Makkah spreads beyond the narrow valley in which it was originally confined. The Holy Mosque, the minarets of which are visible in the distance, is the holiest site in Islam.

Makkah Al-Mukarramah. Makkah the Blessed. To Muslims, who comprise one of every five people in the world today, these words have a special place close to their hearts. Recognizing the spiritual significance of the city and aware of its responsibilities and duties towards the guests of God at Islam's holiest sites that Saudi Arabia is blessed to have on its soil, the government of the Kingdom has undertaken extensive projects so that larger numbers of the faithful can visit Makkah than ever before and perform their religious rituals in complete safety and comfort.

No other spiritual center in the world plays as important a role in the daily lives of people as does Makkah for the more than one billion Muslims living in the vast Islamic world that stretches from Indonesia to Morocco or in countries in which they are minorities.

It was here that the first verses of the Holy Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and it is towards the Ka'abah, the cubical stone structure which now stands in the center of the Holy Mosque, that Muslims face to pray five times a day and circumambulate as part of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy sites in and near the city.

To the millions of Muslims who visit the city from distant parts of the world each year, entering Makkah is the spiritual high point of their lives, an experience that remains indelibly etched in their memories forever. Having arrived in the Kingdom by way of a seaport, airport or road, the visitor approaches with a sense of expectation. Their spiritual quest begins as their vehicle passes under an archway topped by a sculpture of an open Holy Qur'an which marks the limit of the haram, the holy area surrounding Makkah.

A heightened sense of spiritual awareness pervades the entire haram. Inside the city, the life of everyone, whether resident or visitor, is attuned to devotion. At prayer time all stop whatever they are doing and stream from every direction into the vast complex to face the House of God and pray. Visitors are struck by the casual manner in which shop owners close their stores without shuttering them, vendors cover their stalls without securing them and people leave their homes without locking the doors. After prayer, they return to resume their lives. In their absence, their stores and homes remain as they left them, for here, as in all of Saudi Arabia, a person's safety and the security of his property are inviolable.

With completion of the most recent expansion project, the Holy Mosque can now accommodate more than one million people at a time.

The absence of such petty, earthly concerns helps make the visit to Makkah all the more profound for pilgrims, particularly those from countries where crime and insecurity are inescapable facts of daily life. It allows visitors to commit themselves completely to their religious devotions and contemplation of God.

Makkah itself is an ancient city long regarded as a spiritual center and mentioned in the classical writings of historians and geographers, such as the second century Greek, Ptolemy. Originally called Bakkah or narrow, a reference to the valley in which the city is located, Makkah was a pilgrimage site for centuries before the advent of Islam. The Holy Qur'an says: "The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakkah, full of blessing and of guidance for all the worlds." The House referred to is the Ka'abah, a structure originally built by Prophet Abraham and his son Ismail. When it was completed, Abraham was commanded by God to call mankind to make the pilgrimage to it.

Makkah was also an important trading center, located on the main caravan routes connecting the southern parts of the peninsula with the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. The people of Makkah therefore prospered as merchants. The main commodities fueling this trade were frankincense and myrrh, incenses that were in great demand in the ancient world. Both produced in southern Arabia from the resin of trees, they were carried north to Makkah and beyond by caravans.

A century ago fewer than 40,000 people could worship simultaneously.

The city was famous for several annual fairs. At Okaz, Arab poets would gather to read their compositions. Another fair, the suq al-Arab (Arab market), was held at Mina outside Makkah. The trade caravans, the pilgrimage and the fairs combined to make Makkah the preeminent city in the peninsula. However, the growing affluence of Makkah's inhabitants and its fame were accompanied by corruption of the principles embodied in the Ka'abah. By the sixth century AD, the House dedicated to God by Abraham had been transformed into a shrine for the worship of idols. As many as 365 idols are said to have been placed in the structure at one time. Moreover, the House of God was used for non-religious purposes. As an example, outstanding poetry at the Okaz fair each year was often written on cloth in gold letters and hung in the Ka'abah. Such poems were known as mu'allaqats (hung ones).

