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Mecca or 'Makkah Al-Mukkaramah\' (Arabic مكة المكرمة) is a city in the Hijaz region of western Saudi Arabia. It is revered as the holiest site of the Islamic religion, and a pilgrimage to it is required of all Muslims who can afford the trip.

In the 1980s the government of Saudi Arabia changed the official transliteration of the city's name from Mecca, as it had been known to Westerners for centuries, to Makkah. See below for the reasons.

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, by 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 preached the religous doctrines of one God and the threat of the Day of Judgment. (Moslems worship the same God as Christians and Jews, whom they call Allah, which is simply the Arabic word for God). Muhammad 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 (al-Madinah in Arabic, alternatively transliterated as Madinah), 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. Every year about three million gather for the major pilgrimage, or Hajj, during the Muslim month of Dhu'l-Hijja, and many more perform the minor pilgrimage, or Umrah, which may be performed at any time of year. Few non-Muslims have ever seen the rites and rituals of the hajj (non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from entering Mecca and Medina).

The focal point of Mecca is the Kaaba, the "House of God" believed by Muslims to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, and which is covered in a gold-embroidered black fabric. Pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times and may also try to touch or kiss its cornerstone, the Black Stone. Pilgrims may drink from the well of Zamzam, believed to have been shown to Hagar (the wife of Abraham) by an angel while she was frantically searching for water for her son Ishmael, between the hills of Safah and Marwah. The water of Zamzam is believed to have special properties. Few pilgrims return from the Hajj without a large plastic bottle of Zamzam water.

During the Hajj pilgrims travel to Mina, a small village, where the Devil, symbolised by stone columns, is ritually stoned. They then 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 delivered his final sermon.

The importance of Mecca for Muslims is inestimable. All Muslims, wherever they are on Earth, pray five times a day in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. The direction of prayer is known as the qibla.

The Masjid al Haram, or Sacred Mosque, is for Muslims the holiest mosque on Earth. Both the mosque and the city itself are strictly off limits to non-Muslims.

Is Mecca the city of the valley of Baca?

Some have identified Mecca with an ancient city called Bakkah, identified with the Biblical "valley of Baca" in Psalm 84, but this identification is controversial. However, the Qur'an does identify Bakkah as it the location of the first mosque, which can be taken to imply that Mecca and Bakkah are the same location. One school of thought has it that Bakkah is just an alternative pronunciation of Mecca.

The spelling of the name

Since the name of this city is Arabic, its name in English must necessarily be a translation for, or a transliteration of, its original name. In the West, 'Mecca' has long been the accepted spelling.

The name Mecca has become part of the English language, with the word "mecca" generally meaning a place which is the ultimate destination and/or activity center for any group of people with a common interest. Los Angeles, for example, is often referred to as the Mecca of show business, Las Vegas as the Mecca of both gambling and boxing, Paris, the Mecca of fashion and so on. The British bingo company Mecca Bingo named itself for this usage.

However many Muslims found these usages offensive, in particular because of the associations with gambling, which is strictly prohibited by Islam. In the 1980s, the Saudi Arabian government started to promote a new spelling (Makkah Al-Mukkaramah), which is in any case a lot closer to the proper Arabic pronunciation. Many English-speaking Muslims now consider this to be the preferred and more correct spelling, but it has yet to be adopted in general English use.