Mecca is the holiest city in Islam. Located in modern day Saudi Arabia, it is the destination for the religiously mandatory hajj pilgrimage. The city’s beginnings are uncertain, but Muslim tradition holds that it was the prophet Ibrahim (the biblical Abraham) and his son Ishmael who first built the Kaaba, the religious monument at the heart of the city. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was born in the city in 570 CE, when it was the site of a pilgrimage for pagan Arab tribes. Mecca was the first city in which Muhammad preached, but persecution eventually drove him to flee to Medina. Muhammad and his followers gained control of Mecca in 630 CE, and it has been the spiritual center of the Muslim world ever since. Muslim rulers contributed to its upkeep throughout history, and it became part of Saudi Arabia in 1924. Mecca has grown significantly under the Saudis, and millions of Muslims from across the world make the hajj to Mecca each year.
As the holiest city in Islam, Mecca holds great religious, political, and symbolic importance. The hajj is one of the five pillars of the Muslim faith, making pilgrimage to the city a requirement for all Muslims capable of doing so. Political control over Mecca has often been considered a badge of honor in Islamic history, with numerous caliphs styling themselves “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”—Mecca and Medina. Today, the king of Saudi Arabia uses this same title. In accordance with an injunction issued by Muhammad, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the city. The sacrosanct nature of the city has bred some political resistance on the grounds that the Saudis are not worthy of being its protectors. For example, Saudi permission for Western military forces to establish bases in Saudi Arabia was one motivation for terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda to target both Western nations and the Saudi royal family.