The birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and the holiest city in Islam, Mecca has played an immeasurably significant role in regional and world history.

Prior to the advent of Islam, Mecca was an important oasis located along trade routes linking the Mediterranean, East Africa, and South Asia. Muhammad, a member of one of the desert tribes based in this oasis, grew up here; and Islamic tradition reports that he first received revelation from God in a small cave in Mount Hira, just northeast of the city. This and future revelations became the Quran, the central religious text of Islam. To this day, devout Muslims pray facing the city and, if able, perform the hajj – the pilgrimage to the holy sites of Mecca.

The layers of tradition and legend surrounding the area reach back much further than even the birth of Muhammad, however. Mecca is positioned between the surrounding mountains in a valley called Wadi Ibrahim, a first hint at its Abrahamic roots. The city’s Masjid al-Haram, or Sacred Mosque, is the holiest mosque in Islam; at its center sits the Kaaba, a black, cube-shaped structure of great religious and Abrahamic importance. Many aspects of the traditional hajj ritual involve the Kaaba, and, on a number of occasions during the pilgrimage proceedings, pilgrims are required to circle it seven times in a ritual known as tawaf. According to Islamic tradition, this revered edifice was constructed as a site of worship by Abraham and his son Ishmael.

Tradition relates that God sent Abraham into the desert with his wife Hagar and son Ishmael on a journey designed to test their faith. When God commanded Abraham to leave Hagar and Ishmael behind in the desert, the mother and son soon ran out of water. Hagar, frantic to save her child, ran back and forth between Safa and Marwa – two hills in modern-day Mecca – seven times in her search for water, a journey replicated to this day by pilgrims on the hajj. Her search ended when the angel Gabriel appeared and, digging his heel into the ground, caused water to spring forth; today, the spring of Zamzam in Mecca is visited by millions of pilgrims each year, its waters believed to have special abilities to quench thirst, satisfy hunger, and heal sickness.

Abraham then returned to the area, the Quran recounts, and joined Ishmael in building the large cube that today stands at the center of Mecca’s Sacred Mosque. According to many, this was not a new creative work; rather, it was a reconstruction of the holy shrines that occupied that space many centuries earlier

Legends surrounding the pre-Abrahamic Kaaba and its origins are many. Thought to represent the house of God in heaven, many regard the site as marking the center of the world and believe that the gates to heaven are located directly above it. The cubical structure is built upon the foundational “Black Stone” located on the Kaaba’s eastern corner. Today, pilgrims to Mecca attempt to draw near enough to the stone to kiss it, believing that Muhammad himself once kissed it as well. But the history of religious association with the dark-colored rock is more extensive, offering possible explanations for Mecca’s pre-Islamic identity as a pilgrimage site (and, perhaps, suggesting why Muhammad may have kissed the stone).

Tales surrounding the stone reach far back – they begin with Adam and Eve. According to ancient tradition, the two were sent separately to disparate parts of the world after being banished from Paradise: Adam was sent to what is now Sri Lanka (to a mountain known today as Adam’s Peak), Eve to Jedda. They wandered the earth in search of one another for two hundred years; finally, God allowed them to reunite atop Mt. Arafat, just outside Mecca. Upon their reunion, Adam prayed that he might build a shrine to commemorate the moment; God sent them a special stone from heaven to begin the process. Some believe that the stone arrived in the form of a meteorite and further symbolized the direct connection between Mecca and the heavens. Many versions of this story describe the celestial stone as, initially, brilliant white; as humans touched it, however, it absorbed their sins, gradually blackening with time.

Some relate that Adam and Eve’s shrine remained until its destruction in the Great Flood, claiming that Noah’s ark floated over the spot where it had once stood and circled the area seven times, hinting at future pilgrimage rites.

Years later, Abraham and Ishmael arrived on the scene to rebuild the Kaaba, beginning with the legendary black stone and, according to some, incorporating into the construction rocks from five mountains: Mt. Sinai; the Mount of Olives, in Jerusalem; Mt. Lebanon; Mt. Hira, nearby; and Mt. Judi, located northwest of Zakho and believed by Muslims to be the mountain on which Noah’s ark came to rest. As Abraham labored to build the holy shrine, some believe that the stone on which he stood moved up and down and side to side, navigating around the developing structure and assisting Abraham in his efforts. Today, this stone rests in Maqam Ibrahim, a small shrine near the Kaaba. Two deep wells in the stone are believed to be Abraham’s footprints.

Tradition reports – and historians speculate – that, in the years following Abraham and preceding the arrival of Islam, a variety of local religions used the site of the Kaaba as a worship site dedicated to their gods. Enter Muhammad. The prophet, born in Mecca, left for Medina in 622 CE; eight years later, he returned with his followers and captured the city. Religious historians report that, upon taking Mecca, Muhammad’s first act was to rid the area of the Kaaba of idols to other gods and to reconstruct the Kaaba itself, declaring it a center of pilgrimage for his new religion. In the following days of Muhammad’s presence in Mecca, the area around the Kaaba was declared to be a zone free of violence between warring tribes – a declaration which allowed the site to be a center for both worship and safe trade through the region.

Today, millions of visitors each year – together with over one billion Muslims around the world – continue to regard the city as a center of worship and to remember aspects of its history in the physical acts of their pilgrimage.

Note that non-Muslims are strictly forbidden from entering Mecca.