Memories of Egypt’s kiswa

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Proclaim to men the pilgrimage: they will come to thee on foot and on every lean camel, coming from every remote path —Quran, Surat Al-Hajj

This time of the year has a particular spiritual significance in the hearts of millions of Muslims around the world, a time when hearts are yearning for the annual Hajj, one of the pillars of Islam, and eyes are readying for a breathtaking glimpse of the holy Kaaba, the Bait Allah, or House of God, and the black cube at the centre of Mecca, literally at the heart of Islam.

The Kaaba represents the qiblah, the direction that Muslims face during their five daily prayers, and it is also the sacred place that worshippers from around the world visit every day and every hour to perform the umra (the lesser pilgrimage) and the annual Hajj.

This year, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a blow to the pilgrimage season, and it will be limited to people living in Saudi Arabia in order to stem its spread. Many devoted Muslims around the globe will now look on the Kaaba on video instead, and for the first time in modern history it has been standing almost in awesome solitude, with only a handful of worshippers visiting for months on end and even during the holy month of Ramadan.

The cities of Mecca and Medina, at the centre of the pilgrimage, have also been sealed and closed to visitors for months on end for the first time in modern history.

Egypt provided the curtain for the Bab Al-Tawba (the door of repentance) of the Kaaba (photo courtesy of Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

But it is also at this time of the year that an important historical tradition associated with the Hajj is remembered. On the ninth day of the month of pilgrimage, the Dhul-Hijjah, the Kaaba receives a new and perfumed kiswa covering in a tradition that dates back to the earliest days of Islam and that adds even more glow and veneration to the object of Muslims’ passion.

The tradition is considered an act of veneration, and thus a huge amount of care in terms of costly fabrics, craftsmanship, and long months of hard work by hundreds of textile workers is dedicated to the pure gold and silver calligraphy of Quranic verses skillfully embroidering the black cotton-padded silk of the kiswa, reportedly costing some $5 million.

The awesome cover weighs more than 650kg, including 12kg of pure gold and 25kg of silver thread. The old kiswa that the new one replaces is usually gifted to important figures and museums around the world, either in full or in smaller pieces, and it is sometimes sold at auction to raise money for charity.

Historians have chronicled the different stages of the kiswa and its different colours, fabrics, and designs. It is said that in the early days of Islam the Kaaba was draped in fine multicolored textiles including white, green, and red, and that it was only after the late 12th century CE (sixth century Hijri) that the black colour was adopted and about two centuries later the tradition of adorning the black silk drape with gold and silver calligraphy was started.

According to Manal Atia, director-general of the Sharjah Museums Department in the UAE, which houses many important sacred textiles from Mecca and Medina, the tradition of changing the kiswa that dates back to the earliest days of Islam “tells a story not only about faith and the central significance of the holy city of Mecca in Islamic history, but also about exquisite craftsmanship and the believers —calligraphers, weavers, dyers, embroiderers — that were and continue to be involved in its annual creation.”

“The traditions accompanying the mahmal [the caravan carrying the kiswa from Egypt to Mecca in past centuries], ranging from parades, festivities, and Hajj scenes painted on walls [wall paintings depicting the Hajj was a long-standing historical tradition], tell us a lot about the cultural aspects of the Hajj season in historic Egypt as well as the political significance it involved,” commented Sherine Al-Kabbani, a researcher in Islamic history and culture and the author of a MA thesis on the Egyptian mahmal.

Historians have chronicled how the rulers of different periods competed in providing the holy kiswa, not only in a quest for its blessings, but also because it was a symbol of power over the haramayn, the two cities of Mecca and Medina. Providing the kiswa was widely seen as a symbol of supremacy over the Islamic world, and the rulers who provided it also saw themselves as the protectors of Islam and its sanctuaries.

The parade of the holy kiswa

THE MANUFACTURE OF THE KISWA: Egypt boasted of being the official provider of the holy kiswa for centuries on end, and the Dar Al-Kiswa Al-Sharifa in Khurunfish Street in the Gammaliya district of Cairo tells stories of hard labour, festivities, and great pride in producing the kiswa.

Egypt’s contribution to the weaving of the black Kaaba drape dates back to the early days of Islam. According to Al-Kabbani, the second Muslim caliph of Islam, Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, asked Egypt to provide the kiswa from the Qubati cloth of the time due to the fact that Egypt was widely known for its high-quality fabrics and skilled textile workers.

