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Mecca

Mecca, a city in the Hijaz region of western Saudi Arabia, is revered by Muslims as a holy city, and a pilgrimage to Mecca is required of all believers who can afford the trip.

Mecca was already an important trading city for the Arabian tribes by the time Muhammad was born there in about 570 CE. He soon lost both father and mother, and was raised by his grandfather and later his uncle, Abu Talib. At the age of 25, he married a rich widow, Khadijah. When he was forty years old, in the year 610 CE, Muslims believe, he was visited by the angel Gabriel while meditating in a cave on Mount Hira outside of Mecca and told, "Recite! In the name of your Lord who created, Created man from a clot. Recite, and your Lord is most honorable, who taught how to write with the pen, taught man what he did not know," which now forms the beginning of Sura 96 of the Qur'an, or Koran.

Muhammad, preaching the doctrines of one God (called Allah) and the threat of the Day of Judgment, did not have much success at first. His tribe, the Quraysh, which was in charge of the Kaaba (a shrine to Arabic pagan gods), persecuted and harassed him continuously. He and his followers emigrated to the city of Yathrib, later called Medina, in 622 CE. This event, known as the hijra (or hegira in Latin), marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar (1 AH, anno hegirae, or "in the year of the hijra").

Muhammad and his followers clashed off and on with the Quraysh, steadily gaining in numbers and power. Finally Muhammad conquered Mecca in 630 and cleansed the Kaaba of its idols, after which Islam spread rapidly. Muhammad died in 632, and almost immediately afterward the Arab armies embarked on their wars of conquest which would eventually embrace most of the Middle East and North Africa, bringing Islam with them.

For Muslims, a pilgrimage to Mecca is required as one of the five pillars of the faith. Only Muslims are allowed in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and every year about two million gather for the major pilgrimage, or hajj, during the Muslim month of Dhu'l-Hijja, and many more for the minor pilgrimage, or umrah, during any other part of the year.

The focal point of Mecca is the Kaaba, the "House of God" believed by Muslims to have been originally built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, and which is covered in black fabric. Pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times and try to touch caressingly or kiss the stone. They also drink from the well of Zamzam, believed to have been shown by an angel to Hagar while she was running around looking for water for her son Ishmael, and run between the hills of Safah and Marwah, in a reenactment of her desperate search. They also go to Mina, a small village, where the devil is ritually stoned, and proceed to the hill Arafat (sometimes called a mountain, but with a height of only 70 m), a site for prayers where Muhammad is believed to have made his final sermon.

The importance of Mecca for Muslims is inestimable. In addition to the pilgrimage, it is also the direction, or qibla, that they face while praying five times a day.



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