Midway between Yemen and Egypt is a sandy valley two miles in length, surrounded on all sides by naked hills. No gardens or fields are to be seen; no trees except some low brushwood and the acacia of the desert. On all sides are barren and sunburnt rocks. But in the midst of this valley is a wonderful well. It is not that the water is unusually cool and sweet—connoisseurs pronounce it "heavy" to the taste—but it affords an inexhaustible supply. No matter what quantity may be drawn up, the water in the well remains always at the same height. It is probably fed by a perennial stream below.
This valley, on account of its well, was made the halting-place of the India caravans, and there the goods changed carriers—the south delivered them over to the north. As the north and south were frequently at war, the valley was hallowed with solemn oaths for the protection of the trade. A sanctuary was established; the well Zemzem became sacred; its fame spread, and it was visited from all parts of the land by the diseased and the devout. The tents of the valley tribe became a city of importance, enriched by the customs receipts and dues of protection, and by the carrier hire of the caravans. When the navigation of the Red Sea put an end to the carrying trade by land the city was deserted; its inhabitants returned to the wandering Bedouin life. In the fifth century, however, it was restored by an enterprising man, and the shrine was rebuilt. Mecca was no longer a wealthy town; it was no longer situated on one of the highways of the world; but it manufactured a celebrated leather, and sent out two caravans a year—one to Syria and one to Abyssinia. Some of the Meccans were rich men; Byzantine gold pieces and Persian copper coins circulated in abundance; the ladies dressed themselves in silk, had Chinese looking-glasses, wore shoes of perfumed leather, and made themselves odorous of musk. It was the fame of Mecca as a holy place which brought this wealth into the town. The citizens lived upon the pilgrims. However, they esteemed it a pious duty to give hospitality if it was required to the "guests of God, who came from distant cities on their lean and jaded camels, fatigued and harassed with the dirt and squalor of the way." The poor pilgrims were provided during six days with pottage of meat and bread and dates; leather cisterns filled with water were also placed at their disposal.
During four months of the year there was a Truce of God, and the Arab tribes, suspending their hostilities, journeyed towards Mecca. As soon as they entered the Sacred Valley they put on their palmers´weeds, proceeded at once to the Caaba or house of God, walked round it naked seven times, kissed the black stone and drank of the waters of the famous well. Then a kind of Eisteddfod was held. The young men combated in martial games; poems were recited, and those which gained the prize were copied with illuminated characters and hung up on the Caaba before the golden-plated door.
There was no regular government in the holy city, no laws that could be enforced, no compulsory courts of justice, and no public treasury. The city was composed of several families or clans belonging to the tribe of the Corayshites, by whom New Mecca had been founded. Each family inhabited a cluster of houses surrounding a courtyard and well, the whole enclosed by solid walls. Each family was able to go to war and to sustain a siege. If a murder was committed the injured family took the law into its own hands; sometimes it would accept a pecuniary compensation—there was a regular tariff—but more frequently the money was refused. They had a belief that if blood was not avenged by blood a small winged insect issued from the skull of the murdered person and fled screeching through the sky. It was also a point of honour on the part of the guilty clan to protect the murderer and to adopt his cause. Thus blood feuds rose easily and died hard.
The head of the family was a despot, and enjoyed the power of life and death over the members of his own house. But he had also severe responsibilities. It was his duty to protect those who dwelt within the circle of his yard; all its inmates called him father; to all of them he owed the duties of a parent. If his son was little better than a slave, on the other hand his slave was almost equal to a son. It sometimes happened that masterless men, travellers, or outcasts required his protection. If it was granted, the stranger entered the family, and the father was accountable for his debts, delicts, and torts. The body of the delinquent might be tendered in lieu of fine or feud, but this practice was condemned by public opinion, and in all semi-savage communities public opinion has considerable power.
There was a town-hall in which councils were held to discuss questions relating to the common welfare of the federated families, but the minority were not bound by the voice of the majority. If, for instance, it was decided to make war, a single family could hold aloof. In this town-hall marriages were celebrated, circumcisions were performed, and young girls were invested with the dress of womanhood. It was the starting place of the militia and the caravans. It was near the Caaba and opened towards it: in Mecca the Church was closely united to the state.
Throughout all time Mecca had preserved its independence and its religion; the ancient idolatry had there a sacred home. The Meccans recognised a single creator, Allah Taala, the Most High God, who Abraham, and others before Abraham, had adored. But they believed that the stars were live beings, daughters of the Deity, who acted as intercessors on behalf of men; and to propitiate their favour idols were made to represent them. Within the Caaba or around it were also images of foreign deities and of celebrated men; a picture of Mary with the child Jesus in her lap was painted on a column, and a portrait of Abraham with a bundle of divining arrows in his hands upon the wall.
Among the Meccans there were many who regarded that idolatry with abhorrence and contempt; yet to that idolatry their town owed all that it possessed, its wealth and its glory, which extended round a crescent of a thousand miles. They were therefore obliged as good citizens to content themselves with seeking a simpler religion for themselves, and those who did protest against the Caaba gods were persuaded to silence by their families, or, if they would not be silent, were banished from the town under penalty of death if they returned.