Asian and African studies blog

4 posts from July 2022

25 July 2022

Golden Connections

The British Library’s GOLD exhibition, which runs until 2 October 2022, explores how over the centuries people have found all kinds of ways to incorporate gold into books and documents: as golden writing, by inscribing on gold surfaces, in illuminated pictures and through gilding book covers. On display are 50 golden manuscripts in 17 different languages, from 20 countries, ranging in date from around the 5th century to the 1920s.

Entrance to the GOLD exhibition at the British Library
GOLD exhibition at the British Library, 19 May – 2 October 2022

Preparations for the exhibition started over two years ago, with the intention of representing manuscript traditions from all over the world. Selections were made from the British Library’s Western Heritage collections by curators Eleanor Jackson and Kathleen Doyle, and from the Asian and African collections by Annabel Gallop in consultation with colleagues. However, the Covid pandemic and closures of the British Library buildings had a major impact. Crucially, we were unable to bring together all the selected items to be looked at together in a single space, to see how they would relate to one another. Instead, most of our choices had to be examined individually, within the separate facilities of each department. Therefore, when we began to install the exhibition just days before it opened on 19 May, it was the first time that we had the chance to see together manuscripts from different corners of the globe. Fascinating congruences and symbioses were revealed, even including some not originally anticipated. This blog will therefore focus on five ‘pairings’ of manuscripts currently on display side by side in the GOLD exhibition, which illustrate how the appeal of gold has connected writing cultures all over the world.

The first section ‘Written in Gold’, reflects on how, across time and place, people have written in or on gold as a way of expressing the extraordinary importance of a text. One case in particular is a veritable treasure house, containing an array of manuscripts actually written on gold.

A display case with golden manuscripts
Golden manuscripts on display in the GOLD exhibition.

On the left-hand side of the wall are the oldest items in the exhibition: at the top, the two Maunggan gold plates from Myanmar, dating from the 5th to 6th centuries, inscribed with Buddhist chants in Pali in Pyu script, while below are the Golden Canon Tables – listing passages common to some or all of the Four Gospels – written in Constantinople in the 6th to 7th centuries, on parchment covered entirely with gold. Although very different in format, language, script and faith, these two manuscripts, one Buddhist and one Christian, created barely a century apart on almost opposite sides of globe, both elevate the sacred texts contained by their golden settings.

One of the two Maunggan gold plates, Myanmar, 5th to 6th centuries
One of the two Maunggan gold plates, Myanmar, 5th to 6th centuries. British Library, Or 5340 A 

Canon Tables of Eusebius of Caesarea
Canon Tables of Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantinople, 6th to 7th century. Add MS 5111/1, f. 10r 

On the right side of the case is a parchment charter, which is exceptional for its use of a seal of gold, rather than the more usual wax. The charter was issued by Baldwin II, the last of a series of Latin emperors who ruled Constantinople from 1204–61, after he was deposed and fled to Western Europe. However, he still presents himself as reigning emperor through his use of the gold seal, which portrays him wearing a Byzantine style crown and jewelled robe. Above Baldwin’s charter are displayed two Burmese commissions inscribed on gold in the 1880s, issued by Thibaw, the last king of Myanmar, to Twek Nga Lu, installing him as overlord of the Shan cities of Mone and Keng Tawng. This appointment was contentious, and Twek Nga Lu was ousted locally after a series of campaigns. The two strips are engraved with the ritual ruling titles for these cities, and also each bear two official seals, impressed directly on the sheets of gold. Thus in both cases, the sumptuous gold seals used belie the degree of worldly power actually held.

Gold seal of Baldwin II  Seal impressed on a commission issued by King Thibaw, Myanmar
Left: Gold seal of Baldwin II, on a grant of lands at Biervliet to the Church of St Bavo, Ghent, Biervliet, the Netherlands, May 1269. Add Ch 14365.  Right: Seal impressed on a commission issued by King Thibaw, Myanmar, 1880s. Mss Burmese 211 A

The second section, 'Pictured in Gold', presents an exquisite array of illuminated manuscripts. With its reflective properties, gold was ideal for representing sacred light, and figures might be set against golden backgrounds to suggest an expanse of heavenly light. On display in the first case is the famous Golden Haggadah, created in northern Spain around 1320, which contains 14 full pages of illustrations of scenes from Genesis and Exodus. Shown alongside is the Queen Mary Psalter, created in London around the same date. The right-hand page bears a rare illustration of the so-called Holy Kinship, based on a popular medieval account of the Virgin Mary’s sisters and nephews.  The quadrilateral page layout in the Golden Haggadah complements well the four panel arrangement in the Queen Mary Psalter, while in both manuscripts, figures are set against intricate cross-hatched backgrounds of gold leaf, similarly incised with diamond shapes: artistic commonalities thus transcend national boundaries and religious traditions.

The Golden Haggadah and The Queen Mary Psalter on display in the GOLD exhibition

The Golden Haggadah The Queen Mary Psalter
Top: The Golden Haggadah and The Queen Mary Psalter on display in the GOLD exhibition. Left: The Golden Haggadah, Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c. 1320. Add MS 27210, f. 5r. Right: The Queen Mary Psalter, London, early 14th century. Royal MS 2 B vii, f. 68r

The final case in the exhibition, ‘Bound in Gold’, shows how covering a book with gold indicated the value of the text that is within, while also allowing the owners to display their wealth and taste to the world.

the case of golden book covers
Bound in gold: the case of golden book covers.

