Is Petra the Original Mecca?
In a capitalist society, freedom of speech is essential so customers and investors can use timely and truthful information to make sound economic decisions. When ideas are presented to the public sphere, they must be examined scientifically, with pros and cons being aired so that the truth can emerge. That principle also works in our spiritual world. We are all customers and investors in our spiritual beliefs. When archaeology finds a disturbing fact about our spiritual beliefs, i.e., our religion, it is vital that all sides be allowed to debate their facts and opinions to establish the truth.
That is the case here. Dan Gibson, a Canadian historian and author of three books, The Nabataeans (2004), Quranic Geography (2011), and Early Islamic Qiblas (2017), a documentary film The Sacred City (2016), has presented such a case. Gibson has spent 30 years living in Arabia doing on-the-ground research on Islam's geographical, factual history. Gibson's point is that Petra is the original city Muhammad grew up in. He has dozens of facts that support his claim, and they make sense. I will not go further without saying that numerous scholars, both Islamic and Western, vigorously dispute his claim. Actually, that's good. Any claims that suggest the status quo is wrong should be held to high levels of evidentiary proof and let other scholars debunk the claim with facts and data that contradict the claim. I think that is what we're witnessing. As more archaeological research pours in, Gibson's thesis will be proven right or wrong. Let me present his findings as best I can.
In the book Quranic Geography and the documentary film The Sacred City (currently on YouTube), Gibson makes the case that the physical orientation of early mosques faced Petra. In the Qur'an (2:144, 149, 150), Muhammad told his believers to "turn your face toward the Sacred Mosque." Muslims pray five times daily in a prone position facing the Sacred Mosque. The Sacred Mosque was frequently called the Masjid il-Haram, better known to non-Muslims as the Kaaba. Each mosque is built facing the Kaaba, or there is a wall or a place inside the mosque that designates the direction of the Kaaba. This direction is referred to as the Qibla. If you are Muslim and praying from home, you can go on the internet to quiblafinder.org to see in which direction to pray.
For non-Muslims, the legend of the Kaaba goes back to Abraham. Some 4,000 years ago, his first wife, Sarah, sought to expel his slave wife, Hager, and her son Ishmael from Abraham's camp. Sarah was concerned that Ishmael would usurp her son Isaac's inheritance. Abraham took Hager and Ishmael into the desert and, according to Islamic legend, brought them to Mecca in the Arabian desert, a journey of more than 1,000 miles. Later, Abraham returned when Ishmael was older, and together, they built the Kaaba as a house of prayer and worship to God.
Gibson claims to have examined dozens of the early mosques built in the time of Muhammad. If the mosque had been destroyed, he studied the foundations. He looked at over 200 mosques built during the first three centuries of Islam (622 AD to 922 AD). He claims that during the first 35 years of Islam (622 AD to 657 AD), all of the mosques examined that had been built during this period (17 mosques) faced Petra in Jordan. From 657 AD until 747 AD, some newly built mosques faced Petra, and some faced Mecca. From 709 AD to 872 AD, there seemed to be a period of confusion as 82 mosques had Qiblas not pointing at either Mecca or Petra but at points in between. Finally, Gibson found that ALL mosques built after 872 AD had Qiblas facing Mecca. Gibson also lists 88 mosques as "unknown" as he could not determine the original Qibla. When this information is scaled, it appears that the earliest periods pointed to Petra as the holy city.
Credit: Dan Gibson, Nabataea.Net, Chapter 3 (AH is a Latin abbreviation for Anno Hegirae, the first day of year one of the Islamic calendar of the Hijrah, the Prophet's forced migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD.)
Other Things Start To Make Sense
If Petra is the original Holy City of Muhammad's birth, other parts of Islamic history make sense. Here are a few examples:
Mecca is not mentioned on any map until 900 CE, 300 years after Muhammad's birth. Mecca is not mentioned in any literary or religious document until 741 AD in the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle. Even then, it was described as located in Mesopotamia, not the Hejaz region of Arabia. In my book Muslim Mechanics, I mention on page 21 that "…historians, geographers, and cartographers from the fourth century BC to the fourth century AD indicate no signs of Mecca either as a trading post or a religious center. Evidence suggests Mecca was not around to be where Abraham built his Kaaba."
Mecca was approximately 1000 miles from Jerusalem. However, Petra was only 150 miles away. The Jewish Bible places Ishmael growing up in Paran (Genesis 21:20), a Nabataean stronghold in those days. Many years later, Petra became the Nabataean capital.
Petra was on the caravan trade route. Mecca was never a major city on the caravan route. Pilgrimages were traditionally made to Petra from across the Arab region. A zodiac dated to the second century CE indicates two annual pilgrimages to Petra.
Jerusalem was a settlement around the 3rd millennium BC; the first historical mention was in the 2nd millennium BC. Archaeological digs have unearthed a massive amount of ancient relics around modern Jerusalem. On the contrary, there are few archaeological finds in Mecca. If Abraham and Ishmael built the sacred mosque in the 2nd millennium BC and Mecca pulled in religious pilgrimages from this house of worship, wouldn't more than a few relics be found at this location?
Mecca, as mentioned in the Qur'an, is varied. There is only one verse that says Mecca by name (48:24); one verse that alludes to another name for Mecca is Bakkah (3:96); two verses that refer to Mecca as the "Mother of cities" (6:92 and 42:7); and four verses that refer to Mecca as "This City," (2:126, 14:35, 90:1 & 2, 95:3). Mecca as the "Mother of Cities" (i.e., a major trading city) is not correct as it was not on major caravan routes. Geographical descriptions of Mecca from the Qur'an and hadith include Mecca as having a distinct valley, a parallel valley, a river, grass, olive trees, loam, and clay. None of these attributes are found in Mecca. Olive trees then and now are only found in northern Saudi Arabia, not in the Hijaz region along the Red Sea.
These are just some reasons why it makes sense that the original holy city was Petra. There are dozens more reasons to explore.
Watch the Documentary
Dan Gibson's documentary, The Sacred City (1 hr, 25 min), is well worth watching. It can be accessed on YouTube at this link, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tth1QVg780
Numerous scholars and academicians have taken issue with Gibson's thesis. Probably, the most recognized and vocal is David King, Professor of History and Science at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. In 2020, Dr. King wrote a rebuttal, The Petra Fallacy, claiming that the early mosques did face the sacred Kaaba in Mecca.
I do not refute Dr. King's credentials to rebut Gibson's claim, but I do not accept King's claim that Gibson's followers seek to denigrate Islam and distort Islamic history. For example, I am a Christian and would want to know if there was circumstantial evidence that Jesus did not die on the cross. At least I could evaluate the truth in line with my own personal values.
If Gibson's theories do not hold water, we will know soon enough as archaeology research moves forward. Gibson takes a personal risk in presenting this information, as did Copernicus with the Catholic Church over the theory that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Whether the data is correct or not, it brings forth a debate and dialogue that extends public knowledge about a subject most people know nothing about, and that in itself is good.