Mecca is situated some 80 kilometres inland from the port of Jiddah. It is a barren, desert area, with small rocky hills jutting out of a flat sand-filled plain. It is devoid of forest, any oasis and accompanying grass and trees. It therefore had no timber to build with and no ships for trade. Because of its harsh climate, Mecca also had no agricultural hinterland. The logic of this fact forces us to rethink the whole concept of Meccan trade. How would massive camel caravans of a thousand or more animals have been replenished in such a barren place? Mecca only receives about 110mm of rain a year over an average of 22 days, or about 6mm per rain event. Rain was indeed a novelty. There was therefore no feed for livestock, let alone food for people. Barren places off the beaten track do not make natural sites for stopovers on international trade routes, let alone cities of trading empires producing armies of up to 10,000 men.
Yet Mecca is said by the Hadith literature to have been at the crossroads of significant international caravan trade routes. This is a complete fabrication as it is missing from all trade maps until the 9th Century. This lack of evidence makes sense if you consider that sea transport was vastly cheaper than land transport in late antiquity, and still is. Why would cargo be unloaded at Jiddah, taken 80 kilometres east to Mecca, then 80 kilometres further east and 1,500 metres up the mountains to the plateau town of Ta’if, then north toward the Mediterranean via overland camels when it could have continued in bulk by sea at a much faster pace? What a prohibitive and uncompetitive cost to the merchants receiving Meccan produce or spices! The need to provision such enterprises makes it without question physically impossible for trade to have originated from Mecca, or even transited through, as everything imported would have been very expensive. Making a profit via the uncompetitive overland trade route would have been utterly impossible.
In light of the above logic it is indeed surprising that the Qur’an also talks at great length about agricultural practices and the raising of livestock in the vicinity of its writer, who it claims lived in Mecca. These practices did indeed exist at and around Petra due to elaborate irrigation systems. Dry-land cereal cropping also existed in the upper Negev desert and lower Jordan. I have personally seen marginal grain fields around Beersheba at sowing time. In contrast, Mecca is totally devoid of any agricultural hinterland and associated livestock farming. Incredulously, the writer of the Qur’an, who was supposed to have lived in Mecca even talks about grape vines, olives, grain, fruit trees, dense shrubbery and fresh herbage (Q 80:27-31). This is in spite of the fact that olives are impossible to grow in the oppressive Meccan climate. But in the northwest corner of Arabia at Nabataea, in the lower Jordan and the upper Negev, agriculture flourished and it was even possible to grow olive trees. Why else would Abraham have settled there? It is looking more and more likely that the writer of the Qur’an lived somewhere else than modern Mecca and this city was theologically moved to central Arabia after the facts. The Qur’an itself suggests so.
On top of those significant agricultural contradictions we are told Mecca was a centre of pilgrimage with thousands flocking in for the religious festivals with their animals. I will talk more about this later, but let me just say that this would only compound the problem of food supplies. Crone says that when we first hear of Mecca as a pilgrimage site it is in the new Muslim era and not before. We also find they were importing grain from Egypt to feed the pilgrims, by sea of course. The more people we place in Mecca the more imports we must generate to sustain life there. All these difficulties vanish if we locate the Arab trading centre closer to established centres of agriculture, as the Qur’an points to.
Finally, in the era before the Roman Empire there was indeed an inland caravan route from Yemen to Palestine. It followed the elevated edge of the Sarawat Mountains, which run parallel to the coast all the way up the Red Sea. Yet Mecca is on the coastal plain, well over a kilometre in altitude below this inland route. Why would a caravan deviate some 80 kilometres from Ta’if, which was on the inland route and capable of resupplying a caravan with food, drop 1,500 meters in altitude down a canyon to barren Mecca, and then crawl back up to continue their journey? This would make absolutely no commercial sense.
You can read the whole essay under the Islam link on the home page.