In central western Arabia lies the city of Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and home to one of the most sacred sites in Islam: the Ka'ba. The Ka‘ba refers to the cubical structure in the centre of the sanctuary at Mecca, the Masjid al-Haram, which has remained a significant pilgrimage site for Muslims since the Prophet’s time.
The Two Sanctuaries: Mecca and Medina
The Ka‘ba structure predates the advent of Islam. Muslim traditions relate that the Ka‘ba was first built by Prophet Ibrahim and his son Ismail. Since its erection in pre-Islamic Arabia, the Ka‘ba served as a sacred site of congregation for the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula where they would perform an annual pilgrimage. The structure was used to house sacred objects such as representations of local deities and the Black Stone (al-Hajar al-Aswad), which would later become an object of veneration for Muslims as the stone that the Prophet Muhammad set in the eastern corner of the Ka‘ba.
During the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, the site was established as the direction of prayer (qibla) for the Muslim community, which it continues to function as today. Once the Prophet and his followers conquered Mecca in 630 CE, pagan idols were removed from the Ka‘ba and the rites of the Islamic practice of hajj were established with the Prophet’s first and final pilgrimage to the holy site. These same rites, including the circumambulation of the Ka‘ba, are still performed during the pilgrimage that welcomes around 2 million Muslims each year.
After the Prophet’s death, successive caliphates inherited the upkeep of the sanctuary in Mecca. Various turbulent rules and natural disasters have historically damaged the Ka‘ba, including a fire during the rule of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik (d. 705 CE), and flooding in the later Ottoman era. As a result, the Ka‘ba has undergone numerous renovations. Similarly, traditions surrounding the Ka‘ba adapted and developed from one epoch to another. While today the custom draping of the Ka‘ba with a black silk cloth (kiswa) happens on the ninth day of the Islamic month of Dhul-Hijja, during Abbasid rule (r. 750-1258) this may have taken place up to three times a year with different coloured cloths. Another well-established custom is the annual cleaning of the Ka‘ba that traditionally involves local dignitaries. In 2019, Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, the current governor of Mecca, led the ceremonial washing that uses Zamzam water, rosewater and oud to clean the inner walls and floor of the Ka‘ba.Throughout history and until today, the Ka‘ba has served as a sacred site of congregation uniting various communities on a spiritual journey.
Throughout history and until today, the Ka‘ba has served as a sacred site of congregation uniting various communities on a spiritual journey. Like other spaces of worship, the Ka‘ba is a complex and multi-dimensional space that is informed by its history as much as its social, environmental and political surroundings.
The Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad
Approximately 200 miles north of Mecca is a city that comprises the second holiest site in Islam. Medina, otherwise known as the illuminated city (al-madina al-munawara), is home to the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad, built in 622 by the nascent Muslim community and the Prophet himself. As the location of the Prophet’s migration (hijra), Medina holds special significance to the Muslim community and continues to attract millions of pilgrims each year, though not an official part of the hajj pilgrimage.
The mosque in Medina is believed to be one of the first mosques ever built and is often referenced as an archetype of mosque architecture that followed. Built as an extension to the Prophet’s home, the mosque consisted of a humble square enclosure built with palm trunks and mud walls, and included a shaded area to the south of the structure. Given the numerous renovations to the site after the Prophet’s death, it is difficult to determine what exactly this early space would have looked like and how exactly it was used. Thanks to various art historians, we are able to speculate the layout of the Prophet’s early mosque-home and piece together the developments that the space underwent.
We know that the first notable renovations to the space took place in 707 when Umayyad Caliph al-Walid (705-715) tore down the old structure to build a larger mosque. The new space now housed the Prophet’s tomb beneath a green central dome, which also incorporated the tombs of the early Caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar. The later Mamluk Sultans (r. 1250–1517) maintained the tradition of restoring and expanding the Prophet's Mosque. Sultan Qaytbay rebuilt the east, west and qibla walls following a fire that destroyed part of the mosque in 1481.
IIn the modern era following the foundation of the Saudi Kingdom in 1932, the Mosque of the Prophet underwent several modifications. By 1981, the old mosque was surrounded by new prayer areas, enlarging the space by five times its size. Today, the Saudi Kingdom continues to expand the site to accommodate the millions of pilgrims who visit the mosque each year to be in proximity to the Prophet’s tomb. In light of this continuous expansion that often comes at the cost of historic surrounding sites, the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina raises important questions about the sanctity of space and the importance of preserving the local environment. For a harmonious relationship with the environment and its population, the development of sacred spaces in the future will need to consider these essential factors.
More on the Web
An Architectural Record of the Ka‘ba
An Architectural Record of The Prophet’s Mosque Archnet.
An Architectural Record of Re-construction of the Prophet’s Mosque by Umayyad Caliph Walid I
National Geographic: Mecca [video]
New York Times Pilgrimage: A 21st Century Journey through Mecca and Medina, [video]