Egypt and Yemen were the two main sources of the kiswa at the time. According to Nahla Nassar, author of an article on the Dar Al-Kiswa Al-Sharifa published in the British Museum’s collection of essays on the Hajj, “the Prophet was the first to have used Egyptian Qubati cloth for that purpose, followed by [the three Rashidi Caliphs succeeding the prophet] Abu Bakr, Omar, and Othman.”

“The tradition continued into the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, and there are several accounts of the caliphs ordering cloth, directly or through their agents, from the tiraz factories of Tunis, Tuna, and Shata [all near Damietta] in Egypt,” Nassar said. “When the Fatimids came to power in Egypt, they too dressed the Kaaba with Egyptian-made cloth.”

But it was during the later Mameluke era, particularly during the reign of Sultan Baybars, that Egypt really asserted its hegemony over the tradition and became the main official provider of the Kaaba drape every year in the face of rivalry from other rulers, Al-Kabbani told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“At various times in the past and under the originally Central Asian Mamelukes of Egypt, the major textile-making centres were in Egypt and Syria,” says Maria Sardi in another article in the British Museum’s essays on the Hajj called “Weaving for the Hajj Under the Mamelukes.”

“Under the ­Ottomans, the kiswa was put together by specialised workshops in the Turkish cities of Bursa and Istanbul. During Ottoman times, the transport of the mahmal was restricted to the Cairo and Damascus caravans, and when the Albanian leader Mohamed Ali Pasha ruled Egypt after 1805, the manufacture of the kiswa moved to Cairo.”

The Mameluke sultans also provided the curtain for the Kaaba door and a covering for its interior that were both manufactured in Cairo. “The fabric covering the Kaaba entrance was called ‘the evil of Fatima’ after the Mameluke Sultana Fatima Shajarat Al-Dorr, who’s believed to have been the first to send the fabric to Mecca,” Sardi said.

According to Nassar, “the cost of the kiswa was met by the treasury (bayt al-mal) until 1349-50 CE, when [the ruler] Al-Saleh Ismail established a waqf [endowment] through which the revenue from three villages in Egypt was set aside to meet the cost of the yearly kiswa for the Kaaba and one every five years for the prophet’s tomb and minbar [pulpit].”

Late prime minister Ahmed Maher Pasha checking on mahmal before its departure in 1944 (photo courtesy of Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

This waqf, Nassar chronicled, was dissolved in 1813 during Mohamed Ali’s fiscal reforms. “Subsequently, and up until 1962, the cost of providing the Meccan textiles was met by the Egyptian treasury.”

Different sources give different accounts of where exactly Egypt’s textile centres were located in the early days of manufacturing the Kaaba drape. Nasser suggests that “the weaving of the kiswa seems to have been done at the Mosque of Al-Hussein in Cairo during the Mameluke and early Ottoman periods, although there is mention of its being woven also at the tiraz factory in Alexandria; then it moved to the Qasr Al-Ablaq in the Citadel, and then to the Warshet Al-Khurunfish in 1817.”

The latter was a large textile centre established by Mohamed Ali in Cairo “in the area of the Bayn Al-Surayn and the Christian quarter known as the Khamis Al-Ads,” according to Nassar.

Nassar said the Warshet Al-Khurunfish “was a huge workshop on which vast sums of money had been spent.” He added that “neighbourhood sheikhs were assembled and instructed to gather 4,000 young men from Cairo to work under the supervision of craftsmen and learn crafts. It was estimated that 10,000 youths might be needed once the place was complete,” he said.

The workshop was under government control and was known as the Department of the Noble Kiswa. According to Sardi, “the esteem for the Kaaba cover was such that a high official bearing the prestigious title of the Nazir al-kiswa bi dar al-tiraz (controller of the kiswa at the state textile workshop) supervised its manufacture in the royal atelier.”

The name of the workshop was later changed to the Dar Al-Kiswa Al-Sharifa in 1953, when it was affiliated to the Ministry of Religious Endowments, according to Nasser. He provided a detailed description of how the workshop was equipped with machinery and skillful craftsmen, who worked under strict supervision and laboured for some 10 months every year in the intricate embroidery of the kiswa.

In the other two months, the workshop was dedicated to producing the embroidered robes of honour and uniforms worn by pashas, clerics, and diplomats, as well as making marks of rank for the army and police and embroidered covers for the tombs of saints. Stables were also affiliated to the workshop for the camels needed to carry the mahmal that took the kiswa to Mecca in a big procession.

