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Where is Mecca? Exploring the Holiest City in Islam

by Pilar Dujan | December 11, 2023
Minarets of the Great Mosque and the Clock Towers, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

Islam, one of the biggest and most important religions of our time, was born in Saudi Arabia. Specifically, it was born in the city of Mecca (Makkah).

Where is Mecca? Why is it the holiest city for Islam? What can you do there? Find out everything you need to know about Mecca here.

Where is Mecca?

Map showing where is Mecca

Mecca, Makkah in Arabic, is a city in the Hejaz province of Saudi Arabia. It’s located in the western part of the country, about 70 km inland from the Red Sea. Mecca’s area is 26 km² and it has a population of 1,534,731. 

The city is located in the middle of the Sirat Mountains. One of its peaks, Mount Hira, has enormous religious importance for Muslims. In this mount is a cave in which the Prophet Muhammad received the first verse of the Quran, and where he hid during the first ever Islamic pilgrimage to Medina. This important journey, which took place in 622 AD, is known as the Hijrah and it marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. 

The history of Mecca: Why is it so important to Muslims?

Mecca used to be part of an important trading route, and there’s records of Roman and Byzantine development of the city. However, it became really prominent after the birth of its most notorious citizen: the Prophet Muhammad, born in Mecca in 570 AD, who is considered to be the founder of Islam. 

When Muhammad lived in Mecca, the city was still a prosperous trading center. The polytheistic beliefs of the time stated that the gods protected Mecca’s trade. After Muhammad started receiving instructions from the Archangel Gabriel while meditating in a cave in Mount Hira, the monotheistic bases of Islam were laid, and Muhammad quickly started to gain support from other locals.

However, not everybody was on board. Many merchants felt anger at Muhammad’s rejection of the pagan gods that they believed protected their livelihood, and their fury ended up forcing the prophet to escape from Mecca to Medina (the previously mentioned Hijrah). During his stay in Medina, he and his followers built the Prophet’s Mosque (Al-Masjid An-Nabawī), another holy site in Islam.

Muhammad’s group of followers kept growing in Medina, and the visions and revelations continued until, eight years after their departure, they made their successful return to Mecca. They tore down all images of the pagan gods and the city was established as the center of Muslim pilgrimage, thus becoming the holiest city in Islam. It’s followed in order of importance by Medina and Jerusalem.

According to Islam beliefs, Muhammad is the last of a line of prophets sent by God that included Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muhammad’s sayings (hadith) and history of his way of life (sunna) are the two essential texts in Islam after the Quran. 

But Abraham is more than just another prophet: he’s intrinsically linked to Islam. Inside Mecca’s Al-Masjid al-Haram is the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam, which is a shrine thought to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael to honor God. The Kaaba is also the Qibla: the point to where Muslims direct their prayers five times a day. 

Muhammad died in 632 in Medina. This event had cataclysmic repercussions on his followers, and would change the course of history and Islam forever: it gave birth to the two main factions within Islam, the Shi'i and Sunni

These two groups differentiated themselves because of who they thought should follow Muhammad as ruler. The Shi’a thought that it should be Muhammad’s closest blood male relative, and the Sunni thought it should be a person elected by a common consensus. Nowadays, Sunni is the most widely followed faction of Islam, but the Shi’i still thrive in certain countries like Iran or Iraq, amongst others.

The Kaaba surrounded by Muslims, Al Masjid al Haram, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

What is the Hajj Pilgrimage?

Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It’s a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca that each and every able Muslim has to perform at least once in their life. 

It takes place during the 12th month (Dhul-Hijjah) of the Islamic lunar calendar, between the 8th and the 12th of Dhul-Hijjah. 

The Hajj pilgrimage is not only extremely important to Islam, but it’s also a crucial point of interest for the tourism industry of Saudi Arabia: millions of Muslims from all over the world travel to Mecca at the same time, massively increasing the revenue of the country. 

There’s a secondary pilgrimage to Mecca, with different rules than Hajj: it’s called Umrah. Umrah isn’t part of the Five Pillars of Islam, it can be performed at any time of the year (as long as it doesn’t coincide with Hajj), and it isn’t mandatory for able Muslims. Muslims can perform Umrah as many times as they see fit, or none at all, without damaging their faith. 

Things to do in Mecca

Al-Masjid al-Haram 

Also known as “The Grand Mosque” or “The Great Mosque”, this building is the holiest site for Muslims. Every call to prayer heard by a Muslim instructs them to perform this rite looking to Mecca. 

Since it’s such an important place for the religion, only Muslims can enter its premises. Those who visit the mosque can observe the Kaaba, the Black Stone (thought to have come from Heaven) and the Zamzam well, three elements essential to Islamic lore.

Abraj Al Bait Towers

The Abraj Al Bait Towers, also called the Clock Towers complex, are massive buildings (the 5th tallest in the world) located very close to the Great Mosque. You can find anything and everything within these towers: restaurants, seven hotels, apartments, and more. 

They’re also home to the Cosmology Research Center, a four-floor museum on all things astronomy. One of its floors is dedicated entirely to the history of the towers themselves.  

On top of being the holiest city in Islam, Mecca has another distinct honor: the highest prayer room in the world is in Mecca, inside the Mecca Clock Royal Tower hotel.

The Clock Towers seen from below, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

Hira Cultural Center

This attraction is located next to Mount Hira, where the Prophet Muhammad received the revelation from the Archangel Gabriel. Here you’ll learn everything about this chapter of Islamic history. It’s open from Saturday to Thursday, from 8 am to 1 am. 

Jannat Al-Mu'alla Cemetery

This cemetery, even though it doesn’t look like much, is a revered place for Muslims. Why? Because many people close to the Prophet Muhammad are buried here. They include his wife, his uncle, his mother, his sons and his grandfather. Some of them, like his wife and uncle, were his first supporters after receiving the revelation that launched Islam into existence, so it’s no surprise that Muslims still pay their respects to the loved ones of the Prophet.

Pilgrims outside of the Kaaba, the Grand Mosque, Mecca

Can non-Muslims visit Mecca?

No. Access to the city of Mecca is restricted: only proven Muslims may enter. This is inscribed in Saudi Arabia’s laws, and offenders will be subject to penalties if they disregard this norm. There are checkpoints in every road leading to Mecca, as well as in the entrances to the Great Mosque, where you will need to show proof of being a Muslim. If you don’t, the guards will direct you to the nearest exit.

There’s no consensus on why it is that non-Muslims can’t visit Mecca, even outside the time of Hajj, but the reason most widely agreed upon is the Quran. Specifically, they cite the following passage: “O believers! Indeed, the polytheists are spiritually impure, so they should not approach the Sacred Mosque after this year”. Some interpret this as to say that only Muslims are allowed to visit the Great Mosque and the city itself. 

Do you need a visa to go to Mecca?

Yes, to visit Mecca you need a visa to Saudi Arabia. You can apply easily and in your own language with Visagov.

The tourist visa is valid for one year and it allows you to stay in Saudi Arabia for 90 days. Since it’s a multiple-entry visa, it allows you to enter and leave the country as many times as desired during its validity. However, you’re not allowed to surpass the 90 days of total stay time. Once you’ve stayed for 90 days, you must leave the country and not return for at least 180 days. 

Beware: this visa isn’t valid for Hajj. If you wish to perform this pilgrimage, you have to apply for the Hajj visa in person at an embassy or consulate.

However, it is valid for Umrah, but only for Muslims. Non-Muslims have to put other reasons for traveling that are not the pilgrimage or their application will be rejected.