca's ancient spiritual power endures, manifest in the Kaaba—rebuilt at various points because of flooding, political strife, and the wearing of time. At one corner of the Kaaba is the revered Black Stone, said to be from God (some say it is a meteorite). Pilgrims able to get close pause to touch or kiss it. It exists in pieces, supposedly darkened by contact with millions of sinners.