The Ka'ba (Arabic الكعبة; also spelled al-Ka‘bah or Kaaba) is a small building located within the courtyard of al-Haram Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Ka'ba is the holiest site in Islam; the Haram Mosque was built around it and because of it. The qibla, the direction Muslims face during prayer, is the direction facing the Ka'ba.
The Ka'ba houses the mysterious Black Stone, which was revered in Mecca in pre-Islamic times as well. It became a Muslim relic in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and pilgrims to Mecca try to stop and kiss it while circumambulating the Ka'ba during the hajj.
History of the Kaaba
According to Islamic belief, God ordained a place of worship on Earth to reflect a house in heaven. Muslims believe that Adam, the first man, was the first to build such a place of worship. According to the Qur'an, the Ka'ba that stands today was built by the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismail (Ishmael).
According to archaeologists, the Ka'ba certainly predates Islam. It was rebuilt several times by the tribes ruling Mecca, who used it to house sacred objects, including the Black Stone, and as a shrine to Arabian tribal gods.
At the time of Muhammad, his tribe, the Quraysh, was in charge of the Ka'ba. Desert tribesmen, the Bedouin, and inhabitants of other cities would join the annual pilgrimage to the Ka'ba to worship and to trade. Caravan-raiding, common during the rest of the year, was suspended during the pilgrimage, making it a good time for travel and trade.
The prophet Muhammad, preaching monotheism and the Day of Judgment, faced mounting opposition in Mecca. The Quraysh persecuted and harassed him and he and his followers eventually migrated to Medina in 622 CE. In 630 CE, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca as conquerors and rededicated the Ka'ba as an Islamic house of worship. Henceforth, the traditional annual pilgrimage was to be a Muslim rite, the Hajj.
After Muhammad's victory, the Quraysh tribe rebuilt the Ka'ba with alternating courses of stone and wood. The inner space was divided into two rooms, one of which housed the Black Stone. The exterior was covered with the habrat cloth from Yemen.
Early Islamic chroniclers say that the Ka'ba was rebuilt during Muhammad's youth, and that there was some contention among the Quraysh, Mecca's ruling clan, as to who should have the honor of raising the Black Stone to its place in the new structure. Muhammad is said to have suggested that the Stone be placed on a cloak and that the various clan heads jointly lift the cloak and put the Stone into place.
During the conflict between Ibn Zubayr of Mecca and the Umayyad Caliph Mu'awiyah, the Ka'ba was set on fire and the Black Stone broke into three pieces. Its parts were reassembled with silver by Ibn Zubayr, who also ordered the rebuilding of the Ka'ba in stone and in accordance with the original dimensions believed to be set by Abraham, and paved the open space around it. The shrine at this time had two doors and a wooden staircase for roof access.
In 692, after taking over Mecca, Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik bin demolished the Ka'ba and rebuilt it based on the Qurayshi version. The Abbasid Caliphs contributed the kiswa cover, a black cloth brought from Tanis in Egypt. The kiswa comprised of eight curtains (a pair on each side of the cube) embroidered with gold calligraphy expressing the Muslim shahada, or oath, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is the Prophet of Allah."
Following Mamluk rule of the Hijaz, which lasted from 1269 to 1517, Mecca came under the control of the Ottoman Sultans. In 1553, Sultan Süleyman I (1520-1566) renovated the roof of the Ka'ba and ordered the wooden ceiling painted with golden calligraphy and floral patterns.
Damaged in a flood in 1611, the Ka'ba was rebuilt once again by Sultan Murad IV (1623-1640) in 1629. The new foundation was laid according to Abraham's plan, while the upper structure was built with large granite blocks resting on a 25 cm-high marble base.
Three columns were built to support the roof on the inside; they were covered with golden decorations. Silver and golden lamps were suspended from the ceiling. The silver door offered by Sultan Süleyman was placed off-center on the northeast wall, two meters above ground level. The Ka'ba was then covered with two kiswas, a red cloth covered with a black one, that were annually replaced.
During the first Saudi extension to Masjid al-Haram in 1976, the interior of the Ka'ba was decorated with gold geometric motifs and inscribed with Quranic verses.
