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Kiswah: The Covering of the Kaaba | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Kiswah is the famous black cloth that covers the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine towards which Muslims face in prayer. The Kiswah is replaced once a year and there is also an accompanying belt which goes around the Kaaba at a third of its height, and a curtain that covers the door of the Kaaba.

The Kiswah is woven from black silk, with various verses of the Quran embroidered into it in gold and silver thread. Today, it costs approximately 17 million Saudi Riyals [SR] to make. The cover is 658 square meters long and is made of 670 kilograms of pure silk. For embroidery, 15 kilos of gold thread are used. It consists of 47 pieces of cloth and each piece is 14 meters long and 101 centimeters wide. The Kiswah is wrapped around the Kaaba and fixed to the ground with copper rings.

The Kiswah during the Pre-Islamic Period

The origins of the cloth that covers the Kaaba, known as the Kiswah, is discussed in many history books and it is generally agreed that the Kaaba was covered by cloth in the pre-Islamic era from the days of Abraham to the Prophet Mohammed. The content of these books agree that the first person to drape the Kaaba with cloth was either Prophet Ismail (son of Prophet Abraham), Adnan, the great great grandfather of the Prophet Mohammed, or the Himyarite King Tub’a of Abu Kariba.

King Tub’a, was the King of the Himyarites, a Yemeni civilization that invaded what is now Saudi Arabia around 500 CE and besieged the city of Yathrib, known today as Medina. There are various stories about this king who later converted to Judaism but in one version as related by the Arab historian Ibn Hisham, the Himyarite King made a pilgrimage to the Kaaba, and saw himself in a dream draping cloth over the building, and did so, draping a rough cloth woven from bamboo, coir, and coloured Yemeni cloth over the Kaaba, while also making a curtain for the Kaaba’s door woven from green and yellow sackcloth and Bedouin thread.

We understand from this account that the Kaaba, in pre-Islamic times, was draped in many different types of cloth, and that the Arabs of this period considered the covering of the Kaaba a matter of duty and honour. At a later stage, the draping of the Kaaba was taken over by the Quraish tribe of Mecca, into which the Prophet of Islam would be born. In this period, the Kiswahs would not be removed, but would have new Kiswahs placed on top of the old, unless they became too heavy or wet.

Kiswah during the Islamic Period

During the Islamic period, the Kiswahs were more refined than the previous coverings. Nowadays, the Kiswah is replaced on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Dhul Hijjah, approximately 20 days before the Islamic New Year. It is comprised of black silk cloth with Islamic verses such as ‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger,’ and ‘God is Great’ and others, embroidered in gold silk. There is also a belt that goes around the Kaaba, and a curtain for the door.

After the conquest of Mecca, the Prophet Mohammed covered the Kaaba with Yemeni cloth, while the Caliphs that succeeded him, Abu Bakr Siddiq, Omar Ibn al Khattab and Uthman Ibn Affan, draped the Kaaba with a white Coptic cloth from Egypt, which was later replaced with silk by Muawiyah I.

During the reigns of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties the Kaaba was covered with silken brocades in a number of different colours, including white, red, green, and the traditional black, until it was finally agreed that all Kiswahs should be black, which remains the case today.

Following the Abbasid period, the Yemeni King Al Muzaffar was the first to drape the Kaaba with cloth, a role that was later assumed by the kings of Egypt, and then the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, with the new Kiswah traditionally being made in Egypt and sent to Saudi Arabia from there along with donations, food rations, and armed guards, in a special parade. The Kiswah accompanied by scholars and elders, would be delivered to the person holding the key to the Kaaba, usually the leader of the Bani Shaibi tribe. He would then keep the new Kiswah at his house, situated near the hill of Safa in Mecca, until the day of immolation when the pilgrims are in Mina, whereupon the old Kiswah is removed, and the new one is draped on the Kaaba, along with the accompanying belt which is wrapped around the Kaaba. The old Kiswah would then be sent to the Sharif of Mecca, the Hashemite ruler of the city before the foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who would distribute the pieces of the old Kiswah as gifts.

