Welcome to Mecca!

On this tour we will explore the city of Mecca roughly during the 17th and 18th centuries. In order to fully understand this city we must examine the physical space, the people that occupied that space, and the society that has been created. It is through these windows that we can comprehend the city space during this specific time frame.



First Stop: Overview

The city of Mecca is located among the Sirat Mountains in Western Saudi Arabia. (Esposito) It is situated in a valley created by large mountains, and remains hidden, so you cannot see this wondrous city until you arrive. The tallest of these mountains, Abu Qubays, lies just east of the city. (Wolfe) The city of Mecca and the surrounding area has a very harsh environment consisting of hot weather and a scarcity of water; the landscape remains mostly barren with very little greenery or trees. (Wolfe) What truly gives this city life is the people, the exotic items in the bazaars, and, of course, the Great mosque. The religious and commercial spaces of the city coexist, and are intertwined. At the center of the city you can find not only the great mosque, but also the biggest street of merchants and artists in the city. Mecca is mostly known for its religious significance, as it is the site of the Kaaba. However, what many people aren’t aware of is that the city is a center of trade and commerce. (Esposito)

During this period in history Mecca was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. This government greatly respected the holy city of Mecca and they were devoted to improving and maintaining the city. (Sardar)


“When it came to Mecca, no expense was spared, and a great deal of effort was spent on   public relations to improve the standing of the caliphate and to gain the confidence and praises of the meccans as well as the pilgrims.”

– Ziauddin Sardar


Any work that needed to be done in the city was first discussed with local scholars, jurists, and prominent figures to best decide what was appropriate. Unlike other islamic cities of its time there wasn’t physical space for the great mosque to be expanded, so, instead, the existing mosque was remodelled to have a more “Ottoman style.” (Gamm) For example, domes were added in place of the existing flat roofs. Such changes were done to impress the pilgrims and demonstrate the power of the protectors of the Holy Land, the Ottoman Empire. (Gamm)

The city of Mecca holds such significance and draw in relation to religion and culture. Pilgrims either on a religious hajj or as merchants travel long distances from all directions to visit the city. Traveling on established caravan and trade roots, these people make this arduous journey to experience Mecca. For Muslims, their lives truly revolve around the Kaaba. No matter where they are in the world they will always know where they need to look to perform their Salah, or daily prayers. (Nasf) This circumvolution  continues when they arrive at Mecca, when they actually rotate in a counterclockwise direction seven times around the Kaaba as they are performing Tawaf. (Nasf) Not only the Kaaba, but any item from this city is held at a high level of importance. The water from the Zamzams, and even the dirt and mud from surrounding land is collected and respected. (Nasf)



Second Stop: Organization of the City

The City of Mecca fully occupies the valley in which it exists. Much of what we know about the details of Mecca during this time comes from John Lewis Burckhardt’s book, Travels in Arabia. To give an idea of scale, Burckhardt estimates the valley to be around 1500 paces (0.7 miles) from north to south and 700 paces (0.3 miles) from east to west. Burckhardt also claims that “from the suburb called Djerouel (where is the entrance from Djidda) to the suburb called Moabede (on the Tayf road), amounts to three thousand five hundred paces.” This is the broadest point of the city. Within the valley there is a natural slope southward. Because of this decline, when it rains, which is rare, the water travels down through the city and empties into a lower valley called ‘Wady el Tarafeyn.’ (Burckhardt) Burckhardt describes the city itself as a “conglomerate of city units” or “Om el Kora (the mother of towns).” These types of sub communities provide not only the economic opportunities of a city, but the social security of a village. (Sardar) The city is split into many quarters. These are often defined by class, type of merchant, but most often they are divided by country of origin. The quarters in Mecca during this time were:


  • The Quarter of Jirwal, The Quarter of el-Báb, The Quarter of esh-Shebéka, The Quarter of Súq es-saghír, The Quarter of el-Mesfalah, The Quarter of Báb el- ‘Umrah, The Quarter of Shamiyyah, The Quarter of Súéqah, The Quarter of Quarárah, The Quarter of Rakúbah, The Quarter of en-Náqa, The Quarter of es-Selémániyyah, The Quarter of Shi’b ‘Amir, The Ghazza-quarter, The Quarter of Shi’b el-Maulid, The Quarter of el-Mudda’a, The Quarter of el-Qusháshiyyah, The Quarter of  el-Jiád, The Quarter of Ma’ábdah. (Ziauddin Sardar)


