On the western side of the Arabian peninsula is a region known as the Hejaz, or “barrier.” The Hejaz rises from the western coastal plain from Yemen in the south to the Sinai peninsula in the north. One of the oases in the Hejaz is Mecca, set among the barren hills fifty miles inland from the sea.
Mecca possessed a well (the Zemzem) of great depth, and two ancient caravan routes met there. An east-to-west route ran from Africa through the peninsula to Iran and Central Asia, and a northwest-southeast route brought the spices of India to the Mediterranean world. Another significant advantage of Mecca was its importance as a religious sanctuary. This is the location of where Abraham brought Hagar and Ishmael..
An ancient temple, an almost square structure built of granite blocks, stood near the well of Mecca. Known as the Kaaba (cube), this square temple contained the sacred Black Stone, which was said to have been brought to Abraham and his son Ishmael by the Angel Gabriel. According to tradition, the stone, probably a meteorite, was originally white but had become blackened by the sins of those touching it.
For centuries the Kaaba had been a holy place of annual pilgrimage for the Arabic tribes and a focal point of Arabic cultural and linguistic unity. The Kaaba itself was draped with the pelts of sacrificial animals, and supposedly held the images and shrines of 360 gods and goddesses.
By the sixth century, Mecca was controlled by the Koraysh tribe, whose rulers organized themselves into syndicates of merchants and wealthy businessmen. The Koraysh held lucrative trading agreements with Byzantine and Persian contacts, as well as with the southern Arabian tribes and the Abyssinians (Ethiopians) across the Red Sea.
In addition, a number of neighboring merchant fairs, such as one usually held at Ukaz, were taken over by the Koraysh to extend the economic influence of Mecca. The Koraysh were also concerned with protecting the religious shrine of the Kaaba, in addition to ensuring that the annual pilgrimage of tribes to the holy place would continue as a source of revenue for the merchants of the city.