Makkah was a wealthy city and a center of pilgrimage long before the birth of Prophet Muhammad in 570 AD. Although it was surrounded by mountains and deserts, it received sufficient rainfall over the winter months to keep its wells filled with water so people could live there all year round.
Makkah stands in the valley of Ibrahim at a point where it is joined by passes through the mountains from the north, south and west. The valley is named after the prophet Ibrahim, who is know in the Jewish and Christian religions as Abraham. Although he lived many centuries before birth of Prophet Muhammad, the Quran tells us that Ibrahim also believed that there was one God, called Allah.
One day, Allah decided to test Ibrahim’s faith and told him to take his slave-wife Hajira (Hagar) and their baby son Ismail into the desert and leave them there to fend for themselves. Ibrahim loved Hagar and his son, but he knew he had to obey Allah’s will and so he left them in a place between hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwa.
As Ismail grew thirsty and sick from the heat, Hagar ran back and forth between the two hills, desperately searching for water and praying for a miracle. Suddenly a spring of clear water bubbled up at Ismail’s feet, and his life was saved.
This stream became known as Zamazam and still flows to this date. As it kept flowing, people were attracted to come and settle near it, thus the town of Makkah gradually grew up around it.
In the center of Mecca there is a building knows as Kaaba. It is the holiest place in Islam. Kaaba was already there before the birth of Prophet Muhammad. Although its history has some gaps, in Islam we believe that Adam was the first who built Kaaba to represent of kingdom of heaven on earth. Kaaba was later rebuilt by Ibrahim with help of his son Ismail, to thank Allah.
Prophet Ismail lived near the Kaaba for the rest of his life but his descendants were ousted from Makkah by another desert tribe, the Amalekites. Unlike Ibrahim and Isamil, the Amalekites believed in many different gods and goddesses and used the Kaaba as a place to worship them. The goddesses included Manat who was the goddess of fortune and Al-Lat, the goddess of sun. There were gods of trees and springs as well as gods of large stones.
Some people of Amalekites believed that there was one supreme God who ruled over all the others. Statues of the gods were placed inside the Kaaba and soon people from all over Arabia started making pilgrimages to Makkah at least once each year.
Besides attracting pilgrims, Makkah was in a good position for merchants and traders from Arabia and other farther places. Trade routes linking Africa to Asia and Far East to Mediterranean passed through the town.
Makkans took advantage of this by providing services for foreign traders and by charging the foreigners import and export taxes on all goods passing through the city. They also enacted taxes on any caravan passing through as well as on goods sold locally. The twice yearly pilgrimage seasons also generated a great deal of wealth. Not only did visiting pilgrims keep the local ins busy they also spent large amounts of money in Maakah’s many markets.
As Makkah grew in size and wealth, more and more people left the nomadic life of the desert and settled down in the city, often becoming merchants or traders, or providing services for pilgrims and their families. Many of the people forgot the old ways of the desert, the old hospitality that made the city famous slowly faded away.
Modern Makkah has seen population explosion with over 1.6 million calling it home. Not only the population but also the infrastructure has seen tremendous expansion with structures such as Abraj Al Bait (ابراج البيت) world’s fourth tallest building and The Great Mosque of Makkah (المسجد الحرام) with the second largest floor area.
With the modernization of the city, sadly there has been destruction of early Islamic heritage sites in Saudi Arabia. It has been estimated that since 1985 about 95% of Makkah’s historic buildings, many over a thousand years old have been demolished. Some of these include five renowned mosquest initially build by Muhammad’s daughter and four of his great companions. It has also been reported that there are now few than 20 remaining structures that date back to time of Prophet Muhammad.
Every year more than 15 million people visit Makkah, including several million during Hajj. Makkah has become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, even though non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the city. For a Muslim once in a lifetime visit to Makkah for Hajj is part of Islamic faith. Even if one does not get an opportunity of Hajj, they should visit the city as this is the birth place of the great Prophet Muhammad and is the location of the holiest of Islamic landmark, the Kaaba.