Word of the day: mecca

As you probably know, the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is of vital importance in Islam. It was the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the site of his first revelations of the Holy Quran. Making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your life is obligatory for all able-bodied Muslims. A pilgrimage is journey that a religious person makes to a holy place and the Islamic pilgrimage to mecca is called the hajj /hædʒ/. Every year, around three million people from all over the world complete their hajj, making it the largest annual gathering of people anywhere in the world. Mecca is also home to the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam, and is considered by Muslims to be the House of Allah. Wherever they are in the world, Muslims are expected to face the Kaaba when praying – and you can buy prayer mats with compasses to help you point in the right direction . . . and even hi-tech ones that light up when facing Mecca!

However, in English, we can also talk about a place being a mecca if it’s somewhere that lots of people visit because it’s famous for something they want to see or do. I mention all of this because yesterday I was chatting on WhatsApp with a Japanese friend of mine called Hiro. He used to be my student back in the late 1990s, and we used to play football together after class every Friday. As a result of my evil influence, he ended up developing a passion for Arsenal Football Club that has not only stayed with him, but that he’s also passed onto his kids (as one does)! Anyway, he told me he’s planning to bring his family over to London this summer and that he wants to make a pilgrimage to the Arsenal stadium. It is, as he quite rightly noted (he learned from the best!), a mecca for all Arsenal supporters.

Obviously, there are plenty of other places here in London that people make pilgrimages to. Over the years, various students of mine have made pilgrimages to the tree in south London that killed 70s pop star Marc Bolan, when he drove his car straight into it; the skateboard park under the South Bank that’s produced plenty of world-famous skaters; and various sites in the East End where works by legendary graffiti artist Banksy could be found. And London itself remains a mecca for everyone from design lovers to clubbers, from musicians and clubbers to foodies and theatre lovers.

One final strange fact worth mentioning here is that there’s also a large chain of bingo halls here called Mecca! Of course, given that bingo is basically a form of gambling and that this chain have decided to name themselves after the holy city, I suspect this would be seen as haram – against Islamic law – by many Muslims. I guess the idea behind the name must’ve originally been that the company hoped their bingo halls would become a mecca for bingo lovers! To conclude, it’s interesting to note that no other religious centre that people make pilgrimages to are ever used as metaphors in English, so, for example, even though millions of Catholics visit the Vatican every year, we never refer to something as being a vatican for anyone. Perhaps this, then, despite the bingo halls, is testament to the remarkable pull of Mecca.

If you enjoyed this post, why not take our ADVANCED LANGUAGE AND CULTURE course in London this summer.

  • Is your town or city a mecca for anyone?
  • Have you ever made a pilgrimage – religious or non-religious – to a place of personal importance? When? Why?
  • Do you know anyone who has done their hajj? What did they tell you about the experience?
  • Have you ever developed a passion for anything because someone else has pushed you to?
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