Across the world, when Muslims kneel for their five-times-daily prayers, they face towards the same point in Makkah – a black ‘cube’ called the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam.
To pray in this direction, the ‘qibla,’ is immensely important. Mosques are carefully constructed to face exactly the right way and Muslim-friendly hotels across the world feature qibla-pointing arrows on room ceilings.
Millions visit the Kaaba year-round, on a trip known as the Umra. Five days each year see a particularly large influx of pilgrims: the hajj, possibly the most spiritual collective experience in Islam.
As nearly two million pilgrims complete this year’s hajj, the world’s attention turns to the Grand Mosque and the Kaaba, and some non-Muslims will be wondering what is so significant about this mysterious black cube-shaped building and the mosque which surrounds it.
The history of the Kaaba stretches back to pre-Christian times. According to Islamic tradition, the archangel Gabriel appeared to Abraham (known to Muslims as Ibrahim), and instructed him and his son Ishmael to build a shrine in Makkah.
The ritual of pilgrimage to the Kaaba is believed by Muslims to stretch back to the time of Abraham, although it was re-affirmed by the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.
As part of the pilgrimage ritual, Muslims are required to perform seven anti-clockwise rotations around the Kaaba, a process known as ‘tawaf’. The iconic image of a swirling vortex of pilgrims inside the grand mosque has long caught the imagination of artists, for example in Saudi Ahmed Mater’s iconic piece ‘Magnetism.’
“The Kaaba, if one were to describe it to somebody, is a simple black box. And yet its significance and what it represents is far greater than that,” says Mohsin, a British Muslim who has performed hajj and umrah.
“A glimpse of it is enough to draw tears from even the hardest of hearts. I remember going up on to the roof of the mosque in the baking midday heat (as it was about the only place nobody else would be due to the heat) and just sitting there, looking at, admiring, the Kaaba.”
Praying in the Grand Mosque is a very special experience for Muslims, where they can pray alongside thousands of their fellows.
“Everything stops in that moment of prayer – the shops outside close, the tawaf stops, everything just seems to stand still,” says Mohsin.
“The beautiful athan (call to prayer) echoes around, and people prepare themselves. And then you stand there in prayer, in this incredible arena, feeling so close to your Lord, and as soon as it’s over, everything goes back to how it was.”
The name ‘Kaaba’ is a touch misleading. It means ‘cube’ but the structure is actually taller than it is wide, reaching approximately 15 meters in height and with sides of 10.5 x 12m.
“Another little-known fact is that ancient Arab historians agree Abraham’s son Ishmael is buried in the Hijr, the semicircular enclosure next to the Kaaba,” Cambridge University’s Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies Dr. Timothy Winter tells Al Arabiya English.
Although typical image of the Kaaba is of a black cube, the structure itself is not black. Made of granite, it is covered by a silk and cotton cloth which is replaced every year, costing around $4.5 million. The cloth features gold embroidered Arabic text, including the shahadah, the Islamic expression of monotheistic faith.
Nor has the cloth, known as the kiswa, always been black; in pre-Islamic times it was covered with red, green and white cloths, but has been covered with a black cloth since the Abbasids were in power in the late 6th century.
The solid gold door of the Kaaba, installed in 1982, sits above ground level to protect the interior from intruders and floods. As the grand mosque sits in the middle of a valley, rain can be a bit of a problem, as you can see in the below video.
Before the drainage improvements, flooding at the Grand Mosque sometimes meant pilgrims would swim in circles around the Kaaba to perform the tawaf circumambulation.
The Grand Mosque has grown around the Kaaba, and now reaches 356,800 square meters including the indoor and outdoor prayer areas – roughly the size of 285 Olympic swimming pools.
At present, the mosque can accommodate up to 820,000 worshippers, but after the current renovation is complete, it will take 2 million.
Other modern developments include heated floors, air conditioning, escalators and a new drainage system.
Pilgrims and their experiences
If you want to visit the Grand Mosque and the Kaaba, you’ll have to convert to Islam – only Muslims are permitted in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.
For the Muslims who can enter, the experience is awe-inspiring.
“A sort of nervous excitement overcomes you as you make your way in the coach to Makkah,” says Mohsin.
“Despite its being propelled into the 21st century, you get glimpses of the harsh and mountainous environment that the Prophet and his companions would have faced.”
“I felt a huge relief when I first saw the Masjid Al-Haram,” says Talal, a 20-something Saudi.
“I think it was a combination of the ongoing inconvenience that comes with any travel, with the relief of getting where you’re supposed to be after the struggle. It felt like seeing the sea for the first time after a lifetime in the desert.”
According to Talal, the scale of the mosque is simply unimaginable until you see it for the first time; the pictures and videos he had seen beforehand didn’t do it justice.
Najd, a young Saudi woman, was also overwhelmed by the experience of the Grand Mosque.
“The most impressive part of the experience was seeing people from all over the world doing and wearing the same things, praying next to each other with no difference between them whatsoever.”
Pilgrims wear simple white clothing to symbolize their equality before God. Male pilgrims wear identical white robes known as ihram, and women wear a loose-fitting robe and headscarf.
The Kaaba represents a line of continuity from the pre-Islamic era, through Islamic history, up to the present day. The sacred Kaaba, the House of God, lives on as the physical and geographical heart of Islam.