Cultural History Themes

Mecca and the Kaaba

In Muhammad’s lifetime (c. 570-632), Mecca was a hub for the caravan trade in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. In addition, the inhabitants of Mecca were the guardians of the Kaaba, the central shrine for all of Arabia. At this point, the Kaaba consisted of a cubic temple probably made of wood. Different religions from near and far had set up hundreds of idols in the form of statues and other objects around the temple and inside the shrine itself. Before the advent of Islam, Mecca with its Kaaba was thus a center of both trade and religious worship.

When Muhammad took Mecca in 630, conditions changed. The idols were removed from the Kaaba and the rest of the city. This was to show that the new religion accepted only one God, and this God – the same one worshipped by the Jews and the Christians – no longer let himself be represented through images or statues. As an especially holy place of congregation, the Kaaba was still to be the direction of prayer and place of pilgrimage for Muslims. From this time, Muslims have turned toward the Kaaba in prayer and most mosques have a niche (mihrab) denoting the direction (qibla) of this shrine. The Kaaba’s importance is also reflected in its inclusion in the ritual of the hajj, when the pilgrim walks around it seven times.

In the Koran, the Kaaba is understood as the house of both God and Abraham. According to the Koran, Abraham – Islam’s first prophet – and his son Ishmael built a house of stones from the time of Adam exactly on this site. Both the Kaaba’s location and its physical form are thus closely linked with the first man that God created on earth and with Abraham, the founding father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Today’s Kaaba can be described as an almost cubic building of dressed stone. The outer dimensions of the overall structure are thirteen meters long, eleven meters wide, and sixteen meters tall. In the eastern corner is the famous “black stone,” reputedly one of the original building blocks, today worn smooth by the hands and lips of innumerable pilgrims.

The Kaaba is empty, apart from a few lamps and three wooden columns that support the flat roof. In keeping with an old tradition, the Kaaba is covered for most of the year with a brocade cloth with inscriptions from the Koran. This cover (kiswa) is replaced annually during the pilgrimage, and the old cover is cut into pieces and given away or sold to pilgrims as mementos or amulets.