Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia

The al-Haram Mosque in Mecca is Islam's holiest mosque and the destination of millions of pilgrims every year. In its courtyard is the Kaaba, the shrine that determines the direction of Muslim prayers around the world.

The al-Haram Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed, is the holiest site in Islam and the largest mosque in the world. All Muslims around the world look to it when they say their prayers. Together with the Prophet 's Mosque in Medina and the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, it is one of the three holiest places in Islam.


PICTURES: Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca

Photo gallery: Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca

Kaaba and the Black Stone

In the huge courtyard of the al-Haram Mosque is the Kaaba, that holy of holies in the direction of which all Muslim prayers are said and the mihrabs (prayer niches) of all the mosques of the world are aligned. Because of this and around this inconspicuous black cube of granite, the entire mosque was built.

The very first Kaaba was supposedly built by Adam, the first man, as a house for God on earth. According to the Koran, today's Kaaba was built by Abraham and his son Ismail, among others with the mysterious Black Stone.

This is still in the Kaaba today and has been an important relic of the Islamic faith since the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Some Muslims consider the Black Stone to be an ordinary stone, while others attribute to it healing powers and the power to forgive sins.

At the centre of the al-Haram Mosque is the Kaaba, the "holy house" towards which Muslims around the world pray, Saudi Arabia - © Sufi / Shutterstock
© Sufi / Shutterstock

The Kaaba received its black cloak at the end of the 7th century from the Abbasids. The "kiswa" consists of a curtain on each side and is renewed every year. The golden lettering is part of the Muslim creed: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."

The interior of the Kaaba is covered with marble and decorated with gold and silver. Walking around and praying at the Kaaba is one of the highest religious acts a Muslim can perform. According to Muhammad, one prayer in the al-Haram Mosque is worth hundreds of thousands of prayers elsewhere (except in the Al-Aqsa and Prophet's Mosques).

Fountain Zamzam

Next to the Kaaba is the Zamzam well in the courtyard of the Masjia al-Haram. According to Islamic tradition, Allah caused this spring to spring up in order to save the Egyptian slave Hagar and her son Ismail, the first son of Abraham and prophet and messenger of God, from dying of thirst in the desert.


In search of water, Hagar had previously walked back and forth between the two mountains Al-Safa and Al-Marwa seven times - a path that has become a pilgrimage custom today. The source of the well Zamzam is also said to have been the reason for the creation of Mecca. According to tradition, the grandfather of the Prophet Mohammed rediscovered the spring after it had fallen into oblivion.

The water of the Zamzam is said to have its origin directly in paradise and thus to have healing properties. Drinking the water is a ritual that is part of the pilgrimage. Each pilgrim takes 10-20 litres of Zamzam water home with them from their pilgrimage. Commercial trade with the holy water is forbidden and taking genuine Zamzam water abroad is only possible in sealed canisters under strict controls.

Hajj - the pilgrimage to Mecca

The al-Haram Mosque during the Hajj, the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim should make once in their life, Saudi Arabia - © Zurijeta / Shutterstock
© Zurijeta / Shutterstock

The fifth pillar of Islam states that every free, adult and healthy Muslim who can afford it should make the pilgrimage to Mecca, called Hajj, once in his life.

This is only possible at certain times, namely in Dhu l-hijjah, the twelfth and last month of the Muslim calendar (usually in September or October, depending on when the crescent moon is sighted in Mecca). The number of pilgrims travelling to Mecca is increasing every year; by now there are already more than two million.

Although the mosque in Mecca has a prayer area of 356,800 square metres, it can "only" accommodate up to 820,000 worshippers. And yet that is still too little for the crowds that flock to the city during the major religious event. The organisers are always faced with a new challenge, because so many visitors also want to be catered for and accommodated.

History of the al-Haram Mosque

Already in pre-Islamic times, the al-Haram Mosque consisted of the Kaaba, the Zamzam Fountain and the Maqām Ibrahim, a rock showing Abraham's footprint. Around 630 AD, the Prophet Mohammed had the first mosque built, but it soon became too small and was expanded over the centuries by the subsequent Umayyad, Abbasid, Mamluk, Ottoman and finally Saudis.

The interior of the al-Haram Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is magnificently decorated from floor to ceiling - © ahmad faizal yahya/Shutterstock
© ahmad faizal yahya/Shutterstock

Most of the present building dates from the extensive renovation ordered by the Ottoman Sultan Selim II in 1571. The architect at the time was none other than the master Sinan, who also designed the Selimiye Mosque in the Turkish city of Edirne for the sultan.

The last major expansion of the al-Haram Mosque was financed by King Fahd at the end of the 20th century, which included air conditioning for the mosque.


Extension of the al-Haram Mosque in Mecca

The al-Haram mosque urgently needed to be expanded again. A project for this has already been underway since 2007. When the expansion is completed, the mosque will extend within a radius of 660 metres around the Kaaba, have 2 more minarets and offer space for 2.5 million people. The huge project will cost 80 billion Saudi rials, which is about 20 billion euros!

The expansion of the al-Haram mosque has been controversial because it requires the demolition of some buildings of high historical value. A crane collapse caused by a storm killed more than 100 people and injured more than 200 others on 11 September 2015.

No access for non-Muslims: Non-Muslims are not allowed access to the entire city of Mecca - and thus also to the al-Haram mosque. Not for nothing does "al-Haram" mean "the denied".