The kiswa with the main hizam band and door covering (sitara), plus some extra, square panels below the hizam (c. 1910). The kiswa with the main hizam band and door covering (sitara), plus some extra, square panels below the hizam (c. 1910). Copyright Library of Congress, LC-DIG-matpc-04658.

The kiswa is the embroidered cloth covering of the Ka`aba, a cubical building in the al-Masjid al-Haram mosque, Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Ka`aba is about 15 m high, with a circumference of 47 m. It has one door, which is set about 2 m above the ground. During the annual hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, Muslims walk around the Ka`aba seven times.

The kiswa is traditionally made from black silk damask, woven into long lengths of cloth that are sewn together into eight sections, two for each wall of the Ka’aba. The sections are decorated with a band of applied embroidered panels. The number, size and form of the panels have varied over time, but there always was this band (hizam; ‘belt’), which goes around the whole of the kiswa, and a separate covering for its door.

From the late twelfth century AD, the hizam band has always included embroidered Qur’anic verses. The basic form and text of the hizam have not varied much over time, while the design and style of lettering have changed. The most important requisite design element is that the text must be visible from a distance.

Until the late nineteenth century, the hizam was a simple band divided into eight sections, one sewn to each of the eight lengths of cloth that made up the kiswa. Then the band became more elaborate, with the addition of roundels, shaped forms (based on mosque lanterns) and squares, especially at the corners.

The embroidered curtain covering of the door of the Ka`aba is commonly called the burqa (veil), but the official term is the sitara (‘curtain’). It consists of a cloth that is 6.5 m high and 3.5 m wide, partly split down the middle to allow for entering through the door. The curtain is decorated with applied embroidered panels with verses from the Qur'an and a dedication. The embroidery is carried out in gold-plated and silver wire.

An important element of the kiswa decoration relates to the person who donated the covering to Mecca. The kiswa normally has two dedication panels that identify the name of the donor, sometimes with a date. The main dedication is on the hizam, the relevant name normally being in very large letters. The second dedication is on the sitara and includes the donor’s name in much smaller letters. The position varies according to the overall design of the ‘burqa’ in a particular year.

For hundreds of years the kiswa and related textiles, such as the mahmal and the Ka'aba key bag, were normally made in Cairo, Egypt. During the nineteenth century, for example, the Tentmakers in Cairo were responsible for cutting out the kiswa and related textiles, while the embroiderers in the Kharanfash quarter were responsible for the decorated panels. In the 1920's, Saudi Arabia took overall responsibility for making the kiswa.


  • JOMIER, Jacques, ‘Mahmal', Encyclopaedia of Islam, VI.44b, Leiden: Brill (digital version).
  • KING, David A, ‘Makka', Encyclopaedia of Islam, VI.144b, Leiden: Brill (digital version).
  • PETERS, F. E., 1994. The Hajj: the Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • PORTER, Venetia (ed.), 2012. Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, London: The British Museum Press.
  •  (retrieved 8th October 2011).


Last modified on Tuesday, 16 May 2017 19:48
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