One of the most distinctive religious sites in the world, the Masjid al-Haram in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is visited by literally millions of pilgrims every year. At its heart sits the Kaaba, a distinctive black cube and the point towards which all Muslims, around the world, pray.
Masjid al-Haram History
Legend has it that the Kaaba itself was built by Ibrahim (Abraham), the progenitor of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Prior to the advent of Islam in the 7th Century AD the site is believed to have been a temple of worship for local pagan tribes, but when the Prophet Muhammad came to the city he had the pagan idols removed and established a mosque in its place.
Until the beginning of the 8th Century the Masjid al-Haram was a small structure, little bigger than a house, built around the Kaaba. As Islam gained more followers and came to dominate the region, so a bigger mosque was built. By the 750s the building had lost its wooden columns and acquired granite ones, and this structure would remain for almost 800 years, when there were a number of renovations, each making the mosque larger still, throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries.
Though elements of the ancient mosque survive much of the current structure, which can accommodate up to an astonishing 4million pilgrims during the Hajj, dates from the 1950s when the Saudi royal family carried out the first major works for over 300 years.
One of the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’, the Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken by millions of Muslims annually. For many centuries the journey itself was perilous, involving dangerous sea crossings or travelling – either on foot or horseback – across arid, unforgiving deserts. Nowadays, thankfully, with the advent of aircraft it’s a great deal safer, not to mention easier!
Though a number of large, luxury hotels have been built in recent years to accommodate the sudden influx of visitors many stay in the so-called “Tent City” of Mina; a vast campsite with over 100,000 air-conditioned tents!
Hajj takes place from the 8th until the 12th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month in the Islamic calendar, during which time a number of rituals are performed, including Tawaf. This is the act of walking seven times in a clockwise direction around the Kaaba and – if possible – kissing or touching the famous Black Stone.
The Black Stone
The very oldest part of the Masjid al-Haram is without doubt the “Black Stone” (or al-Ḥajar al-Aswad), set into the corner of the Kaaba. It’s known to have been worshipped in pre-Islamic times, and Islamic tradition holds that the stone fell to Earth from Heaven, and was used by Adam and Eve as the first altar. This has led many to suggest it may have been a meteorite whose crash landing was observed by some of the region’s earliest inhabitants, and that this story was then handed down through the generations.
There have been many attempts to destroy it over the years, and fragments of it were chipped away. As a result, descriptions of the stone – which is housed within a large metal frame– have changed dramatically through history, but after many centuries of being kissed and touched by countless pilgrims it’s currently described as being polished smooth and almost metallic in appearance.
The Masjid al-Haram Today
Today, having been used as a place of worship by Muslims for over 1,400 years, the Masjid al-Haram covers an area of over 350,000 square feet – or the equivalent of around 90 football fields – and even when it’s not being visited by pilgrims from around the world can comfortably play host to almost 1million worshippers. Unusually – considering the rules on gender segregation in other parts of Saudi Arabia – the Masjid al-Haram is one of the few major mosques in the world where men and women congregate together.
However, recent years have seen some controversial developments near the site, and in particular the construction of the Abraj Al Bait skyscrapers (the world’s second tallest), which stand only a few hundred metres from the Kaaba itself and overlook the mosque, dominating Mecca’s skyline. Can it be very long before the Maasjid al-Haram itself has another makeover?