When the Kaaba’s Kiswa came from Egypt

Celebrations centered on the Mahmal convoy began in Egypt about a month before Hajj. (Supplied)
Updated 01 August 2019

When the Kaaba’s Kiswa came from Egypt

  • For centuries, every year during Hajj the silk cover for the Kaaba arrived on a camel's back from Egypt
  • The passage of the Mahmal carrying the Kiswa through hundreds of miles of desert was an integral part of Hajj

CAIRO, JEDDAH: For centuries, every year during Hajj the Kiswa for the Kaaba arrived on a camel’s back all the way from Cairo to Makkah, following a precarious journey inside a ceremonial litter known as the Mahmal.

From the reign of Al-Zahir Bebrus until the era of King Fuad of Egypt in the 1920s, the passage of the Mahmal through hundreds of miles of barren desert was an integral part of Hajj.

Residents of Cairo would be dazzled by the celebrations marking the Mahmal’s departure. Egyptians knew that the production and transportation of the Kiswa was an honor given only to them by a succession of sultans and caliphs. Research conducted by Doris Behrens-Aboseif of the University of Munich has traced the origin of the Mahmal to Shajarat Al-Durr, wife of As-Salih Ayyub, the last Egyptian sultan of the Ayyub dynasty (13th century). 

Other researchers say the tradition of the Mahmal began in the 14th century during Fatimid rule.

According to Dr. Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim, professor of Islamic history at Cairo University, during the era of Ottoman Gov. Muhammad Ali Pasha and his children, celebrations centered on the Mahmal convoy began about a month before Hajj.

Dar Al-Khoronfosh, a workshop set up in the early 19th century in Cairo’s Al-Gamaleya district, had been selected for the task of making the Kiswa. That role lasted until 1962.

A triangular dome embroidered in gold, silver or silver gilt wires and colorful silk appliques preserved the Mahmal’s precious cargo. It was adorned with the name of the caliphate, sultan or pasha on the side, and a verse from the Qur’an on the front of the Mahmal’s cover.

Before the start of the journey, streets and shops were ceremonially decorated as the Mahmal convoy toured Cairo for three days. 

The camel carrying the Kiswa was accompanied by a caravan of camels lugging supplies and pilgrims’ luggage, alongside soldiers who guarded the procession all the way to Hijaz.

Sufi worshippers would walk just behind the Mahmal, beating drums and holding aloft banners, accompanied by clowns known as Afarit Al-Mahmal. The occasion was a major annual event, with Cairo’s governor and his deputy or their representative in attendance.

In Cairo’s Castle Square, soldiers would line up with their weapons on the arrival of the invitees: Renowned scientists, royals, dignitaries, merchants, and senior officials of the khedive’s office.

The official ceremony was followed by the firing of 21 rounds of artillery and the playing of the anthem of the khedive, who would stand and salute.

After that, the convoy’s leader followed behind the Mahmal in his horse along with his successor.

According to Ibrahim, the Kiswa procession toured Mohammed Ali Street and the Selah market, then headed to Bab Zuwailah Road and parts of old Cairo, and ended at Al-Hussain Mosque.

The actual journey to Makkah began with the Mahmal convoy’s departure from Cairo in the direction of the Red Sea and onward to the city of Suez, where ships docked at the port welcomed the cavalcade of pilgrims, soldiers and camels.

Once Hajj had been completed, the Mahmal returned to Cairo bearing the Kaaba’s used Kiswa.

The fabric was typically cut into pieces and distributed to nobles and princes. Some of these pieces can still be found in the tombs of royal family members, where their presence is regarded as a form of blessing.

Remembering the siege of Makkah

Updated 20 min 32 sec ago

Remembering the siege of Makkah

  • Forty years ago, a group of armed fanatics led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi were primed for an assault that would cast a long, regressive shadow over Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH:  In November 1979, the Middle East was already on a knife edge. In Iran, a liberal monarchy that had ruled for almost four decades had just been overthrown by a fundamentalist theocracy preaching a return to medieval religious values that many feared would pollute and destabilize the entire region.

For the citizens of Saudi Arabia, however, the greatest shock was yet to come. The sacrilegious storming of the Grand Mosque in Makkah by armed fanatics that month sent shockwaves through the entire Islamic world.

Murder and mayhem erupted in the very heart of Islam, perpetrated by a reactionary sect determined to overthrow the Saudi government and convinced that one among their number was the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam whose appearance, according to the hadith, heralds the Day of Judgment. 

Ahead lay two weeks of bitter, bloody fighting as Saudi forces fought to reclaim the Holy Haram for the true faith, but that battle was merely the overture to a war for the very soul of Islam in the Kingdom.

