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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

The Saudi factory that stitches the Kaaba's gold-laced cover

The kiswa - which is used to cover the Kaaba - is embroidered and stitched together in Saudi Arabia and paid for by the kingdom each year at a cost of $6 million

A man embroiders the Kiswa, a silk and cotton cloth covering the Holy Kaaba, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, at a factory in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on August 26, 2017. Suhaib Salem/Reuters
A man embroiders the Kiswa, a silk and cotton cloth covering the Holy Kaaba, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, at a factory in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on August 26, 2017. Suhaib Salem/Reuters

Dozens of Saudi craftsmen, mostly in their 40s and 50s, are hard at work in a factory in Mecca preparing an embroidered black and gold cloth to cover the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam.

Known as the kiswa, the cloth is woven from silk and cotton and adorned with verses from the Quran.

A new one is made each year to be placed on the Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque during the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage, which begins on Wednesday.

Muslims touch the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 26, 2017. Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Muslims touch the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque ahead of the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 26, 2017. Suhaib Salem/Reuters

Many of the craftsmen have worked in the factory in the Oum Al Jood district of Mecca all their lives but they will retire soon, as a new generation is being trained to carry on the trade.

King Salman had ordered all the machines - introduced some 30 years ago to help automate the process - to be replaced with newer ones by next year, said general manager Mohammed bin Abdullah Bajuda.

"He also called for a new cadre of manufacturers to take the place of the current one," Mr Bajuda said during a visit to the factory on Saturday.

The kiswa is one of the most important ornaments in the House of God, and its production is made by some of the greatest calligraphers and artists in the Muslim world.

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A cube-shaped stone structure, the Kaaba is a focal point of the Hajj, during which some two million pilgrims walk around it in a mass ritual.

The Kaaba's black stone was revered even before the birth of Islam. Muslims believe it was originally built by the prophet Ibrahim, the Biblical Abraham, on the site of the first house of worship built by Adam. It has since been rebuilt more than once.

The kiswa was manufactured in Egypt until 1962. There have been red, green or white coverings in centuries past, but now it is always black with embroidered gold calligraphy.

Made from silk with verses from the Quran stitched in gold thread, there is always an excerpt on Hajj, and other verses from various different parts of the Quran.

Nearly 670 kilogrammes of silk, enough to cover a structure estimated to measure about 15 metres high and 10 to 12 metres long, is imported from Italy. Silver and gold-plated thread comes from Germany.

But the kiswa is embroidered and stitched together in Saudi Arabia and paid for by the kingdom each year at a cost of US$6 million (Dh22.04m).

Asked about that expenditure at a time of austerity in the kingdom, Mr Bajuda said: "This glorifies the house of God. The Kaaba more than deserves this honour."

Waleed Al Juhani has worked at the factory, which opened in 1977, for 17 years.

Many of the craftsmen have worked in the factory in the Oum Al Jood district of Mecca all their lives but they will retire soon, as a new generation is being trained to carry on the trade. Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Many of the craftsmen have worked in the factory in the Oum Al Jood district of Mecca all their lives but they will retire soon, as a new generation is being trained to carry on the trade. Suhaib Salem/Reuters

"Thanks to God we are working to serve the holy Kaaba. This is a great blessing," he said, while embroidering a Quranic verse that takes 60 days to complete.

"When we succeed in our work, we are glad that Muslims will celebrate a new cover for the Kaaba. This is the best feeling."

At the end of Hajj, the used cloth will be cut into pieces to be distributed to dignitaries and religious organisations. Recipients regard the fragments as heirlooms.

The cover is usually changed on the morning of the Day of Arafat and has been part of the ritual for hundreds of years.

This year's kiswa is complete, but the workers are already startinng on the next one.

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