Burckhardt spent a prolonged time in Mecca during the 1800s, so he was able to see how the city existed over time. For example, the population of Mecca is an interesting topic because it is always changing. Due to his extended time, Burckhardt was able to see how and why this number changed. According to his estimation, there were around 25000 to 35000 stationary inhabitants and 3000 to 4000 Abyssinian (pre-british India) and African slaves. Additionally, the city was able to hold three times that number due to the pilgrims that came on Hajj. (Burckhardt) Looking even closer to the buildings and streets, Mecca has some distinct features that were unique for its time. First, Mecca has very wide and unpaved streets. This feature allows for the many visitors that occupy the city. The unpaved streets only become an issue when it rains because they get very muddy and hard to navigate, but, as we know, rain is  a rare occurrence. Secondly, the buildings in Mecca have a more “European” look. The homes are around three stories, built with a darker stone, and have numerous windows. At this time most major middle eastern cities don’t have these types of buildings. The windows of these homes are particularly unique. They project from the wall, similar to a bay window, and are elaborately carved and painted. They aren’t like traditional windows because you can’t see through them. Instead, they have panels of reeds that keep bugs and debris out, but let natural light and fresh air in. (Burckhardt)



Third Stop: Southern Quarters

Starting in the most Southern Quarter of the city is El Shebeyka. The main street in this area is mostly lined by coffee shops and caravan brokers. Known as the “low quarter,” not only is the quarter physically lower, but it also tends to have an economically poorer set of residents. (Burckhardt) Additionally, unlike many residents in this city, homeowners here do not rent out their apartments to pilgrims as they feel this is disgraceful. In a subsection of this quarter, called El Khandaryse, is a large burying-ground. In this area the lowest class of Bedouins live in huts and tents. These individuals make their money by selling charcoal. (Burckhardt) Another notable aspect of this quarter is the smaller market street, Souk-es’-Sogheyr. (Burckhardt) On this street the homes are lower than the rest of the city and are inhabited by poorer individuals. Among the markets here the common products sold are grain, butter, dates, and even locusts. This area is also occupied by African pilgrims who primarily sell firewood collected in the surrounding mountains. (Burckhardt)


Fourth Stop: Central Quarters

Moving north we will come into the center of Mecca. This quarter is called El Szafa and includes Mesaa, which is the largest street in the whole city. This street runs parallel to the Great Mosque, and it creates an extremely lively area, rich in trade and religious activity. Due to its proximity to the Great Mosque, the houses here are very lavish and are occupied by the richest pilgrims during their Hajj. (Burckhardt)

The street of Mesaa is the most frequented, and noisy, part of Mecca. The majority of the street is used for markets, solely owned by Turkish merchants. These merchants sell a wide variety of items such as garments and jams. However, the most popular product would have to be tin bottles. Pilgrims use these containers to collect water from the Zamzam in the Great Mosque. While this street is open to all pilgrims, it is targeted toward those from Turkey. Many of the products are traditionally Turkish, and  the apartments are typically only rented  to Turkish pilgrims. (Burckhardt)

Running parallel on the other side of the Great Mosque is Soueyga. This street is much smaller than Mesaa, but it still holds a vibrant marketplace. Due to the narrow streets and tall building, this area is in the shade for the majority of the day. The shaded streets and cooler temperatures bring in many crowds who are escaping the heat. This street is primarily occupied by wealthy Indian merchants, who own the buildings. Some of the items sold here include: cashmere, perfume, sweet oils, balsam, and aloe-wood. Another industry that exists on this street and throughout the city is slavery. On many of the street corners Abyssinian slaves are sold. From John Lewis Burckhardt’s personal experience, the value of each slave was heavily based on beauty. “The price of the handsomest was from one hundred and ten to one hundred and twenty dollars.” (Burckhardt)

As you travel down Soueyga the street will change to Shamye. With the change in name comes a change in culture and merchandise. Syrian merchants have claimed this area to sell their products from all over the world.


“Silk stuffs from Damascus and Aleppo; cambric manufactured in the district of Nablous; gold and silver thread from Aleppo; Bedouin handkerchiefs, called keffie, of Baghdad and Damascus fabric; silk from Lebanon; fine carpets from Anadolia and the Turkman Bedouins; abbas from Hamah; dried fruits and the kammereddyn from Damascus; pistachios from Aleppo”

– John Lewis Burckhardt



Fifth Stop: The Great Mosque

The true center of Mecca, and the whole world for Muslims, has to be the Great Mosque. It has been a place of worship even before the time of Muhammad. (Esposito) Inside it holds the Kaaba which is the most important Islamic object in our world. It is a pre-Islamic “House of God” founded by Abraham and Ishmael. (Esposito)


“The concrete symbol of the origin of Islam, In Muslims eyes the origin of all religion, the pilgrimage is the return to one’s origin.”

