Mecca, Arabic Makkah, ancient Bakkah, city, western Saudi Arabia, located in the Ṣirāt Mountains, inland from the Red Sea coast. It is the holiest of Muslim cities. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was born in Mecca, and it is toward this religious centre that Muslims turn five times daily in prayer. All devout and able Muslims attempt a hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Because it is sacred, only Muslims are allowed to enter the city.
In the 20th and 21st centuries the city underwent vast improvements. The area around the religious shrines was cleared, the mosque enlarged, housing and sanitation improved, and transportation facilities enhanced. As a result, Mecca can accommodate the continually increasing number of pilgrims, or hajjis. Area 10 square miles (26 square km). Pop. (2010) 1,534,731.
Physical and human geography
Mecca is situated at an elevation of 909 feet (277 metres) above sea level in the dry beds of the Wadi Ibrāhīm and several of its short tributaries. It is surrounded by the Ṣirāt Mountains, the peaks of which include Mount (Jabal) Ajyad, which rises to 1,332 feet, and Mount Abū Qubays, which attains 1,220 feet, to the east and Mount Quʿayqʿān, which reaches 1,401 feet, to the west. Mount Hirāʾ rises to 2,080 feet on the northeast and contains a cave in which Muhammad sought isolation and visions before he became a prophet. It was also in this cave that he received the first verse (āyah) of the holy Qurʾān. South of the city, Mount Thawr (2,490 feet) contains the cave in which the prophet secreted himself from his Meccan enemies during the Hijrah to Medina, the event that marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.
Entrance to the city is gained through four gaps in the surrounding mountains. The passes lead from the northeast to Minā, ʿArafāt, and Al-Ṭāʾif; from the northwest to Medina; from the west to Jiddah; and from the south to Yemen. The gaps have also defined the direction of the contemporary expansion of the city.
Because of its relatively low-lying location, Mecca is threatened by seasonal flash floods despite the low amount of annual precipitation. There are less than 5 inches (130 mm) of rainfall during the year, mainly in the winter months. Temperatures are high throughout the year and in summer may reach 120 °F (49 °C).
Plant and animal life
Plants and animals are scarce and consist of species that can withstand the high degree of aridity and heat. Natural vegetation includes tamarisks and various types of acacia. Wild animals include wild cats, wolves, hyenas, foxes, mongooses, and kangaroo rats (jerboas).
The city centres on the Ḥaram Mosque, also called the Great Mosque, in which are situated the Kaʿbah and the sacred well of Zamzam. The compact built-up area around the mosque comprises the old city, which stretches to the north and southwest but is limited on the east and west by the nearby mountains. The main avenues are al-Muddaʿah and Sūq al-Layl to the north of the mosque and al-Sūq al-Ṣaghīr to the south. Since World War II, Mecca has expanded along the roads through the mountain gaps to the north, northwest, and west. Among the modern residential areas are al-ʿAzīziyyah and al-Faysaliyyah along the road to Minā and al-Ẓāhir, al-Zahraʿā, and Shāriʿ al-Manṣūr along the roads to Jiddah and Medina. Expansion has been accompanied by the construction of new streets in the old city. In the 21st century a number of skyscraper hotels were built in the area around the mosque.
The Ḥaram Mosque is magnificent in its size and architecture and has been embellished and enlarged on numerous occasions through the centuries, most recently in a series of massive expansions by the government of Saudi Arabia in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The state-of-the-art complex, now multilevel, includes an advanced communication network, air-conditioning, escalators, and a complex network of pedestrian routes and tunnels, in addition to numerous aesthetic and artistic accompaniments. The mosque can accommodate one million worshippers at a time. Houses near the mosque have been razed, and it is now surrounded by open spaces and wide streets, which can be crossed through underground walkways built to ease traffic. To the south of the Ḥaram Mosque, the Saudi government built the Abrāj al-Bayt skyscraper complex, one of the world’s largest and tallest buildings, to house hotels, shopping centres, and prayer areas near the holy sites.
Mecca’s houses are more compacted in the old city than in the modern residential areas. Traditional buildings of two or three stories are built of local rock. The villas in the modern areas are constructed of concrete. Slum conditions can still be found in various parts of the city; the slum inhabitants are mainly poor pilgrims who, unable to finance their return home, remained in Mecca after arriving either for the hajj or for a lesser pilgrimage known as the ʿumrah.
The population density in Mecca is high. Most of the people are concentrated in the old city, while densities in the modern residential areas are the lowest in the city. During the month of pilgrimage the city is swollen with one to two million worshippers from other parts of Saudi Arabia and from other Muslim countries. Entrance into Mecca is permitted only to followers of Islam. Mecca is, however, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, containing people from various countries throughout the globe. People of the same national origin tend to live together in certain parts of the city.