Mecca is a modern city of over a million people, and a city that has long been one of the world's central crossroads. It has been a center for trade and encounters between people from the entire Muslim world.

From Gambia in the west to China and Indonesia in the east, roads leading to Mecca have played a big role in connecting the world. Many non-Muslims have also travelled and traded along them, though they have not been permitted to come all the way in to Mecca. Goods, artisanal expertise, contacts and ideas have moved between continents.

Mecca is the central midpoint of Islam, towards which Muslims orient themselves when they pray and to which many travel on pilgrimages. It was in Mecca that the prophet Mohammed was born and Islam originated in 610 CE.

Until the mid-20th century, some 100,000 pilgrims visited Mecca annually, coming on foot, on horseback or by sea. In the 1830s, steamships started trafficking the oceans. Once they no longer had to worry about the monsoon, many more pilgrims could come to Mecca from India, Malaysia and Indonesia. Today, most people fly. Over 15 million Muslims from around the world make the pilgrimage annually.

The Kaaba

According to the Koran, Abraham built the house of God, the Kaaba, in the desert, and the city of Mecca arose as a pilgrimage site. For thousands of years, in most religious traditions, people have travelled to visit holy sites and to trade. Many of the most important crossroads throughout history are pilgrimage sites. New archaeological finds in the Middle East show that people were erecting large buildings long before they began building towns or keeping animals. They were probably some sort of temples and pilgrimage sites. Wherever people came together, there was trade and riches could be accumulated.

Between 1405 and 1433, Chinese Admiral Zheng He led a series of expeditions in the Indian Ocean. They reached the Red Sea, where part of the crew made the pilgrimage to Mecca and circled Tianfag – "The Heavenly Cube" – as the Kaaba is known in Chinese. Zheng He was probably a Buddhist, but he spoke Arabic. Both his father and his grandfather were Muslims who had made pilgrimages to Mecca. Between 1.5 and 4% of China's population are Muslims, making China the world's ninth-largest Muslim country. The first mosque in China dates from the 650s CE. In 2015, 15,000 Chinese Muslims made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The sultan's palace in Yogyakarta is the centre of Javanese culture. Its architecture has symbolic connections to the Kaaba, Islam's spiritual midpoint in Mecca. Just as the human heart has been called the body's Kaaba, the palace is the spiritual heart of the Yogyakarta Sultanate.Like Mecca, the city around the palace was previously open only to Muslims. Similarly, there were certain batik patterns that could only be worn by the sultan and his family. The pattern's meaning is taken from Hindu mythology, but it also expresses the Muslim identity of the sultan. One crossroads is linked to another.

The Hajj

The Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca – is big business. In 2016, Saudi Arabia issued over two million Hajj visas. In many ways, a Hajj trip is just like other charter tours. Over 2,000 licensed travel agencies offer Hajj packages including flights, excursions, food and lodging. The trip requires certain particular types of gear. These are new products for the Hajj, purchased from a Swedish shop. Women can choose their own clothing, while men wear a specific type of pilgrim's outfit called an ihram. The other products are suitable for all travelers.

In 1323, Mansa Musa, the Sultan of Mali, began his 4,800 kilometer long pilgrimage to Mecca. He ruled over one of the world's largest empires and considered himself related to Islam's first muezzin, Bilal. Accompanying him on the trip, he reputedly had 60,000 bearers and 80 camels, each carrying 140 kilos of gold. After an eight-month journey, he arrived in Cairo. It took 20 years for the price of gold to recover from Mansa Musa's visit. His wealth was legendary and in this world map drawn on Majorca in 1375, he is portrayed with gold in his hand.

The Arabic language

From Mecca, the Arabic language has spread through much of the world.Arabic is the prayer language of over 1.5 billion Muslims. Thanks to their common religious language, people from around the world can communicate. Many other languages have been greatly influenced by Arabic. Arabic is one of the six official languages of the UN.Classical Greek thought was translated into Arabic and spread through the world. The most prominent scientific thought was formulated in Arabic for a long period. Through this common language, knowledge and ideas spread around the world.