– Seyyed Hossein Nesr


This 12 x 10 x 16 meter cube has been the topic of much debate. (Nasr) Over the years, of course, the Kaaba needs to be renovated to keep it in a stable condition, but the decision to fix it always causes a divide among Muslims. For example, in the 1600s the Kaaba was beginning to decay and become unstable. There was a huge backlash from the local Muslims over a proposition to demolish and rebuild it. After much debate, they finally came to the agreement that the Kaaba must collapse without human intervention before it could be rebuilt. In 1629, the solution naturally occurred. Strangely, torrential rain flooded the Great Mosque and destroyed the Kaaba. As a result, and  under Sultan Murad IV rule, the Kaaba was rebuilt. (Sardar)

Besides the historical and religious significance of the Great Mosque, and more specifically the Kaaba, the everyday power and draw of this object is incomparable. Mecca is “a place where large numbers of people congregate like water flowing into a reservoir.” (Sardar) This simile is a way to explain how pilgrims come to the city in a magnetic and innate nature.

While this specific form is the site of such veneration, it is also a symbol of the formless. (Nasr) The Kaaba has remained in the same simple shape as a reminder of the importance of the spiritual significance, not the physical. This comes from the fear that people will begin to worship an object instead of God.

Other than the Great Mosque there aren’t many public gathering spaces in the city. No large gardens, parks, or even squares. This aspect of the city is a purposeful way to show that there is nothing that can compare to the Great Mosque and there should be no rival. (Burckhardt) The only type of gathering spaces that naturally forms are the markets within each quarter. However, in no way are these spaces an attempt to compete with the Great Mosque. They are simply a result of mass numbers of people coming into the city and congregating.



Sixth Stop: Northern Quarters

Moving back onto the street and north of the center of the city we will get to the two quarters Modaa and Mala. These areas are known as “high place” in reference to their higher altitude and airy environment. (Burckhardt) Unlike the central and southern parts of the city these regions are less crowded and more rural. Here, the merchants are skilled in the following types of product and service areas: grocers, drug­gists, corn-merchants, tobacconists, haberdashers, and sandal-makers. (Burckhardt) The largest industry in this area is centered around livestock. The animals most commonly used are sheep and camels. Their fur and meat are sold to locals and pilgrims on Hajj. (Burckhardt) The most esteemed aspect of this part of Mecca is the summit view. As travelers come into the city from the north they are greeted by the grand view of the entire city and, most importantly, by the Kaaba. The Kaaba is what they have traveled so far to witness.



Seventh Stop: Pilgrimage & Economy

When we think about what makes Mecca so special, it is the pilgrims, their journies, and their affect that truly make the city what it is. Much of what we know about pilgrimages to Mecca come from first person literature and archaeological evidence. Mecca is a very holy land, so archeological digging is not allowed, however, investigation of the common caravan trails tells us a lot about the type of people and products that are coming in and out of the city. These forms of artifacts also help with the, “reconstruction of the diverse forms of economic activity associated with the Hajj.” – Marcus Milwright (Porter)

One primary written source found was that of Mehmed Edib. In this sort of travel itinerary and journal from the 17th century Edib documents his journey to Mecca on the Syrian caravan. He often mentions the many stops along the pilgrimage. These markets catered to those on the Hajj and sold local produce, such as fruits and vegetables. The stops he was most impressed by were Ma’an (Southern Jordan) and Mada’in Salih (Northern Arabia). (Porter) Perhaps the most powerful aspect about pilgrimage is that it creates an economy both in and out of the city. With pilgrims comes the need for support and products along the way. Locals capitalize on this by selling items at different stops along the way.

Another perspective about pilgrimage, and more specifically the Syrian caravan, is Nu’man Qasatili. He wrote about his journey to Mecca in the 1870s and focused on the more practical side of things. He estimated that just on the Syrian caravan alone there were 8,500 pilgrims. (Porter) He also talks about how involved the Ottoman empire was with the pilgrimage. The Ottomans extolled a lot of money and protection to support the pilgrims because of their enormous respect for the Hajj. This long journey was not only dangerous, because of severe weather and harsh conditions, but it was very common for travelers to be mugged or killed. The Ottomans tremendous involvement speaks to their investment in the city and religious life in general. (Porter)




On this tour of Mecca during the 17th and 18th century we have been able to see the city through many windows. Our key claims and takeaways for this presentation are:


* The religious, historical, and cultural significance of Mecca.

* The economy and trade in and around Mecca.

* The political influence within the city.

* The distinct quarters based on nationality and class.

* The mark pilgrimage makes on every aspect of Mecca.


Exploring Mecca though all of these filters allows us to better understand what the space within and surrounding Mecca truly is. The people, the traditions, the buildings, and every detail creates this space and put us into the city. From this tour we hope you are able see that every aspect of Mecca’s space can be traced back to these windows and to help explain why the city existed in that way.




Abd al-Ghaffār, al-Sayyid. View of the mosque, while congregational Çalat [i.e., Salat] are being held inside. photographic print. Leiden : E. J. Brill, 1889

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