Houses of the holy

Houses of the holy
Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s iconic Glasgow School of Art smoulders after catching fire on 23 May 2014 / © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

In 570, the year of the prophet Muhammad’s birth, Abraha, the Ethiopian viceroy in Yemen, sent an army north into the Arabian Peninsula. Some years before, Abraha had built a magnificent church in Sanaa, hoping it would surpass the Ka’aba as a place of pilgrimage for Arabs. But when the Arabs showed no sign of changing their ways, he amassed an Abyssinian army and decided to sack Mecca. Abraha also procured a huge war elephant capable of trampling the shrine. The intended message was obvious. It terrified the Arabs, who could not match Abraha militarily, and who, as his forces approached, simply had to trust in the notion that, since the Ka’aba was God’s house, he would defend it.

Muhammad’s biographer, Ibn Ishaq, records what happened:
When they made the elephant – its name was Mahmud – face Mecca, [an Arab] came up to its flank and taking hold of its ear said: ‘Kneel, Mahmud, or go straight back whence you came, for you are in God’s holy land!’ He let go of its ear and the elephant knelt … the troops beat the elephant to make it get up but it would not; they beat its head with iron bars; they stuck hooks into its underbelly and scarified it; but it would not get up. Then they made it face the Yemen and immediately it got up and started up. When they faced it towards the north and the east it did likewise, but as soon as they directed it toward Mecca, it knelt down.

The incident became famous – indeed, 570 was subsequently known as ‘The Year of the Elephant’.

A holy place of sanctuary and pilgrimage long before the revelations contained in the Qur’an inspired Muslims to build the Haram mosque around it, the Ka’aba was said to have been built by Abraham. It was regarded as the centre of the world, with its corners at each of the four compass points. It is made of blocks of granite, and contains an object of great cosmic significance: the black stone, a meteorite brought to Abraham by an angel from the mountainside where it had fallen. []

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