THE EGYPTIAN MAHMAL: When finished, the fine Kaaba drape was carried in the mahmal, a wooden frame covered with brocaded silk, in a parade around the streets of Cairo “accompanied by tambourines, trumpets, and whirling dervishes, whilst the chief steward of the shrine marched ahead of the displayed hangings”, according to Sardi.

According to Nassar, the mahmal “took the cubical shape of the Kaaba in its lower half, while the upper part took a pyramid or tent-like shape according to the historical period in which it was made or the country from which it came.”

Fabrics of exquisite quality were commissioned by the former royal family to cover the mahmal, Sardi added. “The place held by the mahmal within the procession of the caravan was prominent, and upon its departure from Cairo impressive festivals took place which the whole populace gathered to watch.”

The day of the mahmal’s parade through the streets of the capital was one of great festivity. “The shops were decorated, and the streets were strewn with fine fabrics, while a band of seven drummers escorted the palanquin alongside a Mameluke corps of selected lancers,” Sardi wrote.

The mahmal was carried by a huge camel, called nabeel (noble), followed by other camels each called mabrouk (or blessed) that carried the luggage and water for pilgrims and were protected by soldiers throughout the journey to Mecca. According to Sardi, “fine yellow silks were used as horse trappings for the troops of the horsemen escorting the mahmal alongside manifold velvets and gold brocades that decorated the saddles of the camels marching ahead.”

In her study, Al-Kabbani describes how many Egyptians considered the mahmal a source of blessing and sought to receive that blessing by touching, kissing, or at least watching the mahmal as it went through the streets of Cairo before its departure to Mecca.

Many of these scenes were depicted in murals, she said. People would even seek to kiss the feet of the camels carrying the mahmal, believing that they would receive blessings since those feet would soon tread in Mecca and Medina. Rulers and governors similarly sought to kiss the camels and perfume the mahmal with bokhor scents, a scene that was often depicted on murals.

A huge skeleton of the nabeel camel now stands in testimony of such rituals at the Manial Palace Museum in Giza, while parts of the holy kiswa are on display in the Egyptian Textile Museum in Cairo and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as a remembrance of the good old days.

But there is more to the holy kiswa than blessings. Both al-Kabbani and Sardi made it clear that the rulers of the time were also keen on bestowing the covers of the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina for the political significance this tradition involved. After all, according to Sardi, “the name of the Mameluke sultan was inscribed on the Kaaba covering and thus his power symbolically spread into the Hijaz” in what is now Saudi Arabia.

According to Sardi, “the Hajj was an event of great religious and political importance, which the Mameluke sultans recognised almost from the very beginning. In the years of the Mameluke hegemony over Egypt and Syria (1250-1518 CE), the holy cities of Mecca and Medina were put under the control of the Mameluke sultan. In order to legitimise the Mamelukes’ role as the ‘protectors of Sunni Islam,’ they showed remarkable concern for the organisation of the annual Hajj to Mecca, where they could best display their prominent role among other rulers of the Islamic lands.”

Perhaps in attempts to perform that role, the Mameluke sultans re-established the Hajj route through Sinai and provided it with all needed amenities, digging wells and building cisterns and caravanserais (hostels), according to Sardi. “The political significance of this textile was so great that throughout the Mameluke era, several rulers attempted to abrogate this right [of the Mamelukes as the sole providers of the kiswa], often leading to diplomatic conflicts.”

But it was the mahmal and the ceremonies accompanying the caravan that also demonstrated the economic and political power of the sultans. “The regular presence of this embellished palanquin in the pilgrimage caravan was a constant reminder of the Egyptian ruler despite his physical absence,” Sardi elaborated.

“It offered the Mamelukes the chance to demonstrate their wealth and power to the thousands of pilgrims attending the caravan. The kiswa and the rest of the fabrics made for the Meccan sanctuaries were the symbols of the Mameluke supremacy over the Hijaz. The name and the title of the Mameluke sultan embroidered on the coverings of the Kaaba was a constant reminder of his power.”

GRADUAL DEMISE: Egypt retained this religious and political significance for centuries, taking great pride in the awesome parade which accompanied the mahmal as it took its pilgrimage route from Cairo to Mecca, until Saudi Arabia took over the manufacture of the kiswa and established its own workshops in 1962.

