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Volume 36, Number 5September/October 1985

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A Gift from the Kingdom

Written by Aileen Vincent-Barwood
Photographed by Katrina Thomas

When you first see the sitara you are literally taken aback by its splendor and size: a great embroidered drape, or curtain, two and a half meters wide by nine and a half meters high (8 by 28 feet). To see it properly, in fact, you have to stand back six meters or more (20 feet). Then, because of its magnificent effect, you need a few moments to take in the elegant composition, the intricate calligraphy embroidered in gold, the hand-carved frame - and to realize its importance as a superb piece of Islamic decorative art.

This curtain is a gift from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations and will remain there. Normally, however, such a drape is part of the Kiswa, a great cloth-covering for the Ka'ba, the sacred stone cube in Makkah (Mecca) that is considered to be the physical center of Islam, and is called "the House of God."

This sitara was given in the name of "the servitor of the two noble sanctuaries" (Makkah and Medina), King Fahd ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, and was presented on January 1,1983 by the then Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, His Excellency Shaikh Faisal al-Hujaylan, who is now the kingdom's Minister of Health.

Bordered on either side by full-length drapes of the same deep green as the Saudi flag, the framed curtain extends the full height of a wall - which had to be reinforced to accommodate its massive weight - at the southern end of the Indonesian reception hall in the U.N. delegates' lounge. Its brilliant embroidery is illuminated during the daytime by natural light from an adjacent floor-to-ceiling window. On a bright day, with sunlight burnishing it, the effect is spectacular - much as it must be when the sitara hangs over the door of the Ka'ba in Makkah and the blaze of the Arabian sun glints off its lustrous gold and silver ornamentation, flinging brilliance into the hot blue sky.

Writing about her first view of the Ka'ba in her book The Fifth Pillar, Saida Miller Khalifa said:

Once inside the Haram, the pilgrim sees stretching before his eyes the vast panorama of a mosque immense enough to hold half a million worshippers, perhaps more. The colonnaded walls are punctuated by tall, graceful minarets soaring high above the courtyard which is open to the blue sky... The towering walls and minarets of grey and white veined marble have a lustrous glow, as if suffused with the afterglow of a sunset...

At night at the United Nations, a row of lights on the opposite wall of the reception lounge gives the sitara a soft glow and highlights the sheen of its black silk background.

As part of the annual pilgrimage rituals, the interior of the Ka'ba is washed by the king - who is considered a servant of the holy place - or his representatives for the occasion. They perform a ceremony of washing the floor with rosewater.

Afterwards, the used Kiswa is cut into pieces of various sizes, some of which are presented as mementoes to individuals and institutions in Muslim countries around the world; some of them hang in government buildings in Saudi Arabia, or in Saudi embassies.

Each new Kiswa is woven and embroidered in gold and silver at a cost of $2.8 million. Made of 670 kilograms of pure white silk, it is later dyed black, its 47 rectangular pieces measuring overall 2,650 square meters (28,524 square feet). A border, 95 centimeters wide (three feet) and embroidered in gold-plated silver wire, is emblazoned with verses from the Koran and with Islamic religious formulae.

Set about two meters (six feet) above ground, with a special movable railed staircase nearby for the rare occasions when the Ka'ba is opened, are the heavy, gold-leaf-covered gates, or outer doors, of the Ka'ba - another fine example of Islamic decorative art. Measuring in all two by three meters (6 by 10 feet), they, too, are inscribed with Koranic verses in thuluth, a dignified calligraphic script.

The doors were installed in 1979 in place of the doors which had been made and fitted during the reign of King 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud in the year A.H. 1363 (1943). Each took a full year to complete.

They are considered to be, according to Ambassador al-Hujaylan in his dedication, "a part of the very best in Islamic artistic inheritance."

Above the Ka'ba doors hangs an embroidered drape like that now on display at the United Nations.

The Ka'ba has been honored for 4,000 years - since the time of the patriarch Abraham. During early Islamic times the covering of the Ka'ba - the Kiswa - was made of different colors of cloth woven in Yemen and later in Egypt; the caliphs, or other Muslim rulers, welcomed the chance to provide the Kiswa, considering it a religious duty. The sitara illustrated here comes from the Kiswa that covered the Ka'ba in 1979.

Until 1927, the manufacture and handwork of the Kiswa took place in Egypt. The Kiswa was transported in a special litter at the head of an Egyptian caravan as a gift of the Egyptian people, and those charged with transporting it to Makkah were specially designated Muslim families who considered this duty the highest honor of their lifetime.

In 1927, however, this changed when the late King 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud established a factory in Makkah, and when, duringIhe reign of the late King Faisal a new Kiswa factory was established at the entrance to Makkah. These premises have since been expanded to an area of 100,000 square meters (1,040,000 square feet) where over 200 Saudi weavers and craftsmen, using the latest technical equipment, and the most modern technical skills, make the carpets, fabrics and rugs for the kingdom's mosques. But to this day the Kiswa itself is made on special looms so that the highest degree of perfection can be achieved.

Aileen Vincent-Barwood once lived in Saudi Arabia, and is a regular contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 18-23 of the September/October 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1985 images.