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The Kaaba

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Kaaba — Card 1

    Whether it’s photos of an empty Times Square in New York City or a deserted Piazza San Marco in Venice, one of the eeriest effects of the novel coronavirus is the silencing of typically bustling public places. No transformation has been more dramatic though, than the Grand Mosque in Mecca, where millions of Muslims arrive each year to complete a pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest site.

    The at-least-once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage known as Hajj takes place in the month of Dhu al-Hijjah, which this year falls in late July; a pilgrimage made at any other time of the year is called umrah. All pilgrims to Mecca eventually array themselves around the Kaaba, a granite shrine that stands at the center of the Grand Mosque. The Kaaba, or cube, is the most sacred site in Islam: even when they’re not at Mecca, all Muslims are required to face it as they complete their daily prayers. According to Islamic tradition, Ibrahim and his son Ishmael built the Kaaba in the shape of the House of Heaven.

    Almost every inch of the structure has either a storied history or a symbolic significance, from the sacred “Black Stone” embedded in one corner of the building, allegedly a remnant of the time of Adam and Eve, to the golden waterspout built by the Ottomans to catch the rain. Sacred to Muslims, fascinating to all, the site has a contentious, immensely rich history written into the details.

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Kaaba — Card 2

    34 ft x 39 ft x 49 ft (10 m x 12 m x 15 m): Dimensions of the Kaaba

    650 sq m: Size of the 2018 Kiswah, the shroud that covers the Kaaba

    16 m (52.5 ft): Size of the sewing machine used to sew the Kiswah

    22 million riyal ($5.9 million): Cost of the 2016 shroud

    300 kg (660 lb): Weight of the solid gold door on the Kaaba’s northeastern side, set seven feet above the ground

    >2 million: Pilgrims who visit the Kaaba every year for Hajj; more than two-thirds are foreigners, the rest come from within Saudi Arabia

    581: Years it would take for every Muslim on earth to complete the Hajj without crowding the Grand Mosque

    $8.5 billion: Amount Saudi Arabia earns per year from pilgrims to Mecca, its second-biggest industry after oil (~$200 billion per year)

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Kaaba — Card 3

    The prayer ritual that takes place around the Kaaba is known as the tawaf, or circumambulation, and takes place on the first day of the six-day Hajj ceremony. Pilgrims are required to circle the Kaaba seven times counterclockwise, three times at a rapid pace on the outside of the Grand Mosque and four times at a more leisurely pace while standing closer to the shrine. The four corners of the shrine align roughly with the cardinal directions, and the Black Stone is housed in the northern corner; a marble strip extends along the ground from that corner to mark the spot where each revolution around the shrine begins and ends.

    During the Hajj ceremonies, the Kaaba is almost completely covered by a brocade cloth, the Kiswah, which is woven anew each year. The marble cladding of the structure is anointed with oil as well. As pilgrims come closer to the shrine, they also pay respect to various architectural features that surround the shrine. There’s a small pillar near the building that contains the footprints of Abraham, for instance, as well as a small semicircular wall that marks a spot where a previous shrine once stood. Between the Black Stone and a golden door that leads into the shrine, there’s also a patch of wall known as the Multazam, which is considered especially sacred and which pilgrims try to touch if they can get close enough.

    The solid gold door (added by Saudi Arabia in 1979) remains locked during the Hajj ceremony, mostly to prevent massive overcrowding. Even if you could get inside, though, there isn’t anything secret or sacred in the shrine itself—the inner room contains just three wooden pillars, an altar, and some tablets set into the walls, and ministers only go inside to clean it twice a year with water from a nearby well. Since Muslims do not worship any object or image, only God, the religious significance of the Kaaba comes from the history of the site and the prayer ceremony, not the building or the objects it contains.

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Kaaba — Card 4

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Kaaba — Card 5

    “We made the house (in Mecca) as a place of refuge and sanctuary for men. Adopt the place where Abraham stood as a place for prayer. We advised Abraham and Ishmael to keep My house clean for the pilgrims, the worshippers and for those who bow down and prostrate themselves in worship.” —Quran 2:125

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Kaaba — Card 7

    147: Ptolemy writes of the existence of a religious city called “Macoraba” in Arabia.

    570: Muhammad is born in Mecca.

    ~608: The Quraysh tribe rebuild an earlier pagan shrine on the site of the Kaaba.

    624: In exile from Mecca, Muhammad dictates that all Muslims face the Kaaba when praying.

    630: Muhammad conquers Mecca and destroys pagan idols in the Kaaba.

    692: The Umayyad Caliphate lays siege to Mecca; the Kaaba is destroyed and rebuilt.

    930: The Black Stone is seized from the Kaaba by a Shi’ite sect and held ransom for 20 years.

    1326: Noted scholar and travel writer Ibn Battuta visits the Kaaba, which he finds impressive.

    1520: Suleiman the Magnificent, an Ottoman sultan, renovates the Kaaba.

    1630: After major flooding, sultan Murad IV rebuilds the Kaaba from scratch, including a door with 166 pounds of silver plating.

    1942: King Ibn Saud replaces the silver door with a gold-plated aluminum door.

    1961: Manufacture of the Kiswah is moved from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

    1979: The gold-plated door is replaced with the present door, made of solid gold.

    1985: King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al Saud expands the Grand Mosque to accommodate more worshippers.

    1990: 1,426 are killed in a major stampede during a Hajj ceremony.

    2016: Iran bars its citizens from performing Hajj in Saudi Arabia; the two countries come to an agreement in 2017.

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Kaaba — Card 8

    Many believe the Black Stone to be a meteorite, but it’s more likely an agate stone made of silica and—that’s right—quartz.

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Kaaba — Card 9

    A handycam video produced by VICE shows the Hajj ceremonies in intimate detail, rather than from the air. (You can also virtually experience Hajj through Google Earth or zoom in and around a stunning ultra-hi-res photo of the Great Mosque by Issam Kanafani.)

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  • Quartz Obsession — The Kaaba — Card 10

    The walls of the Kaaba’s cube are made of a traditional brick, but the structure is almost always covered by a black-and-gold cloth known as the Kiswah or “pall,” a new version of which is woven each year. The cloth is made of 16 separate pieces that total around 2,000 sq ft (186 sq m); the 2016 Kiswah contained 120 kg (265 lb) of gold thread. The shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, is woven along the length of these pieces in exceedingly complex Arabic calligraphy.

    Until the 1960s, the production of the Kiswah was based in Egypt, long known for its skill in textile arts. Every year a grand procession would bring the cloth to Mecca in a 1,000-mile (1,600-km) parade of attendants and camels. Now the cloth is manufactured near Mecca in a factory that employs more than 240 people. The total cost of making the cloth reportedly exceeds $5 million annually.

    Each year the pieces are draped around all sides of the Kaaba, with a special curtain hanging over the golden door. Pieces of the new Kiswah are raised by ministers who stand atop the roof of the shrine and are then placed in front of the old pieces, affixed to the shrine with copper rings; the old pieces are then released to the ground so that the bare structure is never visible (there are pictures of it, though). Once the old Kiswah is taken down, it is cut up and distributed to various worshippers and religious organizations, though many pilgrims fall victim to scams that offer fake segments of the cloth.

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