Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Myth of Mecca

Mecca is the most important city in Islam. Mecca is the site of the Ka’aba, the holy temple towards which all Muslims pray daily, and to which each Muslim is obligated to make a pilgrimage at least once in their life. To Muslims, Mecca is the center of Islam, and therefore the center of the universe.

Mecca is a city located approximately 40 miles inland from the modern port city of Jeddah, in the western coastal range of Saudi Arabia. It has very little in the way of natural resources, and a very modest water supply. It has sprawled out from it’s original cradle nestled in a narrow, dry, and stony valley a quarter of a mile wide and a mile and a half long. The mountains on either side are rugged and devoid of vegetation, naked.  Free of human intervention, Mecca is sterile. There was too little water for agriculture.  In the 7th century there were no trees and far too little grass for productive grazing.

The earliest accounts we have of Mecca come from Islamic texts. Ibn Ishaq records the history of Qusay of the Quraysh, who wrested control of the polytheistic temple of the Ka’aba from the Khuza'a tribe sometime in the 4th century CE. The earliest substantiated reference to Mecca outside of Islamic scripture occurs in the Continuatio Byzantia Arabica, which is a source dating from early in the reign of the caliph Hisham, who ruled between 724-743 A.D.

There is no archeological or historical evidence to substantiate continuous human occupation in Mecca prior to the 4th century CE. Much of the archeological value of the site has been lost due to development performed to provide hospitality to the ever increasing millions of Pilgrims who attend the hajj each year. Saudi Arabian antiquities officials prohibit archeological study of the site on the basis that it is a holy place.

Islamic accounts imply that Mecca was an important hub of trade and a crossroads for caravans in Arabia in the 6th century. This view has been accepted uncritically and accepted throughout the west, almost to the point that it is considered a postulate, and not open to examination. This acceptance allows the importance of Mecca to be inflated, and places Mecca on the map as a place to be reckoned with in History.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The only conceivable trade route that may have traversed Arabia is the route from the Greco-Roman empires to the Indian subcontinent. There is simply nothing in southern Arabia, Yemen or Oman that would have attracted enough mercantile interest to cause trade caravans to ply the route through Mecca. All trade from the Mediterranean to India would have doubtless used the sea route down the Red Sea, and circumnavigating Arabia. This route would have been faster, and the conditions predictable. Sandstorms, navigation, and water supply would have made the overland route problematic for the serious merchant. A single ship with a couple of dozen crew would carry far more goods very economically, compared to a string of a hundred camels and their attendant drivers and logistics requirements.

If you look at a map of Southwest Asia, you can easily see that Mecca is on the way to nowhere. It lies in a mountain chain that makes travel difficult, off the beaten path between north and south. Jeddah in the 7th century was not the port city it is today, it was little more than a small fishing village, so there is no east-west imperative to move goods through Mecca.

Mecca had a small spring of fresh water to support it, and did have a local attraction, as it was the local seat of the polytheist Arab religious tradition. It had a modest temple dedicated to the local moon god worship which local Bedouins would periodically come to worship at. The annual Hajj to the temple of Mecca was the only industry in the small village. The temple offerings helped sustain the Quraysh tribe throughout the rest of the year. As one can imagine, this gathering was often the only contact Bedouins would have with other tribes throughout the year. Goods were traded, marriages arranged, and supplies were purchased which were not generally available in Arabia. The Quraysh operated a thriving market during this time, and traded the Bedouins for the textiles, hides, gems, spices and incense gathered or made over the year for products imported from Syria. After the Hajj, the Quraysh would take the goods gathered from the Bedouins and mount a caravan to Syria, where they would exchange them for goods to sell at the next year’s Hajj. Thus, Mecca was the terminus for a small caravan trade route to and from Syria.

Mecca was not unique in this respect. Muslim tradition would have us believe that the Ka’aba of Mecca was the seat of pan-arabic polytheism, but this was certainly not the case.  Every community had a house set aside for housing the local idols. Ibn Ishaq tells us that every family routinely kept a sacred rock-idol in it’s family quarters, and that communities raised small temples to house their communal idols. Meteorites were prized as holy stones, and Mecca’s Black stone was a fine example and held in high regard. The Ka’aba that housed it, however, was unremarkable. Tabari VI:50tells us ". . .  the Quraysh demolished the Ka'aba and then rebuilt it. According to Ibn Ishaq, this was in the Messenger's thirty-fifth year. The reason for demolition of the Ka'aba was that it consisted of loose stones rising to somewhat above a man's height, and they wished to make it higher and put a roof over it, since some men had stolen treasures kept in its interior."

So it was about six feet tall and had no roof. No building in Mecca had a roof, because there was no wood to use as building materials. Meccan dwellings consisted of stone walls with tent coverings as roofs, barely a step above the normal nomadic dwelling of the Bedouin. Other sources tell us that part of this reconstruction effort was a result of a shipwreck found near Jeddah which provided timber for the roof.

The Ka’aba was and remains the sole source of income for Mecca, and in fact was and remains the entire raison d’être for the village/city of Mecca. Control of this temple implied control of the entire economy of Mecca. This made it a highly sought after prize, just out of reach for young Muhammad, who was a member of the family, but not in line for inheritance. If you consider the early years of Islam as a political and military movement to seize control of this economic resource, Islam at once makes more sense and takes on a sinister aspect.

One could make the case that Islam exists primarily for the enrichment of the descendents of Muhammad who control the Ka’aba. To this end, the Islamic movement has been wildly successful!

Further study will reveal that there is no record of Mecca before the 5th century CE, and that Muhammad was not of the tribe of Ishmael, but of Cush.  See: The Bible and the Ancient Mecca Claim By Dr. Rafat Amari

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