Medina, Arabic for city and also known as al-Medina al-Munawara or the Illuminated City, is widely regarded as the second-holiest city in Islam. Situated in a fertile oasis and sustained in part by its growth and exportation of dates, Medina is most famous for its role in the earliest years of Islam: when Muhammad and his followers first left their homes in Mecca in 622 CE and set forth on a journey that became known as the Hijra, they eventually settled in Medina, then known as Yathrib – roughly 340 kilometers north of Mecca. Many scholars regard this as the beginning of the “Islamic Period” or “Muslim Era”. For the next several decades, the city served as the effective capital of the new empire; Muhammad and each of the first three caliphs after him operated out of Medina. It was there that Muhammad is said to have received some of the longest suras in the Quran, and many of the battles that most significantly influenced the formative years of Islam took place in and around the city.
The city of Medina also proved a significant location during the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans during World War I. While the forces of the Arab Revolt were capturing many of the surrounding cities from Ottoman control, the Ottomans invested heavily in fortifying Medina, the southern terminus of the Hejaz Railway at the time. The protracted standoff between Arab and Ottoman forces around Medina resulted in what some historians label a three-year siege on the city from 1916-1919. As the forces of the Arab Revolt began to carry out attacks on the railroad – Medina’s primary connection to external supply sources – the situation worsened for those holding the city. Eventually, the officers inside revolted against leadership and handed Medina over to the Arab forces.
As a result of the city’s rich and multi-layered history, Medina contains a host of significant sites; note, though, that many of the holy sites in Medina are off-limits to non-Muslim visitors. One of Medina’s greatest boasts is that it contains the three oldest mosques in the world. The most central of these, al-Masjid al-Nabawi (the Mosque of the Prophet), is said to be the burial place of Muhammad; his daughter, Fatima, his grandson, Hasan, and Abu Bakr and Umar, the first two caliphs, are also said to be buried at the site of the mosque. The Mosque of Quba, the oldest in Islam, is said to have been used by Muhammad to gain a view of Mecca in the distance; and the Mosque of the Two Qiblahs was constructed in recognition of the change in prayer direction from Jerusalem to Mecca.
Atop Mount Uhud, the tallest of the hills surrounding Medina, sits another site of interest: a shrine known to locals as the tomb of Aaron, brother of Moses. This shrine is one of at least three sites along the Abraham Path that are traditionally identified as Aaron’s final resting place; the others are on Mt. Haroun, near Petra, and in the Mt. Sinai Region, near St. Katherine’s Monastery.