Making of the Kiswah
Issue 74 November 2010
The Ka’ba is an iconic structure. Over one billion Muslims from around the globe turn towards it five times a day. Billions more have seen images and wonder at its significance. The magnificent covering beautifying this primordial building has captivated pilgrims for centuries. But few are aware of the history of the kiswah, the covering that clothes the Ka’ba, and how it is made. Sarah Joseph journeys to Makkah to observe the intricate skills used to weave the adornment for the House of God.
(This feature was first published in Issue 51, December 2008)
Having just completed the Umrah and been in the presence of the Ka’ba, it was truly an added blessing to be invited to observe the making of the kiswah, the black cloth which covers Islam’s most sacred structure. As I journeyed to the modern factory complex where the centuries-old tradition is practised, I was filled with an eager sense of anticipation, for I was to see with my own eyes the making of this iconic cover.
It is recorded that 2,500 years ago King Tuba’a of Yemen was the first to cover the Ka’ba having tried and failed to destroy the ancient structure three times. Smitten by a severe and disabling disease, he wisely abandoned all ideas of destruction and instead gifted the Ka’bah with a magnificent cloth.
From then until now the Ka’ba has always been covered. In ancient times, the custom was such that anyone who wanted to cover the Ka’ba was allowed to do so. In its history it has been covered by all manner of different fabrics including Yemeni cloth, fine silks, Iraqi pads, Yemeni shawls and Coptic Egyptian cloth. The coverings were laid one on top of the other. When they were eventually removed, each covering would be cut up and divided amongst the people or just buried under the earth.
The Prophet Muhammad did not participate in covering the Ka’ba in pre-prophetic times, although when he re-entered Makkah in 8AH he allowed the coverings which were already in place to remain. It was only when fire, caused by the spreading of perfume on the Ka’ba, destroyed the kiswah that the Prophet covered it anew with Yemeni cloth. The caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, all followed his tradition and gifted the Ka’ba with Coptic cloth – a fine fabric produced by the Christian descendants of the ancient Egyptians, from whom they had inherited the art.
After the first four caliphs, various rulers gifted the Ka’ba with different types of fabric and colours of kiswah. However, at one point it was layered with so many coverings there was a real fear the Ka’ba itself would collapse under the weight of all the kiswah. Finally, in 160AH it was ordered by Caliph Al-Mahdi that only a single covering of the Ka’ba should remain at any one time, and this has been the practice to the present day.The Caliph Mamoun used to cover the Ka’ba three times a year with red silk brocade on the 8th Dhul-Hijjah, with white Coptic cloth on the 1st Rajab and with silk brocade on the 29th Ramadan. It was a further 600 years before black was to become the standard colour.
I arrived at the factory and was greeted by the managing director. I was then taken around by the genial head of public relations, Khamis Ali Al-Zahran, to discover the intricacies involved in the making of the kiswah. My tour coincided with a visit by a group of international students who were being honoured for memorising the Qur’an. Their excited murmur competed with the mechanical humming of the spinning and weaving machines as the mass of fabric was woven and the silk spun.
Over 450 miles of pure Italian silk thread form the foundation for an extraordinary nine month long process to provide the Ka’bah with its kiswah. The 244 hulks of silk, each 3000 metres in length, arrive at the workshop in their natural ecru colour. They are then dyed, spooled and made ready for weaving. In order to ensure colour fastness, evenness of dye and tension strength, the silk undergoes rigorous on-site laboratory testing. Once the technicians are satisfied, the spooled black silk is woven on large computerised jacquard machines to provide the main cloth for the kiswah. On this cloth is repeatedly woven the declaration of faith: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” In addition to this jacquard cloth, plain black cloth is woven on Dobby machines and used as the base for the embroidered panels of Qur’anic verses. In the past, the weaving process was completed on hand looms, but this manually intensive process is now done by highly sophisticated weaving machines. However, the kiswah factory still keeps one room dedicated to the old manual process so that this traditional creative art is kept alive.
The traditional manual weaving skills are maintained even though the computerised machines now weave the cloth
Outline templates of select Qur’anic verses (in the highly cursive thuluth script) are then imprinted onto the plain black cloth. Once complete, these are given to a specialist team of embroidery craftsmen who, with great skill and care, stitch the panels. The embroiderers use skeins of cotton to give the verses their three dimensional appearance, and then encase the cotton with gold and silver plated threads. Once all the embroidery is completed the panels are stitched on to the large jacquard black cloth using a laser-guided computerised sewing machine, which has the world’s largest sewing platform.
All four sides of the kiswah, plus the magnificent hand embroidered curtain for the Ka’bah door are kept separate until they are assembled on the Ka’ba itself. This takes place every year on 9th Dhul-Hijjah whilst all the Hajj pilgrims are at Mount Arafat. It takes the whole day to assemble. The five weighty pieces are individually heaved up the side of the Ka’bah and gently lowered with ropes one side at a time on top of the old kiswah. All the final stitching is done in situ by hand, including the reinforcements round the Black Stone and the thick loop for the safety officer to hang from during the constant rush to kiss the Stone.
The Hajj pilgrims return to a new resplendent kiswah, and for one more year the Ka’ba will be encircled by worshippers, praying to God and gazing at the iconic structure which will be imprinted onto their consciousness for life. Beyond the sacred space of Makkah, hundreds of millions of Muslims will be – five times a day – facing this space, and seeing in their mind’s eye the Ka’ba, adorned by its magnificent kiswah.
Skilled craftsmen embroider Qur'anic verses (and pass on their skills to the next generation). Cotton skeins are used to raise the calligraphy and then embroidered over with gold and silver plated thread.
The curtain to cover the Ka'ba door is a truly amazing piece of craftsmanship. It was first made part of the kiswah in 810AH and contains Qur'anic verses including Al-Fatiha
Photography by Mahmud Al-Rashid