Mecca (mod. Makkah, Saudi Arabia) is the chief town in the Hijaz region of western Arabia and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. It is also the site of the Ka‘ba, a cubic building in the corner of which is set a black stone that is said to have come from heaven.
The Ka‘ba is the central shrine of Islam, and thus Mecca became the ultimate goal of the hajj (Muslim pilgrimage). Every Muslim male has the obligation to go on Hajj at least once in his life. The hajj was of considerable commercial and spiritual importance. Muslim cities in Syria, such as Damascus, suffered economically in years when the hajj was unable to get through to Mecca, whether because of Bedouin or Frankish interference. During the early crusade period, Mecca was a politically turbulent backwater that only really came to life during the month of the pilgrimage. However, some well-known Sufis and theologians spent considerable periods of time in the city, studying and meditating. The traveler Ibn Jubayr, who arrived in Mecca on hajj in 1183, estimated that about a fifth of the population consisted of foreign residents.
The city was governed (or misgoverned) by Sharīfs of the Hawāshim clan, who traced their lineage back to the clan of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sharīfs played off the Saljûqs against theFātimids, periodically switching formal allegiance, as acknowledged in the khutba (the sermon of the Friday prayer). In 1187 the place seemed to be threatened by the Franks when Reynald ofChâtillon, the lord of Transjordan, plundered a hajj caravan and attacked several Red Sea ports. Saladin’s propagandists thereupon made much of the threat to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Ibn Jubayr’s Rihla, or narrative of his pilgrimage to holy places, gives a vivid portrait of the city in the late twelfth century. Saladin’s brother al-‘Ādil succeeded in establishing a somewhat nominal Ayyûbid suzerainty over the city and the region. Baybars I’s establishment of suzerainty over the Sharīfs from 1269 onward was, like Ayyûbid suzerainty, really rather nominal. However, in the early fifteenth century the sultan Barsbay brought the Muslim holy cities under more effective Mamlūk control, together with the Red Sea ports that were crucial to Egypt’s spice trade.