In the Greek world, the Jerusalem Temple (Beit HaMikdosh) was well known, while the Ka’aba, the House of God (Baitullah) in Mecca was not known by name at all. The first Roman reference to the Baitullah is from Diodorus Siculus, a first century BCE Roman historian who wrote that in Arabia there was a temple greatly revered by the Arabs.
According to G. E. Von Grunebaum, who I studied with at UCLA in 1959, Mecca was also mentioned by Ptolemy, a second century Alexandrian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer, “The name he gives it allows us to identify it as a South Arabian foundation created around a sanctuary.” (G. E. Von Grunebaum, Classical Islam: A History 600–1258, p. 19)
Yet these two cities and sanctuaries, one almost unknown and the other destroyed during Greco-Roman times, were believed to be the navel of the world during the Middle Ages, and were frequently portrayed by Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the center of their maps.
Indeed, much of the folklore about these two holy sites is very similar; as the following fable illustrates, and shows how two holy places can become like one. This narration, transmitted orally in both Arabic and Hebrew for many centuries, and finally written down in several versions in the 19th century; explains how. Some say this happened in the time of Adam and others say in the year that Abraham was born.
Two brothers who inherited a ‘valley to hilltop’ farm from their father, divided the land in half so each one could farm his own section. Over time, the older brother married and had four children, while the younger brother was still not married.
One year there was very little rain, and the crop was very meager. This was at the beginning of a long term draught that would turn the whole valley into an arid, treeless, desert where even grain did not grow, and all the springs dried up.
The younger brother lay awake one night praying and thought. “My brother has a wife and four children to feed and I have no children. He needs more grain than I do; especially now when grain is scarce.”
So that night the younger brother went to his barn, gathered a large sack of wheat, and left his wheat in his brother’s barn. Then he returned home, feeling pleased with himself.
Earlier that very same night, the older brother was also lying awake praying for rain when he thought: “In my old age my wife and I will have our grown children to take care of us, as well as grandchildren to enjoy, while my brother may have no children. He should at least sell more grain from his fields now, so he can provide for himself in his old age.”
So that night, the older brother also gathered a large sack of wheat, and left it in his brother’s barn, and returned home, feeling pleased with himself.
The next morning, the younger brother, surprised to see the amount of grain in his barn seemed unchanged said “I did not take as much wheat as I thought. Tonight I’ll take more.”
That same morning, the older brother standing in his barn, was thinking the same thoughts. After night fell, each brother gathered a greater amount of wheat from his barn and in the dark, secretly delivered it to his brother’s barn. The next morning, the brothers were again puzzled and perplexed.
“How can I be mistaken?” each one thought. “There’s the same amount of grain here as there was before. This is impossible! Tonight I’ll make no mistake – I’ll take two large sacks.”
The third night, more determined than ever, each brother gathered two large sacks of wheat from his barn, loaded them onto a cart, and slowly pulled his cart toward his brother’s barn. In the moonlight, each brother noticed a figure in the distance.
When the two brothers got closer, each recognized the form of the other and the load he was pulling, and they both realized what had happened. Without a word, they dropped the ropes of their carts, ran to each other and embraced.
God looked down at the two brothers and smiled thinking that their love and concern for each other made them and their their descendants, worthy to build a center of worship in this holy place.
Someday their descendants will each build and rebuild a holy House in this valley and on this hill.
When all those, both near and far, who revere this place as a standard, share it in love with everyone else who reveres it, then I will do as Abraham requested, and “Make this a land of Peace, and provide its people with the produce of of the land”. (Qur’an 2:126). Then will the children of Abraham live in Holiness, Peace and Prosperity.
Jews believe the hill is Jerusalem. Muslims believe the valley is Makka Both Islamic and Jewish traditions teach that their holy sanctuary is at the center of the world. But how can the world possibly have more than one religious center?
Because religious centers are not the same as geometric centers.
All astronomers know that the Sun is the center of our entire solar system, but the center of each planet’s individual orbit is a slightly different point within the Sun called the barycenter for that planet, all of which, because of the Sun over whelming gravity, are within the Sun’s core.
If you have only a limited human view of the surface of our planet as a two dimensional plane like a circle; there can be only one center. But if you share God’s view of the surface of Planet Earth from above as a three dimensional sphere; then many barycenters are possible.