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Collection Highlight: Sitara of the Ka‘ba

9 May 2023

By Loubna Zeidan

The recently reinstalled gallery on Religious Life at the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) explores artistic traditions associated with religious practices in the Islamic world. This sitara, or door textile, which once adorned the Ka’ba, sits at the heart of the gallery.

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MIA’s collection of textiles comprises some of the finest carpets and fabrics from all over the world, including this section of the kiswat al-Ka’ba, a fabric that once covered the Islamic world’s most sacred monument: the Ka’ba in Mecca. Dating all the way back to the late Ottoman period in the mid-19th century, the fabric was likely replaced during an annual ceremony in which a new kiswa is placed over the Ka’ba. This ceremony usually marks the celebration of Eid al-Adha.

An entire kiswa consists of multiple sections of embroidered fabric that are sewn together to cover the Ka’ba. The section known as the sitara, like the one on view at MIA, is the most decorated portion of the kiswa. Shaped into a curtain, it hangs over the doors of the Ka‘ba.

In addition to its spiritual significance, every kiswat al-Ka'ba is also a work of art, with intricate embroidery and design work that reflects the rich cultural heritage of the time and place it was created while also connecting it to the entire Islamic world.

Records show that starting from the Ayyubid period (6th century AH /12th century CE), kiswas were manufactured in Cairo each year and sent as a gift in a mahmal (palanquin) at the head of pilgrims’ processions to Mecca.

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A view of the sitara (door textile) of the Ka‘ba from the late Ottoman period, installed in Gallery 3 at the Museum of Islamic Art. Photo © Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

In 1233 AH/1817 CE, the Ottoman governor Muhammad Ali Pasha established a workshop dedicated solely to the production of these textiles, the Dar al-Kiswa. This workshop sent textiles to Mecca and Medina until 1927, at which point the textiles started being produced directly in Mecca.

Today, the Bayt al-Kiswa al-Sharifa is the official institution that produces the cover of the Ka‘ba each year, using pure gold threads to stitch together several pieces of black cloth; Ottoman textiles like the MIA piece, were woven together with gilded metal threads. The kiswa continues to be embroidered by hand and – apart from the inscribed date that changes each year on the sitara – contemporary iterations look identical from one year to another. This uniformity is unique to our times; in the Ottoman period, each kiswa, especially the sitara section, was designed and decorated slightly differently.

Plan your visit now to see the sitara in person, along with other treasures from MIA’s permanent collection of Islamic art.

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