Open, progressive and religiously tolerant, Saudi Arabia was about to travel back in time. Only now, as the Kingdom pushes forward into a new era of transparency and modernization, can the full story of the siege of Makkah and the regressive shadow it would cast over the country for the next 40 years finally be told.

As the citizens of Makkah and those pilgrims who had remained behind after Hajj saw out the final hours of Dhu Al-Hijjah, the 12th and final month of the Islamic calendar, and prepared to greet the year 1400 in prayer within the precincts of the Grand Mosque, a few inconspicuous pickup trucks slipped unchallenged into it through an entrance used by construction workers under the Fatah Gate, on the north side of the mosque.

The trucks and the men who drove them were there at the bidding of Juhayman Al-Otaibi, a disaffected former corporal in the Saudi National Guard.

As a firebrand at the head of a small group of religious students based in a small village outside Madinah, Juhayman had been on the radar of the authorities for some time. According to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, who in 1979 was the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Directorate, the group consisted of students from various religious seminaries who had put their faith in the eschatological figure of the Mahdi, the supposed redeemer of Islam. 

“Their aim, according to their beliefs, was to liberate the Grand Mosque from the apostate rulers of the Kingdom and to liberate all Muslims by the coming of the so-called Mahdi,” Prince Turki said in an interview with Arab News.

Juhayman and his group were set on a path that would lead to tragedy, reaching out to potential recruits both inside and outside the Kingdom. “Through their correspondence and preaching, they managed to recruit a few individuals,” Prince Turki said. 

Juhayman Al-Otaibi after his capture following the end of the seige. (AFP)

One temporary recruit was the Saudi writer Abdo Khal, who in 2010 won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel “Throwing Sparks.” In an interview in 2017 with MBC television, he said that when he was 17 he was one of Juhayman’s men and had even helped to spread the group’s ideology by distributing leaflets.

“It’s true, I was going to be part of one of the groups that was going to enter the Haram,” he said and, were it not for the intervention of his elder sister, he might have found himself among those who were to seize the Grand Mosque. 

“I was supposed to move out to (a mosque) where our group was gathering. We were supposed to be in seclusion at the mosque for three days, and we were supposed to leave with Juhayman on the fourth day.”

But his sister stopped him going to the rendezvous point, on the ground that he was too young to be sleeping away from home for three nights. Almost certainly, she saved his life. “And then, on the fourth day, the horrendous incident happened.” 

Writer Mansour Alnogaidan was only 11 years old when the siege happened, but like many Saudis of his generation, he felt the tug of various Salafi groups in his youth.

Now general manager of Harf and Fasela Media, which operates counter-terrorism websites, he has done extensive research on the Makkah siege.

Alnogaidan says there were a number of possible reasons behind the 1979 incident, including an existing idea in the mind of Juhayman and his group that they were the successors of a Bedouin movement by the name of “Ikhwan-men-taa-Allah.”

“Some believed they had a vendetta against the Saudi government,” he said in an interview with Arab News. “Another issue was essentially the personal desires of certain people (such as Juhayman) who sought power and control. He wanted to satisfy something inside him.”

Alnogaidan added: “Also, we must not forget that this incident came after the Khomeini revolution in Iran, which had an influence even though not a direct one.”

Juhayman and his group were on the radar of the security services. Over time, recalled Prince Turki, “there were many attempts by authorized religious scholars in the Kingdom to rectify the group’s beliefs by discussion, argument and persuasion.” 

Occasionally individuals were taken in for questioning by the authorities “because they were considered to be potentially disruptive to society. Once they were taken in, however, they always gave affidavits and signed assurances that they would not continue with the preaching and so on.”

But “once they were released, of course, they returned to their previous ways.”

At some point in the closing months of the 13th Islamic century, Juhayman’s group identified one of their number, Juhayman’s brother-in-law Mohammed Al-Qahtani, as the Mahdi.

In the early hours of Tuesday, Nov. 20, 1979, as the inhabitants of Makkah and the pilgrims who had lingered after Hajj gravitated toward the Grand Mosque for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the dawning of a new century in Islam’s holiest place, the stage was set for the most unholy of outrages.

Carrying firearms within the Grand Mosque was strictly forbidden; even the guards were armed only with sticks. An armed assault on the precincts of the mosque — on the sacred values it enshrined for the world’s two billion Muslims — was unthinkable.

But on the first day of the Islamic new year of 1400, the unthinkable happened.


Juhayman: 40 years on
On the anniversary of the 1979 attack on Makkah's Grand Mosque, Arab News tells the full story of an unthinkable event that shocked the Islamic world and cast a shadow over Saudi society for decades