What Is the Kaaba? A Brief History of the Holiest Muslim Site Ahead of Hajj 2017

The faith of up to 1.8 billion people, roughly a quarter of the world’s population, dictates each one of them pray five times a day in the direction of a small, cubic building in Saudi Arabia. This sacred structure situated in the center of Islam's holiest site is called the Kaaba, and its long, rich history predates the religion itself.

The Kaaba, meaning “cube” in Arabic, is considered by Muslims to be the house of God; it rests within the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Beginning Wednesday, nearly 1.5 million people will flock to the sacred city in order to pray toward and touch the structure as part of the annual Islamic pilgrimage known as Hajj. The patterns of this spiritual journey are based on a visit to the site by Islamic Prophet Muhammad in 632, but like the Kaaba itself, the rituals themselves can be traced far back to the time of Abraham, whose tradition is the basis for Islam, Christianity and Judaism and who is believed to have built the Kaaba on a site originally founded by Adam and Eve.

Related: Hajj “war” reignites over Qatar’s access to Saudi Arabia’s holy Muslim sites

“The Kaaba was a sanctuary in pre-Islamic times. Muslims believe that Abraham—known as Ibrahim in the Islamic tradition—and his son, Ismail, constructed the Kaaba. Tradition holds that it was originally a simple unroofed rectangular structure,” according to the Khan Academy.

“The Quraysh tribe, who ruled Mecca, rebuilt the pre-Islamic Kaaba circa 608 CE with alternating courses of masonry and wood. A door was raised above ground level to protect the shrine from intruders and flood waters.”

GettyImages-800169032 Muslim worshipers pray at the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca, June 23, during the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan. According to Islamic tradition, the cube-shaped structure was originally built by Abraham and is considered by Muslims to be the house of God. BANDAR ALDANDANI/AFP/Getty Images

According to Islamic tradition, the Archangel Gabriel first revealed to Muhammad the first of what would become the Quran around 610. While performing daily prayers, Muslims then faced Jerusalem. About a year and a half after being driven from his hometown of Mecca to the city of Medina, however, Muhammad redirected his followers to face the Kaaba, saying it was the will of God. Muhammad later gathered a Muslim army and re-entered Mecca, ultimately destroying the pagan idols that adorned the Kaaba around 630. Two years later, Muhammad performed his only Hajj, prophesizing his own death later that year, according to Islamic scholarship.

Since Muhammad’s time, the Kaaba has remained quite literally a cornerstone of the faith, but it has gone through some major changes over the centuries. It was damaged in two seventh century sieges of Mecca. During the Hajj of 930, a rebellious Isamaili Shiite Muslim group known as the Qarmatians sacked the Kaaba and stole from it the Black Stone, a revered, potentially extraterrestrial relic believed by Muslims to have been given to Adam and Eve by God himself. The Black Stone was ultimately returned some years later. The Kaaba continued to see extensive makeovers over the ages, including one that took place after heavy rains in the 17th century.

With technological advancements of the modern era, the unprecedented number of pilgrims coming to Hajj prompted the Saudi government to begin major renovations to the surrounding complex in the 1950s with the Saudi Binladin Group, a multinational construction conglomerate founded in 1931 by the father of infamous Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. A second project was ongoing during Hajj 1979 when violence struck the sacred site once again.

Hundreds of militants disguised as pilgrims seized the compound, demanding the fall of the Saudi royal family and recognition of one of their leaders, Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani, as the Mehdi, or savior of Islam. Authorities managed to recapture the Kaaba and surrounding mosque some two weeks later after vicious gun battles and heavy casualties. The group’s chief, Juhayman al-Otaybi, was arrested and put to death.

GettyImages-3321926 Crowds gathered on a pilgrimage at the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca, the birthplace of the Islamic Prophet Muhammed, July 18, 1889. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Other clashes, bombs, fires and stampedes have killed hundreds more over the years and, as the region continues to be beset by unrest, threats to the Kaaba remain today. In June, Saudi security forces raided a house near the Grand Mosque where they suspected militants were planning ultimately to enter the compound and blow themselves up. Amid a firefight with the suspected insurgents, one man exploded, injuring several foreigners and members of the security forces, according to the Associated Press. Five more, including a woman, were arrested.

Today, the Kaaba stands about 43 feet high and is about 36 by 42 feet around. Three of its corners are named after majority-Muslim countries or regions, with the north being named after Iraq, the west being named after Syria (or the historic Levantine region) and the south being named after Yemen. The fourth, eastern corner contains the sacred Black Stone, which pilgrims often kiss, or they wave at if they are unable to make it through the crowd. A November 2016 view of the interior captured by Google can be seen here.

The Kaaba is washed twice a year, once about a month prior to the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and again about a month before the beginning of Hajj. In both cases the outside walls of the Kaaba are cleaned with a special blend of roses from the city of Taif, oud perfume, water from the holy well of Zamzam and other scents, according to Al Arabiya. The Kaaba is also opened and its interior wiped with rose and other perfumes.