Mecca is the Holy City of Islam, although the city had religious importance before the advent of the religion. It is located in the western region of Saudi Arabia, near the Red Sea. Technically, the city is formally known as Makkah al-Mukaaramah, translating into English as “Mecca the Blessed.” The Saudi Arabian government has pushed many English speaking nations to adopt Makkah as the proper transliteration from Arabic, rather than the more common name. The change is spelling has not, however, caught on in most of the English speaking world.
For Muslims, Mecca is a very important and sacred place. All able-bodied Muslims must travel there during their lifetimes to fulfill hajj, or pilgrimage, one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The city is holy for a number of reasons. The primary reason for most Muslims is that Mecca is the birthplace of Muhummad, the prophet of Islam. Many of his revelations also occurred within the confines of the city.
In addition to being the birthplace of the Prophet, Mecca is also the location of the Kaa'ba, a structure allegedly built by Abraham. The Kaa'ba is housed inside the Masjid al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, and is visited by millions of Muslims annually. The Zamzam Well, the holy well that supposedly sprung into existence to give water to Hagar, wife of Abraham, can also be found in Mecca.
Only Muslims are allowed to enter and live in Mecca. Non-Muslims must take bypasses around the city, and regular inspections of travelers and their documents are carried out to enforce this tradition. Non-Muslims caught in the city are subject to punishment, although a limited number of Westerners have braved its confines anyway, reporting back to the outside world. Muslims in Mecca must also follow strict rules about personal conduct, reflecting the devoutly religious atmosphere of the city.
During their time in Mecca, Muslims visit the Grand Mosque and the Kaa'ba to reflect and pray on the nature of faith. Many people arrange to take an extended visit, and the city houses a large number of Muslim scholars in addition to pilgrims and regular residents. Many Muslims take the trip multiple times over the course of their lives, hoping to enrich their personal spiritual practice. For those with less economic freedom, a trip to Mecca is a once in a lifetime event. For both groups, the trip is extremely important personally, and is taken very seriously.