Al-Masjid al-Ḥarām , "The Sacred Mosque") is the largest mosque in the world. Located in the city of Mecca (Makkah), it surrounds the Kaaba, the place which Muslims worldwide turn towards while performing daily prayers and is Islam's holiest place. The mosque is also known as the Grand Mosque. The current structure covers an area of 356,800 square metres (88.2 acres) including the outdoor and indoor praying spaces and can accommodate up to four million Muslim worshipers during the Hajj period, one of the largest annual gatherings of people in the world.
Islamic tradition holds that the Mosque was first built by the angels before the creation of mankind, when Allah ordained a place of worship on Earth to reflect the house in heaven called al-Bayt al-Ma'mūr (البيت المعمور, "The Worship Place of Angels"). From time to time, the Mosque was damaged by a storm (flood) and was rebuilt anew. According to Islamic belief it was rebuilt by Ibrahim, with the help of his son Ismail. They were ordered by God to build the mosque, and the Kaaba. The Black Stone (Hajar-ul-aswad) is situated on the lower side of the eastern corner of the Kaaba, believed to be the only remnant of the original structure made by Ibrahim. The Kaaba is the direction for all the Muslims to pray across the globe thus signifying unity among all. The Islamic teaching specifically mentions that nothing is miraculous about the Grand Mosque except for the oasis Zamzam which has purportedly never dried since it was revealed. And when We assigned to Ibrahim the place of the House (Kaaba), saying: Do not associate with Me aught, and purify My House for those who make the circuit and stand to pray and bow and prostrate themselves. —Qur'an, [Quran 22:26] And when We made the House a resort for men and a place of security. And: Take ye the place of Abraham for a place of prayer. And We enjoined Ibrahim and Ismael, saying: Purify my House for those who visit it and those who abide in it for devotion and those who bow down and those who prostrate themselves. —Qur'an, [Quran 2:125] And when Ibrahim and Ismael raised the foundations of the House (Kaaba): Our Lord! accept from us; surely Thou art the Hearing, the Knowing. —Qur'an, [Quran 2:127] Muslim belief places the story of Ismael and his mother's search for water in the general vicinity of the mosque. In the story, Hagar runs between the hills of Safa and Marwah looking for water for her infant son, until God eventually reveals to her the Zamzam Well, from where water continues to flow to this day. After the Hijra, upon Muhammed's victorious return to Mecca, Muhammad and his son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, removed all the idols in and around the Kaaba and cleansed it. This began the Islamic rule over the Kaaba, and the building of a mosque around it. The first major renovation to the Mosque took place in 692. Before this renovation, which included the mosque's outer walls being raised and decoration added to the ceiling, the Mosque was a small open area with the Kaaba at the centre. By the end of the 8th century, the Mosque's old wooden columns had been replaced with marble columns and the wings of the prayer hall had been extended on both sides along with the addition of a minaret. The spread of Islam in the Middle East and the influx of pilgrims required an almost complete rebuilding of the site which included adding more marble and three more minarets. The mosque was renovated in 1570 by Sultan Selim II's private architect and it resulted in the replacement of the flat roof with domes decorated with calligraphy internally and the placement of new support columns. These features (still present at the Mosque) are the oldest surviving parts of the building and are in fact older than the Kaaba itself (discounting the black stone) which is currently in its fourth incarnation made in 1629. The Saudi government acknowledges 1570 as the earliest date for architectural features of the present Mosque. Following further damaging rain in the 1620s, the Mosque was renovated yet again: a new stone arcade was added, three more minarets were built and the marble flooring was retiled. This was the unaltered state of the Mosque for nearly three centuries.
Religious significance: The importance of the mosque is twofold. It not only serves as the common direction towards which Muslims pray, but is also the main location for pilgrimages.
The Qibla—the direction that Muslims turn to in their prayers (salah)—is toward the Kaaba and symbolizes unity in worshiping one Allah (God). At one point the direction of the Qibla was toward Bayt al-Maqdis (Jerusalem) (and is therefore called the First of the Two Qiblas), however, this only lasted for seventeen months, after which the Qibla became oriented towards the Kaaba in Mecca. According to accounts from Muhammad's companions, the change happened very suddenly during the noon prayer at Medina in the Masjid al-Qiblatain.
Pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba. The Haram is the focal point of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages that occur in the month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the Islamic calendar and at any time of the year, respectively. The Hajj pilgrimage is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, required of all able-bodied Muslims who can afford the trip. In recent times, about 3 million Muslims perform the Hajj every year. Some of the rituals performed by pilgrims are symbolic of historical incidents. For example, the episode of Hagar's search for water is emulated by Muslims as they run between the two hills of Safa and Marwah whenever they visit Mecca. The Hajj is associated with the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad from the 7th century, but the ritual of pilgrimage to Mecca is considered by Muslims to stretch back thousands of years to the time of Ibrahim (Abraham). Unlike Hajj, the Umrah or (Arabic: عمرة) is a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, performed by Muslims that can be undertaken at any time of the year.
Literally, Kaaba in Arabic means square house. The word Kaaba may also be derivative of a word meaning a cube. Some of the other names for the Kaaba are: Al-Bait al-'Atīq which, according to one interpretation, means the earliest and ancient. According to another interpretation, it means independent and liberating. Al-Bayt al-Harām which may be translated as the honorable or holy house. The whole building is constructed out of the layers of grey blue stone from the hills surrounding Mecca. The four corners roughly face the four points of the compass. In the eastern corner is the al-Hajar al-Aswad (the Black Stone), at the northern corner lies the Rukn-al-Iraqi (The Iraqi corner), at the west lies Rukn-al-Shami (The Levantine corner) and at the south Rukn-al-Yamani (The Yemeni corner). The four walls are covered with a curtain (Kiswah). The Kiswa is usually of black brocade with the Shahada outlined in the weave of the fabric. About three quarters of the way up runs a gold embroidered band covered with Qur'anic text.