Kindly contributed by Ziauddin Sardar, author of Mecca, The Sacred City. Born in Pakistan and raised in London, Sardar revered Mecca as a child and kept the city as a moral and geographical compass point throughout his life. Sardar made several pilgrimages or "Hajj" as an adult -- including one on foot with a sex-crazed donkey at his side -- and conducted extensive research on the site. His book is a unique mixture of history and reportage made accessible by stories of his own ever-changing relationship to the pilgrimage site that draws some three million Muslims each year.

  Mecca is the holiest city of Islam. It is both the birthplace of Prophet Muhammad and the religion of Islam itself.  It is the direction Muslims face during their five daily prayers. And it is the city they must visit at least once in their lifetime to perform the hajj, the annual pilgrimage, or the ‘lesser pilgrimage’ known as the umra. At the centre of Mecca is the Sacred Mosque, housing the Kaa’ba, a cubed structure. As a practical demonstration of their faith, Muslims circulate the Kaaba both during hajj and umra.

The Kaaba provides Mecca with its mythic character. The Kaaba is said to be built by Prophet Abraham, who was directed by God to establish a focus for monotheism in the middle of a ‘barren valley’. The environment around the Kaaba, such as the well of Zamzam and the hills of Safa and Marwah, are all connected to the story of Abraham, his wife Hagara and his son, Ismail – a story re-enacted every year by millions of pilgrims. But the story of Abraham, and Mecca with it, would have had little significance if Mecca did not play host to the early life of the Prophet Muhammad. It is in Mecca that the revelation known as the Qur’an first began; and Islam was established as a universal religion. It is its religious and historic significance that makes Mecca an eternal city.

But the lure of Mecca is not limited to Muslims. It has an equal fascination for non-Muslims. For non-Muslims, the mystique it evokes comes from its forbidden character – that fact that non-Muslims are barred from entering the city. During the Middle Ages, Mecca was seen as a far away, distant and impenetrable place. Yet, the forbidden fruit presented an irresistible challenge to western travellers. It was different from other blank spaces on the map – such as the Africa that Conrad dreamed of. There were not only climate and people to overcome but a religion too, and its very womb where it was conceived: Mecca. Most of the western visitors to Mecca were rather unsavoury character being, by and large, imperialists, opportunists and spies. Many arrived with total contempt for Islam, some pretended to be converts to Islam, still others came simply to exploit. But they all left transformed. Some, like Philby, became Muslims; others, like Palgrave and Doughty, used Islam as a backdrop for their own spiritual journey. Still others, the eighteenth century Swiss explorer John Lewis Burckhardt, and Sir Richard Burton, who visited Mecca in 1853 and who travelled in disguise as an Afghan, left a rich account of what Mecca was like during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

I would advise those who are planning to visit Mecca to walk everywhere. The city’s historical sites and cultural property have all been destroyed. But you can still get a feeling of how the hajj was performed in history if you walked between various ritual points – from the Sacred Mosque to Muna (where the pilgrims spend three nights and days), from Muna to Arafat during the day of the hajj (where the entire congregation of some three million pilgrims pray together), and from Arafat to Muzdalifa (where the pilgrims spend a night under the sky). I was fortunate enough to walk from Jeddah to Mecca, tracing the old caravan route, in the company of an unruly donkey. It is undoubtedly the supreme moment of my life.