For over 1400 years, Mecca has been one of the most important cities in the Arabian Peninsula. By the middle of the 6th century, there were three major settlements in northern Arabia, all along the southwestern coast that borders the Red Sea, in a habitable region between the sea and the great desert to the east. This area, known as the Hejaz, featured three settlements that had grown around oasis, where water was available. In the center of the Hejaz was Yathrib, later renamed as Medina. 250 miles (400 km) south of Yathrib was Taif, a mountain town, and northwest of Taif was Mecca.
Though the area around Mecca was completely barren, Mecca was the wealthiest and most important of the three settlements. Islamic histories state that it had abundant water via the Zamzam Well, which was the site of the holiest shrine in Arabia, the Kaaba, and was also at the crossroads of major caravan routes. In actual fact the well of Zamzam was barely sufficient to support the small community there, the Kaaba was but one of many such Arabian Polytheistic temple found in the peninsula, and the city was the terminus for a single caravan route which ran from Mecca to Syria.
The Meccan economy is almost entirely dependent on money spent by people attending the Hajj. The city takes in more than $100 million during the Hajj. The Saudi government spends about $50 million on services for the Hajj. There are some industries and factories in the city, but Mecca no longer plays a major role in Saudi Arabia’s economy, which is mainly based on oil exports. The few industries operating in Mecca include textiles, furniture, and utensils. The majority of the economy is service oriented. Water is scarce and food must be imported via Shu’eyba water plant and Jeddah.
The cultural environment of today’s Mecca has been influenced by a religious movement that began in central Arabia in the mid-eighteenth century. This movement is commonly known as the Wahhabi movement. It has been also influenced by the Shafi`i school. Also, the conflict between liberals and religious scholars made a major impact on the Society of Mecca.
As one might expect, the existence of cities closed to non-Muslims and the mystery of the Hajj aroused intense curiosity in people from around the world. Some have disguised themselves as Muslims and entered the city of Mecca and then the Grand Mosque to experience the Hajj for themselves. The most famous account of a foreigner’s journey to Mecca is A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, written by Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton traveled as a Qadiriyyah Sufi from Afghanistan; his name, as he signed it in Arabic below his frontispiece portrait for “The Jew, The Gypsy and al-Islam,” was al-Hajj ‘Abdullah.