What to See at the Kaaba
The Ka'ba is roughly the shape of a cube (Ka'ba comes from the Arabic word meaning "cube") and is made of granite from the hills near Mecca. It stands 15 meters (49 feet) high, with sides measuring 10.5 m (34') by 12 m (39'). It is covered by a black silk cloth decorated with gold-embroidered calligraphy. This cloth is known as the kiswah and is replaced yearly.
On the southwest side of the Ka'ba is a semi-circular wall about one and a quarter meters tall, which represents its border (al-hatim) as built by Abraham.
Entrance to the inside of the Ka'ba is gained through a door 2.13 meters above the ground on the northeastern wall. Inside is a marble floor and walls clad with marble half-way to the roof. Tablets with Quranic inscriptions are inset in the marble. The upper part of the interior walls is covered with a green cloth decorated with gold embroidered Quranic verses.
Lamps hang from a cross beam; there is also a small table for incense burners. Caretakers perfume the marble cladding with scented oil, the same oil used to anoint the Black Stone outside. The Black Stone, an ancient sacred stone, is embedded in the eastern corner of the Ka'ba, one and a half meters above the ground.
According to Muslim belief, the Black Stone was found by Abraham (Ibrahim) and his son Ishmael (Ismail) when they were searching for stones with which to build the Kaaba. They recognized its worth and made it one of the building's cornerstones.
Secular historians point to the history of stone worship, and especially meteorite worship, in pre-Islamic Arabia, and say that it is likely that the Stone is a meteorite. But of course this hypothesis cannot be tested without removing and examining the Stone, which would not be permitted by its guardians.
Within Islam, there are various opinions as to the status and meaning of the Black Stone. Many regard the Stone as "just a stone." When Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph, came to kiss the stone, he said, in front of all assembled: "No doubt, I know that you are a stone and can neither harm anyone nor benefit anyone. Had I not seen Allah's Messenger kissing you, I would not have kissed you."
Many Muslims follow Umar: they pay their respects to the Black Stone in a spirit of trust in Muhammad, not with any belief in the Black Stone itself. Some say that the stone is best considered as a marker, useful in keeping count of the ritual circumambulations one has performed (tawaf).
But other Muslims are more inclined to believe that the Stone itself has supernatural powers. Some hold that it fell from the sky during the time of Adam and Eve, and that it has the power to cleanse worshippers of their sins by absorbing them into itself. They say that the Black Stone was once a pure and dazzling white and it has turned black because of the sins it has absorbed over the years. Still others believe that the stone can only erase the believer's minor sins. On the Day of Judgement, the Stone will testify before God (Allah) in favor of those who kissed it. Such folk beliefs are not shared by all Muslims.
Festivals and Events
The Ka'ba is opened twice a year for the ceremony of "the cleaning of the Ka'ba." This ceremony takes place roughly fifteen days before the start of the month of Ramadan and the same period of time before the start of the annual pilgrimage.
The keys to the Kaaba are held by the Banī Shaybat (بني شيبة) tribe. Members of the tribe greet visitors to the inside of the Kaaba on the occasion of the cleaning ceremony. A small number of dignitaries and foreign diplomats are invited to participate in the ceremony. The governor of Mecca leads the honored guests who ritually clean the structure, using simple brooms.
Quick Facts on the Kaaba
|Names:||al-Ka'bah · Ka'ba · Kaaba|
|Categories:||shrines; sacred rocks|
|Dates:||630; rebuilt 692, 1629|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||21.422522° N, 39.826190° E|
|Address:||Mecca, Saudi Arabia|
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Kaaba|
- Patricia Crone, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Blackwell, 1987.
- Creswell, K.A.C. 1989. A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture. Aldershot: Scholar Press, 3-4.
- Damluji, Salma Samar (ed). 1998. The Architecture of the Holy Mosque Makkah. London: Hazar Publishing Limited.
- Petersen, Andrew. Dictionary of Islamic Architecture. London: Routledge, 1996. p.142.
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Map of the Kaaba, Mecca
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Kaaba. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.