The practise of covering important or holy buildings or structures is not unique to the Middle East and to Islam. Although there is some uncertainty, stories record that the Yemeni Himyarite King Tubba’ As’ad was the first person to have covered the Ka’aba, which existed in Pre-Islamic times. Muslims believe that the Ka’aba has been rebuilt many times throughout history, most famously by Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael), when he returned to the valley of Mecca several years after leaving his wife Hajar (Hagar) and Ismail there upon Allah’s command. The event of covering the Ka’aba was narrated by Nashwan ibn Sa’id Al-Himyari, who said that “As’ad was the first to cover the House”. It is said that upon returning from a military campaign, As’ad passed by the Ka’aba and covered it with gilded Yemeni leather mats before seeing someone in a dream that told him to “add to the coverings of the House”. Various other narratives exist which mention the types of textiles that were used to cover the Ka’aba in pre-Islamic time. These include straw, silk, striped Yemeni cloth, Yemeni shawls, and Coptic Egyptian cloth. Unlike today where the coverings are completely replaced every year, at this time, the coverings were simply placed over the previous set.
As to the covering of the Ka’aba in the Islamic period, there are several sources indicating that prior to the time of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), the Ka’aba was draped with various types of coverings and that the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) himself, covered it with a special Yemeni fabric. Each new covering was placed over the previous ones until the weight was so great, that the Ka’aba was in serious danger of collapse. It was not until the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mahdi performed the pilgrimage to Mecca in AD 775, that he ordered all coverings be removed except one, which became the normal practice to this day. The actual colour of the Kiswa has also changed and during different periods, different colours were sometimes used. Colour always played a significant role in the life of various dynasties, different dynasties adopting different colours. The colour adopted by the Abbasids was black and during their rule black was adopted as the colour of the robes of high ranking officials and scholars. In contrast, the Fatimids chose white as their colour. Yellow was the dynastic colour of the Mamluks in Cairo, as it was during the Ayyubid period. However, during the presence of the Abbasid Caliph in Cairo (after the Mongols sacked the Abbasid capital, Baghdad in AD 1258), black was seen at court and the investiture robe given by the Caliph to each new Sultan was black. At this time, black silk with white, gold or black embroidery was introduced as the colour for the Kiswa, but an exception to this occured during the reign of Barsbay (15th Century AD) when red silk was used.
While the Kiswa at different periods might have come from Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, for most of its history, the Kiswa has been made either of Egyptian material procured for the purpose of its creation, or actually made as a Kiswa in Egypt, to be sent to Mecca. Cairo quickly became the customary source of the Kiswa. In in AD 1269, the Mamluk King of Egypt, Al Dhahir Baybars Bundukdari, made the pilgrimage to Mecca with an immense following. He left behind a Wali in Mecca who presented a Kiswa on behalf of his master. The Kiswa was embroidered with the Kings name. He wrote that this was the event that established Egypt as the source of the Kiswa and that later, the income of an entire village was especially allotted to it, under a law instituted by the Sultan Al Nasr Muhammad ibn Qala’un. After this, there were occasional exceptions, such as in AD 1385 and AD 1394, when the Kiswa came from Aleppo, or in AD 1403 and AD 1404, when it came from Damascus and Baghdad, respectively.
The Kiswa Today
In AD 1927 King Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, ordered the building of a special factory in Mecca for making the Kiswa. In AD 1943 the late King Faisal decreed that the factory be renovated. Since then, the factory has undergone much development. The first black Kiswa and first green internal Kiswa were made in the factory in AD 1962. A new building with modern machinery to aid in the production of the Kiswa was was inaugurated in AD 1977, while at the same time continuing the artistic tradition of making the more ornate parts of it by hand.
Today, the Kiswa costs almost $5 million to make. The cloth is made of 670 kilograms of pure silk, imported from abroad as raw material and dyed black in the factory. After weaving, this measures 658 square meters and around 120 kilograms of pure gold and 50 kilograms of silver go into its making. It is 14 meters high and on the top third of the cloth is a ‘hizam’ or belt that surrounds the Kiswa on all sides. The belt is embroidered in the thuluth style of Arabic Script. Under the belt, at each corner of the Ka’aba, the Ikhlas Sura (Purity of Faith Sura) is embroidered inside a circle surrounded by a square Islamic decoration. At the same height, also under the belt, there are six verses from the Holy Qur’an, each of which is in a separate frame. On the areas separating these frames, there is the shape of a lamp on which Qur’anic phrases are written. Everything written under the belt is in thuluth, embroidered in protruding designs and interwoven with silver threads covered with gold. These designs were introduced during the Saudi reign.
Holy Coverings in the Tareq Rajab Museum of Islamic Calligraphy
The Tareq Rajab Museum is home to a number of holy coverings and textiles. Currently, the museum houses four curtains (Burqa’s) that were used to cover the entrance to the Ka’aba. These Burqa’s are the most ornate sections of the entire Kiswa. The museum also possesses covers from the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina as well as covers and door curtains from the interior of the Ka’aba itself. All of these coverings are Ottoman, as Kiswa’s from before the Ottoman period have not survived because they were often cut into small sections and sold to pilgrims or gifted to individuals. Those that were not cut into small sections however, were not preserved well.