There are two pieces of evidence that Islamic historians cling to regarding their claim that Mecca existed in Pre-Islamic times. The first is a quote from the ancient Greek geographer Pliny who charted the coastline of Arabia. In his book, Natural History, he mentions in Book VI a place in Arabia called Mochorbae. This would put Mecca’s existence back to early in the first Century. The second is Ptolemy’s longitude and latitude coordinates for a place in Arabia called Makoraba. Unfortunately many Western scholars lazily accept the Muslim claims that these two towns are the Qur’anic Makkah and therefore Mecca. Now let’s examine these claims.
In Natural History Book 6, Pliny specifically says Mochorbae is a Port on the coast, not an inland town as Mecca is. He also says the towns of Homma and Attana are the most frequented in that area. They are therefore the centre of trade in the 1st Century, not Mochorbre. He then says Mochorbae lies just up the coast from the islands of Etaxalos and Inchobrichae, the Cadaei tribe and the Eblythaean Mountains. This puts Mochorbre nowhere near modern day Mecca as Homma (Ommana) was in the Persian Gulf and the latter references were in Yemen on the South Eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. You can see a guide to Pliny’s locations on the map below Pliny’s Mochorbae is nowhere near today’s Mecca.
A hundred years later Ptolomy, the inventor of the concepts of longitude and latitude, gave the world longitude and latitude coordinates for a place called Makoraba. It is shown on this map of his coordinates, just right of the fork in the major river. It is a vaguely similar name and located in a vaguely similar place. However, it is not modern Mecca for the following reasons:
First, it should be noted that at the time of Ptolomy the Arab language did not exist as we know it so two towns starting with M but with very different names some 500 years apart in different languages could be a coincidence. To illustrate: Arab words all start with a three consonant root. Patricia Crone,an international expert in Semitic languages, says the three letter root krb from which Makoraba is derived is completely different from the root mkk from which the Qur’an’s Makkah is derived. Second, Ptolomy locates it right where Medina is today, (which was called Yathrib in ancient times), some 400 kilometres away to the north. Nothing exists in the location of Modern Mecca that resembles its name. Third, Ptolomy never visited most of the places he created coordinates for. He relied on local traders for information. Fourth, as expected Ptolomy was very accurate for locations in the Roman and Greek worlds but became less accurate as he gave descriptions of places further afield. Fifth, Ptolomy also Hellenised a lot of the names he used for his lists. Sixth, Ptolemy was very accurate with latitude, but very inaccurate with longitude. Seventh, if Ptolemy’s map is accurate, Macoraba does not match any known trade route or pilgrimage site.
Finally and most importantly, the only river (wadi) on the map, called the Betius River on the map above, must by necessity correspond with an existing wadi today. Cities come and go but rivers do not. The only Wadi of significance on the coast, Wadi Mawr, is actually 500km south of Modern Mecca. If you rejig Ptolemy’s very loose longitude coordinates to match known rivers, then most towns are suddenly located accurately and Macorba becomes Al-Mahabishah, which is not that dis-similar in pronunciation. You can find an excellent extended article by Dan Gibson on the above list of points at this link. I have reproduced his corrected Ptolemy map below.
Ptolemy’s corrected coordinates Ptolemy’s Original coordinates
To add weight to the argument that Ptolemy was not describing the Qur’anic Makkah, I have reproduced below a First Century Roman trade map according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei, confirming the non-existence of any trading towns anywhere near the vicinity of Mecca. If Mecca was a real trading city in the era of Ptolemy it would be on this map.
Procopius (d.565) was the leading historian of the 6th Century. He does not mention Mecca in any of his writings, which is strange if it was a significant commercial centre and the link in trade between India and Europe. In fact no non-Muslim historians mention Mecca in the 6th or 7th Centuries.
It gets worse: No Arab historian of the same era mentions Mecca either! There are no surviving Muslim records of trade via Mecca before the 8th Century. This silence extends to any mention of the Quraysh tribe, prominent traders from Mecca and from whom Muhammad is supposed to have come from. All this in an era when there were extensive writings about the South Arabs the Ethiopians and the Adulis, who occupied the coast opposite modern Mecca. Crone says this silence extends to all records in “Greek, Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic or any other literature composed outside Arabia before the Arab conquests” (Meccan Trade p. 134).
The ancients have spoken, and they do not mention Mecca anywhere.