Charting the holy cities of Islam – the world’s most evasive list

February 1, 2011

Working with a few clients who feature North Africa and the Middle East, I often come across brochure text labelling somewhere “the Xth holiest city of Islam”.

Recently, I started getting curious about this mystical list: having defined a holy city with Wikipedia’s help, I wondered which cities were allotted spots on such a sanctified and commonly-referenced chart, and in what order.  I was pretty sure Mecca would be top, and so it proved.  Equally unsurprising, its fellow Saudi pilgrimage site Medina came in second, while Jerusalem takes the bronze.  Other than well-informed clerics, you won’t find a soul across the internet who disagrees with these medal placings.

Mecca: clearly number one

Sift a little further down the roll of honour, however, and there’s so much confusion, contention and contradiction that even a religious scholar might struggle to sort it out.

The trouble is this: there’s no accepted list, or at least none that I can find.  It seems to be a word-of-mouth thing, a Chinese whispers-style order that has been assembled over the ages with no or little certification.

To wit: various sources cite that the Ethiopian archaeological treasure of Harar Jugol is Islam’s fourth holiest city, although most, like Paradise Ethiopia Travel use terms like “thought to be” or “considered”, rather than definitively stating the fact.  Nazret.com is even less sure, stating “Harar has been cited by some as Islam’s fourth holiest city, but the origins of this postulation are dubious”.  Wikipedia lays the Harar postulation firmly at UNESCO’s door, but the cultural organisation passes the buck, saying “Harar Jugol (is) said to be the fourth holiest city of Islam”.

What’s more, on a separate page, UNESCO also labels the Tunisian town of Kairouan as Islamic’s fourth holiest.  If someone as trustworthy as UNESCO has no idea, how can anyone else be expected to?

These lower spots end up being so widely awarded that it’s less a squabble than a free-for-all.  Religion Facts seems to go with Karbala in fourth, with another Iraqi city, Najaf, one place lower down. These last two are sacred realms for Shi’a Muslims, and perhaps that’s one reason for the positional schisms; other Muslim denominations may extol other Muslim cities.  Vpeace‘s more broadly Muslim focus leads to a confident assertion that Fez is the fourth holiest city in Islam, with Timbuktu fifth. The site says the pair “were great centres of Muslim scholarship during the Middle Ages, and had flourishing universities before any of the universities if Europe were founded.” It also throws in Damascus and Baghdad for, apparently, paltry sixth and seventh-placed finishes.

Fifth place seems by far the most contentious slot, though.  As well as Timbuktu and Najaf, other declared “fifth holiest cities of Islam” include Şanlıurfa in Turkey (although this site seems spammy) and Morocco’s Moulay Idriss.

Things get even wackier if you descend lower into this Muslim canon.  Across the web, the northern Mauritanian outpost of Chinguetti is regularly labelled the “seventh holiest city of Islam”, as on World Travel Guide.  And yet, as the Google result below indicates, there are absolutely no takers for sixth place, other than Vpeace’s earlier Damascus claim (which had Baghdad, not Chinguetti, below it).  How can there be a seventh without a sixth?  Is this all total hokum after all?

A fruitless search

I fear it may well be.  Mecca is without doubt the holiest Islamic city, seeing as it is the religion’s frontispiece, and beyond those Medina and Jerusalem seem indisputed.  But beyond those, an extra-large pinch of salt may well be required next time you hear that old “Xth holiest city of Islam” claim.

Richard Mellor.