learn about arabia - back to homepagelearn about arabialearn about arabialearn about arabia

Saudi Arabia factfile

PRINTPrint this page

The Cradle of Islam

Makkah al-Mukarramah – “Makkah the Honoured” was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad in 570, and it was here that the Qu’uran, the holy book, was first revealed to him forty years later.

For the world’s billion Muslims, the western region of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the home of Islam’s two holiest cities; Makkah and Medinah. Five times a day, Muslims around the world turn to face Makkah to pray. Today’s King Fahd ibn ‘Abdulaziz adopted as his official title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” to reflect the serious responsibilities involved in taking care of these holy sites. The central position of Makkah in Islamic history and pilgrimage means it is truly the centre of the Muslim world.

The revelations of God to the Prophet Muhammad were inscribed in the Qu’uran, which is written in classical Arabic. Islam means ‘submission’ to Allah. It is regarded as the last of the revealed religions and Muhammad is the last prophet. The holy book contains the Five Pillars of Islam which every Muslim accepts as his duties, and sets forth the concept of an ideal Muslim community.


The pilgrimage to Makkah, known as the Hajj, is devoutly performed by more than 2,000,000 Muslims every year. Hajj means worshipping Allah by performing set rituals, over a period of four days. It is a time of great religious intensity for the pilgrims. On completion of the Hajj, a pilgrim will be known by the title ‘Haji’, inserted in front of his name.

In addition to the Hajj, hundreds of thousands of Muslims come to perform ‘umrah’, the lesser pilgrimage which involves several of the same rituals as the Hajj. As many as a million worshippers also attend nightly prayers in in the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

Sacred Mosque

Makkah’s Sacred Mosque surrounds the Ka’ba, an empty, cube-shaped structure some 15 metres tall, which is draped in a gold-embroidered black silk cloth called the Kiswah. According to the Qu’uran the first Ka’ba was built by the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Isma’il (Ishmael) as a place of worship for the one true God. Pilgrims walk around the Ka’ba seven times as part of the ritual of the Hajj.

As Ibrahim’s wife, Hajar ran frantically between the small hills of al-Safa and al-Marwa searching for water for her ailing son Isma’il, an angel appeared and brought forth what is known today as the Well of Zamzam. The well is incorporated into the Sacred Mosque. Within ten years of the Prophet’s death the area around the Ka’ba and the Well of Zamzam was already developing as a holy site.

Did you know?By the 10th century the Sacred Mosque covered an area of some 27,000 square metres. Since air travel has made it easier for pilgrims to flock to Makkah from all over the world the site has been greatly expanded to accommodate them. In 1955 King Fahd, son and successor of King Abdulaziz, ordered the first expansion of the Sacred Mosque in more than 1,000 years. It now encompasses 356,000 square metres.

The complex also houses one of the world’s largest air-conditioning plants to cope with temperatures topping 40°C, and special heat-resistant marble tiles cover the floor. Zamzam water is cooled and sterilized for drinking with ultra-violet light. Escalators zoom 15,000 people an hour to the rooftop prayer areas. Seven minarets, 89 metres high, call the faithful to prayer.

Makkah itself has been developed with up-to-date facilities, medical services and housing to cope with the largest regular human migration on earth. The responsibilities involved in taking care of its pilgrims in the modern world have been taken very seriously indeed.


The city of Medinah lies 450 kilometres north of Makkah and is Islam’s second most holy site. Originally called Yathrib, it provided a safe shelter to the Prophet Muhammad and his small group of followers when they fled from their persecutors in Makkah in 622. Their flight is known by the name hijarah. The Muslim calendar starts from this date. The Prophet received further revelations from God in Medinah, and it was here that he built the first mosque of Islam. When he died in 632 his remains were buried within the building, constructed of palm logs and mud bricks.

Today the Prophet’s Mosque has been expanded to accommodate 2,000,000 worshippers. The weekly Friday prayers are broadcast via satellite around the globe. The mosque has 10 minarets, each of which are 105 metres high, and a series of 27 domes, capable of being electronically opened and closed. Over a dozen awnings shelter worshippers from the hot sun.

Following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam continued to expand as a religious and political force and today there are approximately 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide.

mOre To find out more about Islam, take a look at:

From 'islam-guide.com' website:

Source of reference: Aramco World Jan/Feb 1999

Photographs courtesy of Peter Sanders.

Back to topBack to Top

Saudi factfile Saudi factfile
Today in Saudi Today in Saudi
Learn about Arabia Learn about Arabia
Desert adventure Desert adventure
Links Links
Contact us Contact us