Hajj: Keswa

National Folklore Archive, Tuesday 1 Nov 2011

The covering, or keswa, of the Kaaba was traditionally made in Egypt

photo by: Lehnert and Landrock Egypt 1924

One of the most interesting traditions around the Kaaba has to do with its covering, or keswa. The whole structure is enveloped from the outside by fabric, a tradition that has grown in sophistication as kings and rulers competed to honour Islam’s most sacred shrine.

According to legend, the first man to cover the Kaaba with fabric was Sayyedna Ismail, Our Lord Ismail, who is the same person as the biblical patriarch Ishmael. This account is challenged by some early Arab historians, who believe that the first to dress the Kaaba in cloth was a Yemeni king called Tobbaa Abu Karb.

The earliest accounts of the keswa speak of swathes of fabric made of wool and silk and decorated with leather. In time, the art of keswa evolved and masters of weaving and embroidery were hired from distant countries to provide the shrine with a suitable coat.

At one point, it was customary to change the keswa twice a year. Qabati, a type of expensive fabric made in Egypt became for centuries the standard material for making the keswa.

Sometime in the mid-fourteenth century, in the time of Sultan Ismail Ibn al-Nasir Mohammad Ibn Qalawon, Egypt began sending the keswa annually to Mecca. The cost of this effort was covered by budgetary allocations, called waqf, from the income of several Egyptian villages, including Besus, Sendbis, and Abul Gheit.

In the mid-sixteenth century, Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent brought the number of Egyptian villages financing the keswa to ten, an indication of how elaborate the Kaaba’s coat had become. In his time, the keswa included an outer cover for the Kaaba, interior curtains for the inside, a special door cover on the outside, and coats for several nearby shrines. The fabric was made in Cairo, Tanis, Tuna, and Shata by the best weavers and embroiders of the time. As of 1920, the keswa was manufactured solely in Dar Al-Keswa (House of Keswa) in the Khoronfesh section of Cairo (not far from the famed Khan al-Khalili).

A standard keswa in Ottoman times consisted of eight curtains called ahmal, four koroshyat, or decorated panels, a cover for the Kaaba’s door called al-borqo, a cover for the shrine of Ibrahim, a cover for Bab Al-Tawba (Gate of Repentance), a cover for Bab Al-Manbar Al-Malaki (Gate of the Royal Pulpit), and a purse for holding the key of the Kaaba. The material was made of black, red, green, and yellow silk interwoven with gold and silver threads.

Mahmal (bearer) was the name given to the wooden structure designed to carry the keswa, which was traditionally carried on one or more camels. The tradition of sending a mahmal to Mecca from Egypt may have started with the mid-thirteenth century pilgrimage of Egypt’s Mamluk Queen Shagar al-Dorr to Mecca.

The tradition of sending the mahmal continued well into the twentieth century, interrupted only in times of natural disasters and war.

An eighteenth century account of the ceremonies associated with the mahmal’s departure from Egypt goes as follows:

“Seeing (the mahmal) is such a pleasure for it is beautifully made, with turned wood and all covered with colourful silk interwoven with gold threads. The head of the camel and its neck and the rest of his body are covered in jewels, and the camel’s body is painted with henna. The leading camel is followed by another camel that is similarly embellished, and the third camel is carrying the honourable keswa, which is wrapped in pieces, each mounted on wooden poles shaped in the form of ladders.”

In Cairo, the mahmal was paraded in the streets before its departure for Mecca. The parade consisted horse-mounted officers, foot soldiers, and the guards of the mahmal and the caravan servants. A different leader of the mahmal caravan, called the amir al-haj was chosen every year. It was a great honour to lead the mahmal to Mecca and in Ottoman times the post usually went to a top army officer. The ruler, or wali, and the country’s top officials and clerics attended all or part of the parade.

In Mecca, the scene of receiving the mahmal was just as impressive. The mahmal caravan was led through the streets to the Egyptian tekeyya (a seclusion house for dervishes) while preparations for a further procession were arranged. The procession that followed was usually led by the Egyptian amir al-haj, a bearer of the money purse, various troops, and a military band.

In the following ceremony, boxes of keswa would be delivered to the chief servant of the Kaaba. In the 1930s, Saudi Arabia discontinued celebrations of the mahmal. Cairo abandoned the mahmal ceremony in 1953, but continued sending the keswa till 1963. Since then, the keswa has been made locally in Mecca.

The last keswa produced in Egypt cost 50,000 Egyptian pounds, equivalent to 750,000 EGP in today’s prices.

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