Mecca (mĕkˈə) [key] or Makkah măkˈə, city (1993 pop. 966,381), capital of the Hejaz, W Saudi Arabia. The birthplace c.A.D. 570 of Muhammad the Prophet, it is the holiest city of Islam, and the goal of the annual Muslim hajj. It is c.45 mi (70 km) from its port, Jidda, and is in a narrow valley overlooked by hills crowned with castles. Unlike those of most Middle Eastern cities, many of the buildings, constructed of stone, are more than three stories high. The city was an ancient center of commerce and a place of great sanctity for idolatrous Arab sects before the rise of Muhammad. Muhammad's flight (the Hegira) from Mecca in 622 is the beginning of the rise of Islam. He captured the city shortly after. Although Mecca never lost its sanctity, it declined rapidly in commercial importance after its capture by the Umayyads in 692. It was sacked in 930 by the Karmathians and taken by the Ottoman Turks in 1517. The Wahhabis held it from 1803 to 1813. In Mecca, in 1916, Husayn ibn Ali proclaimed his independence from Turkey and maintained himself as king of the Hejaz until Mecca fell to Ibn Saud in 1924. At the center of Mecca is the Great Mosque, the Haram, which encloses the Kaaba, the focus of Muslim worship. Next to the Kaaba is Zamzam, a holy well used solely for religious and medicinal purposes. The bazaar outside the mosque is noted for its silks, beadwork, and perfumes. The commerce of the city depends heavily on the millions of pilgrims who visit Mecca during the annual hajj. Muslims are the only people allowed to reside in Mecca. Roads link Mecca with many other cities in Saudi Arabia, such as Medina and Jidda. Mecca has little arable land and must import most of its food. The oil boom in Saudi Arabia has significantly improved services in Mecca, resulting in greater numbers of pilgrims each year. In Nov., 1979, Muslim fundamentalists occupied the Great Mosque in Mecca; after a 2-week siege, more than 100 rebels were killed. Iranian pilgrims later rioted in July, 1987, during the hajj, clashing with Saudi troops and ending with the death of more than 400 people. The hajj continues to be well-monitored by Saudi Arabia, yet remains a turbulent religious and increasingly political event. Mecca is home to two colleges and the Umm al-Qura Univ. (1979).
See G. De Gaury, Rulers of Mecca (1954, repr. 1982); E. Guelloz, Pilgrimage to Mecca (1982).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.