RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Early last Saturday, senior members of the Saudi royal family and religious establishment took up brooms and cloths perfumed with rosewater to wash the interior of the Kaaba, the sacred stone structure that Muslims face during their five daily prayers.
Barefoot and dressed in traditional long, white robes, the men finished the cleaning ceremony by wiping the marble walls and floors of the small room with scented oils, re-enacting a tradition started by Prophet Muhammad almost 1,400 years ago.
The ritual, carried out twice a year, offers a peek inside the stark interior of the structure Muslims call the navel of the world. Muslims consider the Kaaba, which stands in the middle of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, as the holiest site in Islam because they believe that God created the universe from the place where it stands.
The sacredness of the place gives special significance to the washing ceremony. It is carried out before the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which falls in early September this year, and a day before Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice, which follows less than three months later. The only other time the Kaaba is opened is when Muslim dignitaries — such as a head of state — request to go in.
“The cleaning of the Kaaba is an act of deep worship,” said Omar al-Midwahi of Mecca, the deputy editor of Al-Watan newspaper and a witness to several washings. “Words cannot describe the intensity of emotions a person experiences in the exact place where prophets have stood.”
The Kaaba — which Muslims believe was first built by Adam, then was rebuilt by Abraham and reflects a house in heaven — is mentioned several times in the Quran, Islam’s holy book.
“The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakkah (an older name for Mecca), full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings. In it are signs manifest: the station of Abraham,” according to Chapter 3, verses 96-97.
Embedded in one side of the structure is an ancient, sacred black stone, which, according to tradition, was white when it came to earth and turned black under the burden of man’s sins.
The importance of the Kaaba, which has the shape of a cube and is draped in black cloth, predates the rise of Islam. The structure, which is about 860 square feet and built with granite stones from hills near Mecca, was believed to be a site of pilgrimage. Meccans used it as a shrine for their deities.
There was no greater honor for pre-Islamic Arab poets than to have their works copied on leather parchment and then hung on the walls of the Kaaba for people to read when they came to circle it.
“It was an honor that has the same importance of the Pulitzer Prize today,” al-Midwahi said. Only 10 poems received that honor.
The washing of the Kaaba is usually led by the governor of the Mecca region, who performs it on behalf of the king. Saudi monarchs draw their authority from their role as “Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques” in Mecca and Medina, making them central figures in the Muslim world.
Shortly after King Abdullah succeeded his late brother King Fahd in 2005, he led one such ceremony. Previous kings, including the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdul-Aziz, also performed the ritual cleaning.
Saturday’s ceremony began right after dawn prayers, when members of the al-Shaybi family who have been the Kaaba’s gatekeepers for centuries removed the key to the structure from a green cloth bag.
They then opened the door, which stands six and a half feet above the ground and is accessed by a wooden staircase on wheels, and went in to prepare the cleaning material and utensils.
Saleh al-Shaybi, the deputy gatekeeper, told Okaz newspaper that it takes the equivalent of about 5 gallons of rosewater mixed into about 47 gallons of water to clean the interior. The water is brought from Zamzam, a holy well near the Kaaba. He said the ritual usually takes an hour.
Before leading his guests into the Kaaba, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, appointed Mecca governor last year, and his guests circled the cube seven times. Some dignitaries then prayed over the area inside the Kaaba where Muhammad was believed to have prayed soon after he conquered Mecca in January 630.
Prince Khaled and his guests — members of the royal family, representatives from the religious establishment and Muslim diplomats — picked up brooms to sweep the marble floors. They then took white pieces of cloth that had been soaked in the rosewater mixture to wipe the floors and halfway up the marble walls. The upper part of the walls are covered with green cloth embroidered with Quranic verses.
According to a number of hadiths — traditional stories of the prophet — when Muhammad went into the Kaaba, he found it filled with statues and the walls were covered with pagan drawings, al-Midwahi said. He and his followers proceeded to remove the statues and clean the walls, signaling the first time the Kaaba’s interior had been cleaned by Muslims, he added.
The second washing takes place during the annual pilgrimage of hajj. The ritual will also include a ceremony to replace the kiswa, the black silk cloth with gold-embroidered calligraphy that covers the Kaaba.
The kiswa is produced at a special factory built and run by the city of Mecca. Some 1,500 pounds of silk and 330 pounds of silver and gold thread are used to make the 7,000-square-foot kiswa at a cost of 17 million riyals, or $4.5 million, according to press reports.
The old kiswa is usually cut up into small pieces and given as gifts to dignitaries.
Filed under: Islam