RELIGION

'Roads Of Arabia' Exhibit Showcases Rarely Seen Artifacts From The Ka'ba In Mecca

Muslim pilgrims will descend on the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia for Hajj in October, participating in a ritual that dates back hundreds of years.

Thousands of miles away, an exhibition documenting the rise of Islam in Saudi Arabia will open on October 24th at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. 'Roads Of Arabia' includes more than 200 objects that document the historical interactions and exchanges that shaped the culture of the Arabian peninsula, the birthplace of Islam in the 7th century.

Read a a statement from Qamar Adamjee, the museum's Associate Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art, below:


It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see objects from the Ka’ba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest sanctuary. Muslims rarely have that privilege, while non-Muslims have no access to Mecca. The Roads of Arabia exhibition features several objects gifted to the Ka’ba over the centuries. Rulers and other notables from across the Islamic world offered lavish gifts to the Ka’ba as an expression of pious devotion. Historically, successive dynasties—such as the Mamluks of Egypt, Ottomans of Turkey, and the present Saudi family—that governed the Arabian Peninsula were the custodians of Islam’s holiest sites, and in that position, it was their duty and privilege to maintain and protect the Ka’ba sanctuary. Needless to say, only the best of the best would be considered worthy gifts to the symbolic House of God.

Most remarkable and impressive of these is the monumental pair of the Ka’ba’s inner doors. Made of wood and covered with gilded bronze and silver, these doors were ordered by a Turkish Ottoman sultan and remained installed for over 300 years before they were replaced in 1947. Together with a bronze padlock to the doors, inscribed with the name of the reigning Ottoman ruler, they symbolize the dynasty’s custodial role. Custodians of the Ka’ba were also responsible for providing a new set of textile coverings for it at each year, presented at the time of the annual pilgrimage of the hajj. A fragment of the richly embroidered belt (hizam) from this ensemble, with bold calligraphy rendered in gold-wrapped thread, bearing verses from the Quran, and designed by an accomplished calligrapher, is also included in the exhibition.

Among other gifts are two Quran manuscripts, carefully copied in the finest calligraphic styles of theirtime and lavishly decorated with gold. Donations to the Ka’ba also included other types of objects such an impressive incense burner inscribed with the name of an Ottoman queen mother. Together, this sampling of objects in the exhibition presents a wide range of finely-crafted artworks spanning a variety of artistic styles, periods, and media. They reflect a long—and continuing—tradition of marking the centrality and sanctity of the Ka’ba.

Take a look at a sampling of artifacts included in the exhibit below:

  • Three double pages from a Qur’an
    Three double pages from a Qur’an (Sura 5:6–18), 800–900. North Africa or West Asia; Abbasid period (approx. 750–1258). Ink an
    Asian Art Museum
    Three double pages from a Qur’an (Sura 5:6–18), 800–900. North Africa or West Asia; Abbasid period (approx. 750–1258). Ink and gold on parchment. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 1/47-1/46, 1/36. Written in gold and outlined in dark brown ink on parchment, these double pages are copied in an angular script known as kufic. Red and blue circles indicate diacritical marks and help with the vocalization. Both the use of gold and the regularity of the script lend these pages a sumptuous formality, characteristic of some of the finest early Qur’ans.
  • Section of a sacred cloth
    Section of a sacred cloth (Kiswa), 1992 
Mecca 
Cotton, silk, and gold and silver wire 
National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riya
    Asian Art Museum
    Section of a sacred cloth (Kiswa), 1992 Mecca Cotton, silk, and gold and silver wire National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, M/1 Among the most precious gifts to Mecca is the kiswa, the cloth that covers the Ka‘ba, the cubic structure in the center of the great mosque. The annual tradition of sending a kiswa to Mecca continues to this day, as recorded in this fragment.
  • Qur’an
    Qur’an, 1500–1700
Turkey
Ottoman dynasty (1299–1922)
Ink, color, and gold on paper 
National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh,
    Asian Art Museum
    Qur’an, 1500–1700 Turkey Ottoman dynasty (1299–1922) Ink, color, and gold on paper National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2 Cat. no. 303 This richly illuminated manuscript of the Qur’an is copied in a combination of naskh and muhaqqaq scripts, typical of Ottoman copies made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although it is unclear how this volume arrived in Mecca, it was probably among the many gifts offered to the Ka‘ba, especially during the hajj (annual pilgrimage).
  • Lock plate
    Lock plate, 1603–1617
Turkey
Ottoman dynasty (1299–1922)
Gilded silver 
National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 3005/1–2 
Ca
    Asian Art Museum
    Lock plate, 1603–1617 Turkey Ottoman dynasty (1299–1922) Gilded silver National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 3005/1–2 Cat. no. 307 One of the most symbolically important gifts to the Ka‘ba was the lock and key to its entrance. A set was regularly donated by the shrine’s supreme temporal custodian, in this case, the Ottoman sultan Ahmed I (reigned 1603–1617). After the sixteenth century, the keys and locks were usually made of either gold or silver and were inscribed with verses from the Qur’an and the name of the donor.
  • Doors of the Ka‘ba
    Doors of the Ka‘ba, 1635–1636
Turkey
Ottoman dynasty (1299–1922)
Gilded silver on wood
National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyad
    Asian Art Museum
    Doors of the Ka‘ba, 1635–1636 Turkey Ottoman dynasty (1299–1922) Gilded silver on wood National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 1355/1–2 Cat. no. 305 These massive silver-gilded wooden doors, donated by the Ottoman sultan Murad IV (reigned 1623–1640), stood at the entrance to the interior of the Ka‘ba. The panels consist of a wooden core that has been covered with gilded and hammered silver. Although the surface is heavily worn, the central scalloped motif, filled with dense vegetal designs, and the elegant knockers at the top indicate the doors were manufactured in Istanbul. According to descriptions of earlier Ka‘ba doors, their appearance changed little over the centuries. A poet in the tenth century reported that the doors were “covered with inscriptions, circles and arabesques in gilded silver,” much like this seventeenth-century Ottoman example. The doors were in use until around 1947, when they were replaced by new ones.
  • Incense burner
    Incense burner, 1649
Turkey
Ottoman dynasty (1299–1922)
Iron, gold, and silver 
National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2999
    Asian Art Museum
    Incense burner, 1649 Turkey Ottoman dynasty (1299–1922) Iron, gold, and silver National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2999 Cat. no. 308 This impressive incense burner was commissioned by the wife of Ahmed I, Mahpeyker (also known as Kosem), for the shrine at Medina. Mahpeyker was the mother of Murad IV (reigned 1623–1640), the patron of the adjacent Ka‘ba doors. She reigned as regent three times and is considered one of the most powerful royal women of the Ottoman dynasty. The shape of the massive incense burner with its delicate inlaid floral decoration is characteristic of mid-seventeenth-century Ottoman court style and was likely produced in Istanbul. A medallion under the handle bears the name of the artist Uthman, who must have been particularly proud of this important commission. As an object in its own right, the burner attests to the continued importance of incense in the Islamic world.
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