Ellen McCormack, age 14, of North Providence, R.I., for her question:
WHERE IS MECCA?
Mecca is called the holiest city of Islam, the religion of the Muslims. It is located in western Saudi Arabia in a barren valley surrounded by desolate mountains.
Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was born in Mecca. It is also the site of the Kaaba, the shrine all Muslims face when they pray.
Islam requires every Muslim to make a Mecca pilgrimage, called a hajj, at least once if he or she is able to do so. Only Muslims may enter Mecca, which Islam considers to be a sacred city.
In the heart of the city is the Great Mosque. The outside of the mosque is made up of a series of arches supported by pillars. The arcade of arches encloses a courtyard that is large enough to hold 10 football fields. The courtyard measures 600 by 800 feet.
Inside the open area is the cube shaped stone Kaab. The Kaab contains the Black Stone, which Muslims believe was sent from heaven by Allah, who is God.
Mecca,, which is not too far from the Red Sea, became a trading center about A.D. 400. Muhammad was born there in about 570 but at first the citizens rejected him and his religious teachings. Muhammad and his disciples returned in 630 and Mecca became the heart of the first Arab Islamic empire.
The city's political importance declined during the late 600s, but Mecca kept its importance as the religious center of Islam.
Descendants of Muhammad, called sharifs, ruled Mecca from 960 until 1924. That year, Abdal Aziz ibn Saud, an Arab leader, conquered the city. Mecca became part of his kingdom, which he named Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Beginning in the 1950s, the government has worked to modernize Mecca and to ensure the comfort and safety of pilgrims to the city.
If possible, Muslims make a hajj to Mecca between the 8th and 13th day of the last month of the Muslim year.
About 1.25 million pilgrims crowd into Mecca during the few days of the hajj each year. About half of the pilgrims come from other countries.
Mecca depends on the money spent by pilgrims for its economy. The city takes in about $100 million during this annual pilgrimage. The Saudi government spends about $50 million to prove health care, security and other services for the pilgrims.
Mecca no longer plays a major part in Saudi Arabia's economy, which has been based on oil exports since the late 1940s.
In the past, many Muslims who came to Mecca on the hajj settled there later. But now the government strongly discourages immigration to Mecca because it wants to preserve jobs in the area for people of Saudi Arabia. However, many wealthy Muslims live in Mecca's suburbs.