Kiswah during the First World War

The Kiswah was affected by the political climate during the First World War, as it was usually made in Egypt (at this time largely under British control) and sent to Mecca (at this time under control of the Ottoman Empire). This ancient system found itself in trouble when the Ottoman Empire entered the war in support of the central powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) against the Entente powers (Britain, Russia and France). Ten days before the Kaaba was to be re-covered, the Egyptians sent the Kiswah to Mecca as usual by rail, but along with the name of the Ottoman Sultan Mohamed Rashid Khan, they embroidered the name of their own Sultan Hussein Kamil on the Kiswah. The King of Hejaz and Sharif of Mecca at the time, Hussein Bin Ali, rejected the Kiswah, and decreed that the old Kiswah bearing only the Ottoman Sultan’s name be draped on the Kaaba.

When Hussein Bin Ali initiated the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in June 1916, the Egyptian government continued to send the Kiswah as usual, until 1921 when a dispute occurred between the Egyptian government and the Sharif of Mecca. The Egyptian convoy carrying the Kiswah, along with the usual food rations and charitable contributions from the people of Egypt, docked in the port of Jeddah ten days before the Kaaba was to be re-covered, but the Sharif of Mecca denied entry to the medical delegation of the convoy, which left in protest with the Kiswah itself in hand. Upon hearing this, the Sharif of Mecca immediately sent a message to the Emir of Medina requesting that the Kiswah previously sent there in secret by the Turkish government be transferred to Mecca immediately. This caused an uproar in Egypt, and speculation was rife as to where this new Kiswah had come from, and how it could arrive so quickly. When the origin of the new Kiswah was discovered, the Sharif of Mecca decreed that a new Kiswah be weaved in Iraq, in case the problems with Egypt were not solved by the next year. But when the time eventually came, the Egyptian government sent a Kiswah as normal, and it was used to cover the Kaaba while the Iraqi Kiswah was kept in storage.

Kiswah during the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Following the unification of Arabia by King Abdul Aziz Bin Saud and the war with the Hashemite rulers of Mecca which ended in 1926, King Abdul Aziz first draped the Kaaba with the Iraqi Kiswah that was made by his predecessor after the Egyptians had declined to send a Kiswah to him, then the tradition of draping the Kaaba with an Egyptian Kiswah was resumed the following year. The year after that however the Egyptians again refused to send a Kiswah, and so King Abdul Aziz ordered that a Kiswah be made in Saudi Arabia, and one was completed in time and to a high standard. It was made of embroidered black baize, and decorated with silk and gold. In July 1927, King Abdul Aziz decreed the building of a factory in Saudi Arabia to make the Kiswah as it had come to have political significance. The construction was completed within six months, comprised of approximately 500 square metres on one floor, and was located opposite the Finance Ministry.

Forty master weavers and 20 helpers, along with 12 looms came to work in the Kiswah factory from India in December 1927. Finally the first Kiswah produced in Saudi Arabia was completed to the highest standard equal to that of the Egyptian Kiswah; it was a mastery of embroidery. The material was made from special black silk, embroidered upon it were the words ‘There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah,’ with the words ‘O Allah’ embroidered at the bottom and ‘the Majesty of God’ in the corners all of which were written in the most beautiful calligraphy. The Kiswah was widely admired and acclaimed, especially since it was of Saudi Arabian manufacture. The work of the factory carried on for 10 years where it produced some excellent examples of the Kiswah, but Egypt eventually resumed sending the Kiswah in 1937 after the Saudi and Egyptian governments had reconciled and continued to send the cloth until 1962, when another dispute surfaced. The factory was re-opened and continued to produce the Kiswah again until 1977.

A new factory was then opened, under the directorship of the then Crown Prince Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, which utilized more modern means for making the Kiswah. The factory employs around 200, not including the administrative branch, and uses the latest technology to create the Kiswah; today the design of the Kiswah is computerized, allowing for faster results and better quality.