The importance of Mecca for Muslims is inestimable. All Muslims, wherever they are on Earth, pray five times a day in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca (located at 21° 25′ 24″ N and 39° 49′ 24″ E in DMS notation). The direction of prayer is known as the qibla.
In addition, a pilgrimage to Mecca is required of every Muslim who can afford it as one of the Five Pillars of the faith. Every year about three million gather for the major pilgrimage, or Hajj, during the Muslim month of Dhu’l-Hijja, and many more perform the minor pilgrimage, or Umrah, at various times throughout the year.
Few non-Muslims have ever seen the rites and rituals of the Hajj, as non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from entering Mecca and Medina. Roadblocks are stationed along roads leading to the city. The most famous incident of a non-Muslim visiting Mecca was the visit by the British explorer Sir Richard Burton in 1853. Burton disguised himself as an Afghani Muslim to visit and write Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Mecca.
The focal point of Mecca is the Kaaba, the “House of God” believed by Muslims to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, and which is covered in a gold-embroidered black fabric. Pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times and may also try to touch or kiss its cornerstone, the Black Stone. Pilgrims may drink from the well of Zamzam. Its water of Zamzam is believed to have special properties. Few pilgrims return from the Hajj without a large plastic bottle of Zamzam water.
During the Hajj pilgrims travel to Mina, a small village, where the Devil, symbolised by stone columns, is ritually stoned. They then proceed to the hill Arafat (sometimes called a mountain, but with a height of only 70 m), a site for prayers, where Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final sermon.
The Masjid al Haram (Sacred Mosque) is for Muslims the holiest mosque on Earth. Both the mosque and the city itself are strictly off limits to non-Muslims.