In its long history Makkah has also been known as Bakkah. In ancient times, Makkah was chiefly notable as a staging post on the trade route linking the spice producers of the east with Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. Makkah lay about midway between Marib, one of the main cities, perhaps the capital, of the kingdom of Sheba (Yemen) and Petra (in Jordan), a city founded by Nabatean Arabs around the 6th century CE and which became a thriving center with commercial interests spreading into Syria. The religious significance of Makkah was established long before Islamic times. It was in Makkah that Allah commanded Ibrahim to leave Haajar and his young son Ishmael; it was in Makkah that Allah brought forth water from the Well of Zamzam which saved the life of Ishmael and his mother and then allowed Makkah to develop as a habitable place; it was in Makkah that Allah instructed Ibrahim to build “the House of God” (the Holy Kaaba). As a result, from earliest times, Makkah became a place of pilgrimage and, although as centuries passed the pure faith of the Prophet Ibrahim became corrupted by idolatry and paganism, Makkah retained its hold on the minds of men as a place where men should worship. When Makkah came under the control of the Quraysh tribe, it was a noted trading center, a place for pilgrimage and the site of festivals chiefly remarkable for intensely fought poetry competitions and the excessive behavior of the idolators. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was born in Makkah in 570 CE. When, following revelations, Muhammad opposed the paganism of the Makkan establishment and began to spread the word of Islam, he was forced by the Makkans to leave the city. He went to Madinah which proved more receptive to his understanding of the will of God. In 630 CE, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) returned to Makkah, taking the city without resistance and purging it of all elements of idolatry. He cleared the Kaaba of the 360 “gods” within, dedicating the Kaaba once more to the pure worship of the one and only God, and establishing Makkah as a place of pilgrimage for all Muslims. From that time, the Holy City of Makkah has been the heart of the Muslim world. It grew in importance as Islam spread and, for the most part, retained a large degree of independence. When the seat of Muslim power moved to Damascus and then later to Iraq under the Abassid Caliphate, Makkah acknowledged each in turn. In 1269 CE, the Mamluk Sultans from Egypt asserted their power over Makkah. And in 1517 CE, the Turks under the Ottomans in Constantinople held sway over the Holy City. Nevertheless, throughout these great shifts in power in the region, the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) remained the local rulers of Makkah. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of the First World War, Abdul Aziz Al Saud (Ibn Saud) came out of central Arabia, the Najd, and, armed with a deep commitment to the pure form of Islam, took control of Makkah, accepting guardianship of the Holy Sites as a prime responsibility of the Kingdom he founded, the modern state of Saudi Arabia.
The Holy City of Madinah, which lies in the central Hijaz 447 kilometers north of the Holy City of Makkah, is 625 meters (2,050 feet) above sea level. Sited on a fertile oasis, it is bounded on three sides by hills which form part of the Hijaz mountain range. The highest of these hills, Mount Uhud, rises more than 2,000 meters above the oasis. Madinah is the second holiest city in Islam. It was to Madinah that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his followers, faced by the hostility and persecution of the Makkan merchants, departed in 622 CE – and, when the citizens of Madinah asked the Prophet to live amongst them and to arbitrate in their affairs (an invitation taken to mean their rejection of polytheism and submission to the will of the one God, Allah), it was in Madinah that the Islamic era began. Madinah is then the city of the Prophet. As the place in which the Holy Qur’an was compiled and from which the Prophet’s companions administered the affairs of the Muslim community, it was the seat of the first Islamic state. From Madinah, armies, spreading the word of the Prophet, were dispatched to Egypt, Persia and Syria. Madinah is also the place in which the Prophet, peace be upon him, was buried. Madinah is the Arabic for “city”. The full name of Al-Madinah Al-Munawwarah means “Enlightened City”. A visit to Madinah is not part of Umrah or Hajj but the deep affection in which the Prophet held the city and its intimate connection with the birth of Islam puts it on the itinerary of most pilgrims performing Hajj.