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Hanging the Kiswah, a huge piece of black silk embroidered with gold patterns, over the Kaaba symbolises the start of the Hajj pilgrimage season.
How the cover looks is of the utmost importance. Millions of Muslims around the world pray towards the Kaaba every day and during Hajj pilgrims circumambulate the stone.
The operation to construct a new Kiswah every year involves more than 200 specialist fabric workers and hundreds of kilograms of black silk.
What is the Kiswah?
The term kiswah in Arabic means clothes made for covering the body, but is also used as the term for the silk cover for the the Kaaba. It is affixed to the stone by copper rings at the bottom of the marble base.
The covering of the Kaaba is made of 47 pieces of natural silk, each 98 centimetres by 14 metres. The outer layer of the Kiswah is made from 670kg of raw silk. The inside of the covering is a strong cotton lining, which helps to preserve the silk on top.
Gold thread adorns the black silk, spelling out Quranic passages as well as phrases such as “no god but Allah", and "glory to God".
The Kiswah also has a belt section that wraps round to hold it in place. It is 46 metres long and 95cm wide, made from 16 pieces and also embroidered with Quranic verses.
One of the pieces on the belt features a dedication naming the date the Kiswa was made.
The Kiswa includes the curtain of the Kaaba door. The embroidered curtain was put on the Kaaba gate for the first time in 1300-1396 (819 in the Hijri calendar).
The curtain has a sentence of dedication and many verses and religious phrases embroidered with silver threads plated with gold.
Where is the Kiswah made?
The Kiswah Al Kaaba factory in Makkah has been making the Kiswah for almost 45 years. Owned and run by the Saudi Arabian government, it takes the whole year to produce the cover; six to eight months of that is taken up by embroidery alone.
The factory opened in 1977 and has about 200 employees, 114 of whom work solely on embroidery.
Creating the Kiswah is a four-step process.
First, the raw silk, imported from Italy, is dyed black over a 22-hour period, then woven mechanically into plain black sheets. These are then separated – some will be embroidered in gold and silver, others in black.
After this process, the material is tested for resistance and density, then printed with a pattern to be embroidered over by specialists.
In total, 54 pieces of cloth are created, then sewn together to fit the Kaaba. This step is done on one of the world's largest sewing machines with a 16m by 14m sewing table.
The factory also produces the cotton lining for the Kiswah and another cover to be used during Hajj.
For 26 of the 37 years Ahmed Hussain Ba Anter has worked at the factory, he specialised in embroidery, sewing the golden and silver threads in the writing on the Kiswa.
“I feel very honoured when my fingers hold the needles to sew the Kaaba Kiswah,” he told The National.
He works now as a supervisor in the department that joins the sections of the Kiswah together. Over the years he has also taken part in the dressing of the Kaaba for Hajj.
“I have dressed the Kaaba three times, in 1441, in 1436 and 1434. I hope to dress up the Kaaba this year because this is my last year before I retire.” (The Hijri calendar year 1441 equates to 2020 in the Gregorian calendar.)
Dressing the Kaaba
At the dawn of the ninth day of the month of Thu-AlHija, the new covering is taken from the factory to the holy mosque. Each of the four pieces of the new Kiswah is carried to the top of the Kaaba and is hung, one side at a time, over the old Kiswah.
As the new Kiswah is attached, the old one is lowered from beneath after loosening the supporting robes.
When the new Kiswah is fully in place, the individual pieces are sewn together to form a complete encasement.
From leather to silk
The Kiswah has not always been made from delicate silk.
In the pre-Islamic era, Adnan bin Edd, a forefather of the Prophet Mohammed, was one of those who provided the Kaaba with a Kiswah.
In the years thereafter, the people of Makkah made the cover with a material such as leather, pooling their money to buy materials and make the Kiswah.
During the Prophet Mohammed’s time, Yemeni curtains, called burdah, were used, and silk introduced later. The colour black also replaced green as the colour of the cover.
The Kiswah used to be produced in Egypt, but in 1927 King Abdulaziz ordered that the production of the Kiswah should take place in Makkah. It was made of a fine quality black velvet backed with a heavy-duty lining.
In 1928 the first workshop for kiswah-making was opened, where 12 manual looms were brought from India and 60 specialist technicians were hired. From then until the late 1950s the Kiswah was made in Egypt or Saudi Arabia depending on the political situation.
Since 1958 the Kiswah has been manufactured in Makkah.