For Mokthar Alim Shaqdar, the current official calligrapher for the black covering of the Holy Kaaba in Mecca, “the joy of working on the Kiswa is indescribable”. Indeed, the Kiswa, the cloth woven from silk and cotton and adorned with verses from the Quran, placed on the Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque, is a feast for the eyes.
A new Kiswa is made every year and is placed on the Kaaba during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Now located in the Um Al Jud locality of Mecca, diagonally opposite the headquarters of the Muslim World League’s office, the Kiswa factory was first opened in 1928. The present factory, equipped with high-tech automated machinery and skilled artisans, was opened on March 8, 1977, during the reign of King Khaled. The Kiswa is produced by making use of special looms so that the highest degree of perfection can be achieved.
Each Kiswa uses 700kg of silver, imported from Italy, that is enough to cover the Kaaba (the focal point towards which Muslims all over the world pray five times a day). The silver and gold plated thread used in embroidering the Arabic text on the cloth is procured from Germany.
In the making
Kiswa-making involves five stages: the first being the dyeing stage where the raw silk material is soaked and bathed in hot water that has been mixed for 24 hours with soap and other elements. The silk then turns a dazzling white and is dyed black or green depending on which part of the Kiswa it is going to be used for. This process is followed by weaving, which is done mechanically.
Then comes the embroidery stage, which is the longest and the most arduous of all processes. Here all the designs and calligraphy are embroidered by hand in silver and gold wire or thread, and it is a purely manual operation. The final preparation phase involves coordinating and locating the corners of the Kiswa so that proper design and verses can be displayed in their specific places. If required, an additional lining may be added to some areas before the dressing of the Kaaba is done. It takes approximately eight months to produce a new Kiswa.
From the pages of history, we learn that the Kaaba was covered with cloth from the very beginning. It has been stated that Prophet Ismail was the first person to drape it. Tabu Karab Aswad, king of Humayyur in Yemen, was the first to have given the order to cover the Kaaba with a cloth.
After Mecca was opened, Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) covered the Kaaba with a Yemeni cloth. The caliphs, Abu Bakr Siddique, Omar ibn al Khattab and Uthman bin Affan, draped the Kaaba with kabati cloth and Yemeni curtains. Caliph Muawiya bin Abu Sufyan replaced this with brocaded silk and draped the Kaaba twice a year. Then the Abbasian caliphs (750-1258 AD) took charge of covering the Kaaba. For the past several years, the design of the Kiswa has been computerised, allowing for faster results and better quality, although the artistic elements remain a result of the imagination of the workers.