There are numerous passages in the Holy Qur'an, including these (above), which refer to Makkah and the Holy Mosque (below).

It was against this backdrop that the Prophet Muhammad was born in Makkah in the late sixth century. Growing up among the people of Makkah, who were largely engaged in idolatry, Muhammad nevertheless practiced the monotheism that was a legacy of Abraham. At the age of 40, in the year 610, while in retreat in a mountain-top cave called Hira, Muhammad received the first verses of the Holy Qur'an.

With the call to the inhabitants of Makkah to abandon idolatry and embrace Islam, the Prophet's following grew. However, resistance from the wealthy tribes in Makkah, who saw Islam's monotheism and condemnation of idolatry as a threat to the prosperity that was partly due to the presence of idols in the Ka'abah and the many who came to Makkah to worship them, forced the Prophet to leave the city for Madinah in 622. This journey, the Hijrah (migration), was later designated as the first year of the Islamic era and its lunar calendar.

In the remaining ten years of his life, the Prophet's message spread across Arabia and was embraced by its inhabitants. In the year 630, he personally returned to Makkah and purified the Ka'abah of the idols that had corrupted it and rededicated the House of God. In 632, shortly before passing away, the Prophet led a large caravan of pilgrims from Madinah to Makkah to perform the Hajj.

From this time on, Makkah became the spiritual center of the Islamic world. The Ka'abah, standing at the center of the Holy Mosque, remains the heart of Islam. At the southeast corner of the plain cubical structure is the Hajar Al-Aswad (Black Stone), the only piece of Abraham's original shrine that is left. Neither the Ka'abah nor the Black Stone are objects of worship to Muslims, but represent a sanctuary consecrated to God.

The rituals performed by the Prophet Muhammad during his last visit to Makkah in 632 form the basis of the pilgrimage that has been conducted every year since by Muslims in Dhu Al-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

The people of Makkah serve the millions of visitors who come to the city throughout the year by providing services ranging from guiding the guests of God to meeting their everyday needs.

The hardships and risks associated with performing the pilgrimage were gradually eliminated when King Abdul Aziz Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Saud brought the Hijaz, the portion of the Arabian Peninsula in which Makkah and Madinah are situated, under his protection and later founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. In the preceding decades, the pilgrimage had become an expensive undertaking due to the many taxes levied on pilgrims by the rulers. It was also one which involved great risk to health and life because of the presence of robbers in the desert marches to Makkah and the absence of sanitation and medical facilities in the city.

At the time of the founding of Saudi Arabia, the Holy Mosque could accommodate only 48,000 worshippers at a time, and fewer than that number of pilgrims visited Makkah from abroad every year. In 1955, a project was launched to expand the Holy Mosque in Makkah. Its courtyard was raised and covered with white marble and a second level was added to accommodate more worshippers. The area surrounding the complex also underwent expansion and renovation, including the construction of a network of tunnels and pipes to protect the site from flash floods that had historically threatened the city, located as it is in a narrow valley.

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz launched the latest expansion of the Holy Mosque in 1985. Dedicated, as was his father before him, to the service of Islam and Muslims, especially the pilgrims to the Holy Mosque, King Fahd launched a seven-year project to renovate and expand the Holy Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah and their facilities. When the project was completed in 1992 at a cost of more than 70 billion Saudi riyals (18.66 billion U.S. dollars), the size of the Holy Mosque in Makkah had more than doubled to accommodate up to one million worshippers. The size of the Prophet's Mosque, which most pilgrims visit at the conclusion of the rituals in Makkah, was also more than doubled to handle 700,000 worshippers.

This year, the Hajj took place in mid-April, and more than two million Muslims gathered in Makkah to perform the pilgrimage to the Holy Mosque. Contingents came from more than 130 countries, including the United States. The size of each national contingent has been determined by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as 1,000 pilgrims for every one million population.