Nassar recounts how the “final chapter in the history of the Dar Al-Kiswa began in 1962, when a ship called the Mecca arrived at the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, carrying 1,109 Egyptian pilgrims, along with the kiswa of the Kaaba, its hizam (belt), burqu, and the sitara (curtain) for the Bab Al-Tawba [the door of repentance] of the Kaaba.”

“However, the Saudi authorities declined to accept the kiswa, so it was sent back to Egypt,” Nassar said. Even so, the Dar Al-Kiswa continued with its embroidery work for some time, carrying out smaller commissions and manufacturing decorative panels for mosques or for sale.

“The number of embroiderers then dwindled, and by the 1980s many veterans had retired or passed away,” Nassar said. “The institution finally closed its doors in 1997, and the kiswa is now made in Mecca, as it has been since 1962.”

Hajj Sobhi Saleh, the only surviving textile worker who was among the staff producing the kiswa during the last four years before Mecca took over the manufacture of the holy cover, has featured on TV, telling audiences of the good old days when Egypt produced the blessed drape. Sobhi’s father was also a textile worker and was chosen as among the best 60 embroiderers involved in the making of the holy kiswa in the khedival era.

“Changing the kiswa was an important tradition observed twice per year, once in Shaaban, the Hijri month preceding the holy month of Ramadan, and once before the Hajj season starts,” Saleh told “The fabrics used in the production of the kiswa were of high quality that can be rarely found nowadays, and pure gold and silver threads were used in the embroidery, which is still the case to date.”

When the kiswa production moved to Saudi Arabia, Saleh said that those working in the Dar Al-Kiswa continued to embroider other things including marks of rank for the army and police uniforms. Saleh himself was among those selected to decorate the uniform of late president Anwar Al-Sadat and other officers during the ceremony celebrating the 1973 War victory.

But soon the veteran staff in the workshop passed away or moved elsewhere and opened their own workshops. The two-century old workshop officially closed in the late 1990s and has since been turned into a storehouse for material owned by the ministry of religious endowments.

The centuries-old workshop that once witnessed the heyday of kiswa manufacture is now left in a deplorable state and is hardly known even to people in the vicinity. A shabby metal plaque that hangs on the steel gate that replaced the old wooden one is the only sign left from the past.

Al-Kabbani was lucky to have been able to enter the formerly grand place when she was doing her Masters degree in 2005. “The workshop’s interior is a work of art that is crumbling under the onslaught of neglect,” Al-Kabbani told the Weekly. Nobody would allow visitors in at that time, she said, and of course photography was forbidden.

“The interior of the workshop is just like a haunted house from a film, littered with old equipment, old machines, broken glass, and solely inhabited by spiders. What really broke my heart was seeing an old pattern of the holy kiswa thrown on the floor and mired in dust. The guard was totally unaware of the value of this costly piece,” she commented.

Al-Kabbani is among those calling for the renovation of the workshop. “We’ve been long calling for turning the former Dar Al-Kiswa into a museum, but all calls have been falling on deaf ears,” she said. Nobody even seems to know if the place is registered as a monument. The workshop remains in the possession of the ministry of religious endowments, which is not the official body responsible for restoring antiquities.

A recent feature on “Egypt’s Dar al-Kiswa: A Monument Turned into a Dump” on the website Al-Monitor has similarly described the dismal state of the forgotten workshop despite calls to turn it into a museum.

Reminiscing about the good old days of his childhood, 71-year-old Ali Al-Domyati, who owns a shop facing the Dar Al-Kiswa, told Al-Monitor of the great pride Egyptians took in the parades carrying the mahmal that used to take place in the streets of the old neighbourhood. The parades, he said, had started from “Al-Khurunfish, crossing Al-Muizz Street, and then the Al-Hussein neighbourhood.”

“After that, the parade would head to the Suez province where the kiswa would be transported aboard a ship to the holy land,” Al-Domyati told Al-Monitor. “We’ve urged the government to look after the building, especially after the residents started to litter its vicinity, but to no avail. From time to time, we hear about plans to renovate the Dar Al-Kiswa, but years have gone by and the situation is only getting worse.”

Mohamed Yassin, another 84-year-old witness to kiswa production, also told Al-Monitor of his childhood days when he used to visit the workshop and distribute milk to the workers.

“The inside of the building is a work of art decorated with Islamic embroideries,” he told the website. “But now even the annexed mosque is closed because of the garbage scattered everywhere.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly