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This is not a question about religion at all. My point is Rome and Athens are examples of older civilizations and there is the saying "All roads lead to Rome" indicating it's supremacy in the Ancient world.

So how did it come to pass that Wimbledon is the Mecca of tennis and not another city name fits?

Etymonline offers

Fig. sense of "any place one holds supremely sacred" (usually with lower-case m-) is from 1850

Does anyone have a good explanation of the origin and rise of this phrase?

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If you think a question about a 'supremely sacred place' is not about religion, you should probably check some definitions. The only other holy city known to the West (ie English) is Jerusalem, which has too many other connotations to be useful in a phrase like this. –  TimLymington Aug 19 '11 at 10:52
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5 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Your examples would make sense as examples of major centers of activity and culture, but Mecca is more than that. It's the holiest city in Islam. More than thirteen million Muslims visit annually, many of them performing the Hajj, a pilgrimage that must be carried out at least once in a lifetime by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so. Mecca is where Muhammad proclaimed Islam, and one of two places (Medina is the other) where the Quran was composed.

In short, it's the place. Sure, Rome has the Vatican, but I would argue that's not even close to the level of authority, history, and importance that Mecca has to Muslims. To say that Wimbledon is the Mecca of tennis is to say that it's a place of pilgrimage, a holy place, the ultimate destination for any true fan.

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I think it is enough to explain the concept (and uniqueness) of hajj to explain the dictionary def. (and etymology) of mecca - noun: a place that attracts many visitors ("New York is a mecca for young artists"). You really don't have to dilute the issue by opinions on what is more important: Mecca to Muslims or Rome to Catholics. –  Unreason Aug 19 '11 at 15:06
    
The question specifically asked why Mecca is used in this expression and not Rome (or Athens). In answering that, I anticipated possible responses along the lines of, "But Rome is also an important religious center." No offense was intended; I was just trying to answer the question thoroughly. –  Nicholas Aug 19 '11 at 15:13
    
I am not talking about offense, just that that part is irrelevant (subjectivity, potential offensiveness and other issues come to play for me only after that). –  Unreason Aug 19 '11 at 15:53
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In addition to being a holy city, Mecca is s pilgrimage target. The most common uses I've heard of "X is the Mecca of Y" are about going to X, e.g. qualifying to compete at Wimbledon. So the salient feature is that you go there, as opposed to the city just being important as a commerce center, capital, etc.

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Merriam Webster explains that a mecca is:

a place regarded as a center for a specified group, activity, or interest

Mecca is a sacred place in Islam. Wikipedia writes:

Mecca is regarded as the holiest city in Islam.[3] More than 13 million Muslims visit Mecca annually, including several million who perform the Hajj (pilgrimage).[4] As a result, Mecca has become one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse cities in the Muslim world,[5] however, non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the city.[6] Mecca and Medina and its surrounding outskirts are the only two places where the Quran was composed.

As Take Our Word says,

English uses it in such a figurative sense because Mecca is the birthplace of Muhammed, making it the ultimate pilgrimage place of Muslims.

So to go to Mecca, for a Muslim, is to go to the "Holy Grail"--it is the ultimate religious destination. Rome and Athens are older cities, but they do not hold the religious, spiritual meaning that Mecca does. They are old destinations, but they are not the endpoint of a religious group. Because Mecca is the place which Muslims must make a pilgrimage to, it has a different religious connotation than Jerusalem. Thus the phrase uses Mecca rather than another city.

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I understand the meaning, my question is on the etymology and origin. –  JoseK Aug 19 '11 at 6:09
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@JoseK: Rome and Athens aren't holy cities. Mecca is. –  simchona Aug 19 '11 at 6:10
    
The Vatican City is in Rome. For my example, I could substitute any other religious place say Jerusalem –  JoseK Aug 19 '11 at 6:15
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Read my edits. Christians aren't required to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Jewish people aren't required to go to Jerusalem. Muslims have to go to Mecca. –  simchona Aug 19 '11 at 6:18
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Actually while all the logic above seems plausible. The only reason Mecca and not any other city is used is because the usage was restricted to what would be classified as 'vices' by the Christians like alcohol, gambling etc. It was much later that it became a common usage and lost it derogatory aspect.

So it was done because this was where all the Muslims used to gather: at a time when European powers were fighting Muslim Turks throughout North Africa and taking over Muslim ruled India. Thus the intended meaning was Mecca = center of vices or where all evil men (supposedly Muslims) go or face while praying.

Funny how bad meanings end up being good ones. (Nothing against Muslims: just quoting etymology not endorsing the view point.)

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Evidence, please? –  StoneyB Sep 21 '12 at 1:58
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This Ngram suggests the phrase became popular during the 19th century.

Google Ngram

The OED says of mecca:

A place regarded as supremely sacred or valuable, or where a faith, policy, truth, etc., originates. Also more generally: a place which attracts people of a particular group or with a particular interest; a resort of (also for) a certain group of people.

Their earliest is quotation from the The Southern Literary Messenger (1843):

Wander in thought with me o'er the Mecca of Protestants, and linger, for a moment, around the graves of Luther and Melancthon [sic].

I found an earlier example in A Collection of Voyages and Travels published 1704:

The generality of the Inhabitants these Islands are Heathens but from Sanxil to Samboangan the People the Coast are Mahometans more particularly in the Islands of Basilan and Xolo which are as it were the Metropolis that Superstition and the Mecca of Archipelago because the first of it is bury d there of whom the giddy Headed Casikts tell a thousand Fables

The generality of the Inhabitants these Islands are Heathens; but from Sanxil to Samboangan the People the Coast are Mahometans; more particularly in the Islands of Basilan and Xolo, which are as it were the Metropolis that Superstition and the Mecca of Archipelago; because the first of it is bury'd, there of whom the giddy Headed Casikes tell a thousand Fables.

This, like other early uses, is describing a place as a religious centre of activity for an unfamiliar people, and perhaps Mecca was used rather than Rome or the Vatican as it suggests, for the Christian writer and readers, a non-Christian otherness or unfamiliarity.

Later, usage spread to non-religious centres of activity or especially pilgrimage and congregation, such as from The Spirit of Times (1877):

This is the Mecca of hundreds who desire to regain shattered health, and to breathe the pure mountain air so invigorating to weak and consumptive invalids.

Or The Guardian (2006):

Yet even these achievements are topped in my estimation by a claim once made by this newspaper. "Ashton-under-Lyne," it proclaimed "is the Mecca of tripe-eaters." (Or possibly tripe-lovers; this was a long time ago.)

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(I've sent the 1704 antedating to the OED.) –  Hugo Sep 23 '12 at 10:35
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