Accommodating such a large concentration of people in a limited area requires massive planning, preparation and organization. Although some pilgrims still come by sea and land as they have done for centuries, modern ports and roads now make their travel easier and more comfortable. Modern highways now connect Makkah with major cities in Saudi Arabia, and through them to other countries.

The majority of pilgrims arrive by commercial jets at a special Hajj Terminal built at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah. A vast fleet of buses moves the pilgrims from the airport to Makkah, where a city of air-conditioned tents has been established to house them. Sanitation facilities, medical centers and other services have been established at the tent cities and the pilgrimage sites to meet every need of the pilgrims.

A vast tent city houses the more than two million pilgrims that gather in Makkah for the Hajj every year.

Huge quantities of food and water are distributed throughout the tent complexes and along the route of the pilgrims from the Holy Mosque to the nearby holy sites in Arafat, Muzadalifah and Mina, and back to Makkah. A network of pedestrian walkways, tunnels, escalators and bridges has been built to allow for the easy and safe movement of this mass of humanity throughout the pilgrimage circuit.

The city's 12 large hospitals and 63 health care centers are complemented by a large number of temporary clinics established at the pilgrimage sites to meet the needs of inhabitants and pilgrims alike.

Controllers monitor the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic at one of the many centers throughout the pilgrimage route.

Located in an arid part of the country with little rainfall, Makkah in the past was reliant on a limited supply of subterranean water accessed through wells. To meet the growing city's needs, a pipeline was built to transport water from desalination plants at Shuaybah on the Red Sea.

The lives of the people of Makkah are almost exclusively dedicated to the service of the Holy Mosque and the millions of people who visit it each year. Serving as guides, interpreters and hosts, they provide a range of vital services. They provide accommodations, food and water. They ensure that those in need of medical care receive it promptly, and pilgrims who get lost in the mass of humanity are reunited with their groups. Fire-fighting and other emergency services are manned by trained personnel around the clock.

The greatest concentration of pilgrims, particularly from abroad, at any one time in Makkah occurs during the Hajj. Preparations for the Hajj begin months before the actual pilgrimage and keep the people of Makkah busy for most of the year. After the Hajj is over, the work continues for months. The city and the pilgrimage sites need to be cleaned and prepared, provisions replenished and machinery and equipment checked and maintained. Tens of thousands of sheep sacrificed at the conclusion of the pilgrimage are processed at factories and over the coming months are distributed worldwide among the needy, including victims of famine and natural disasters.

While the Hajj is the focal point of life in Makkah, the city's inhabitants are kept busy serving a steady stream of worshippers throughout the year. Millions of Muslims annually conduct Umrah, the minor pilgrimage to Makkah which can be performed at any time of the year outside the Hajj season. Coming from around the world, these pilgrims need the same services as those who visit the city to perform Hajj.

Helping the vast crowd of pilgrims move through the pilgrimage sites, such as the Mount of Mercy (above), requires extensive preparation, planning and organization, as well as some one-on-one guidance (below).

Additionally, during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims dedicate their lives to fasting and prayer, large numbers of worshippers gather at the Holy Mosque. On the night of Laylat Al-Qadr, which fell on February 5 this year, more than two million worshippers gathered in the Holy Mosque to pray. Laylat Al-Qadr marks the night on which the Holy Qur'an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and is considered especially holy to Muslims.

Thus the people of Makkah spend the whole year in the service of "the guests of God." The vast expansion of the city and the efficient services provided to the pilgrims reflect Saudi Arabia's dedication to the service of Islam and the pilgrims to the Holy Mosques. King Fahd emphasized that commitment earlier this year when he stated: "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its government and its people, honored to serve the Two Holy Mosques and the pilgrims to them, and ever mindful of enabling the guests of God to perform their rituals in line with the teachings of the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah (teachings and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), will spare no effort in the service of Islam and Muslims throughout the world."

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