Two masterpieces in miniature stand out: an octagonal Qur’an manuscript made in Iran in the 16th or 17th century, with a filigree golden binding, and an outer case of white jade. Too small to be read easily, miniature Qur’ans were usually carried by travellers as protective amulets. Displayed beside it, and only a fraction bigger, is an English girdle book with covers of gold tracery and black enamel, created in about 1540. In the courts of 16th-century Europe, it was fashionable for aristocratic women to hang from their belts miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers. These girdle books provided their owners with handy reading material as well as stylish dress accessories. This exquisite example contains selected Psalms translated into English verse by John Croke, a clerk in Chancery who prepared and wrote out documents for King Henry VIII. These two manuscripts, created around the same time but hundreds of miles apart and in different religious traditions, thus represent similarly elegant artistic solutions addressing the need for a tiny religious book to be carried on the person.

Gold binding of a miniature Qur'an  Gold binding of a girdle book
Left: Qur’an, Iran, 16th or 17th century. Loth 36.  Right: John Croke, Psalms in an English verse translation, England, c. 1540. Stowe MS 956

Perhaps the most historically significant item on display in the binding case is a Qur’an, copied in Marrakesh in 1256, with the oldest known gold-tooled binding in the world. The technique of gold tooling, where gold leaf is impressed onto leather with a metal stamp, is thought to have originated in Morocco, spreading to Europe from around the 15th century. Also on display is a very fine gold-tooled binding created in France in the 17th century by an anonymous master craftsman known as Le Maître Doreur. Seeing the two manuscripts side by side, one cannot help be struck by how the French binding echoes the quintessentially Islamic geometric patterns of the Qur’an covers created nearly four centuries earlier.

Or 13192  Binding by the Maitre Doreur
Left: Qur’an, Morocco, 1256. Or 13192.  Right: Le Maître Doreur binding, Alonso Chacon, Historia utriusque belli Dacici a Traiano, France, c. 1623. C.14.c.12

We hope you will find an opportunity to visit the exhibition in person to see these beautiful manuscripts, and many others.

Annabel Teh Gallop, co-curator, GOLD  

The exhibition Gold: 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world is on at the British Library until 2 October 2022. To visit, book your tickets here.

An accompanying book, Gold, presenting 21 highlights from the exhibition, is available from the British Library shop.

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

18 July 2022

Ratu Ageng Tegalreja, Prince Dipanagara, and the British Library’s Serat Menak manuscript

This guest blog is by Professor Peter Carey, University of Indonesia.

On 6 March 2019, a blog post by Annabel Gallop focussed attention on Add 12309, one of the Javanese manuscripts digitised in the Javanese manuscripts from Yogyakarta digitisation project. This copy of the Ménak Amir Hamza, the Javanese tale about the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, was highlighted as being remarkable for its sheer size – 1,520 folios on Javanese treebark paper (dluwang) – making it one of the longest single-volume manuscripts in the world, and certainly the longest Javanese manuscript (Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 48).

Ménak Amir Hamza, containing 1520 folios of Javanese paper, with original blind-stamped leather covers, is the longest single-volume Javanese manuscript in the world. British Library, Add 12309  Noc

The manuscript’s owner, Ratu Ageng Tegalreja (c. 1732-1803), was also singled out in Annabel’s blog as a “devout Muslim” and daughter of an “Islamic scholar”. As the consort of Yogyakarta’s founding ruler, Sultan Mangkubumi (r. 1749-92), she was indeed a prominent figure in the late eighteenth-century Yogyakarta court. The daughter of a leading kyai (Muslim divine), Ki Ageng Derpayuda, from Majanjati in Sragen by a wife who was a direct lineal descendant of the first Sultan of Bima in Sumbawa, Abdulkahir Sirajudin (1627-82; r. 1640-82), she was renowned as the leading proponent of the Shațțārīyah tarekat (Sufi mystical brotherhood) at the Yogyakarta court in the late eighteenth century. She counted no less than four separate lines of transmission in her Shațțārīyah silsilah (genealogy of spiritual transmission) linking her back to the main murshid (male guide)-founder of the order in Java, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Muhyī (1650-1730), from Pamijahan, Tasikmalaya regency, West Java (Fathurahman 2016: 50-53).

Given this lineage, it is hardly surprising that her name still resonates in modern Javanese history as the guardian (emban) of her great-grandson, Pangeran Dipanagara (1785-1855). Entrusted to her at birth by her husband, Mangkubumi, when he had prophesied the young prince’s remarkable life story within hours of his coming into the world (Carey 2019: xxii-xxiii), Dipanagara followed her to Tegalreja shortly after she moved from the court following her husband’s death on 24 March 1792. Her estate some three kilometers to the northwest of the Yogyakarta kraton set in ricefields, which Ratu Ageng had opened up, became the meeting point of ulama (religious scholars) from all over south-central Java. There her great-grandson was brought up for ten remarkable years (1793-1803) and inculcated with her Sufi Islamic Shațțārīyah teachings until her death on 17 October 1803 (Carey 2019: 88-97).

A famous Javanese painting of Prince Dipanagara, holding a piece of paper inscribed Muhammad rasul Allah / ilah wa rabb wa yab. Late 19th century. Leiden University Library, Or 7398: 2. Wikimedia Commons

It was most likely during this time the Ménak manuscript, now in the BL collection, was made for her and she may have used it for the instruction of her great-grandson, who would use the pégon script (Javanese written in Arabic characters) in which it was written for all his literary productions in exile. We know this because, when Pangeran Dipanagara was in Fort Rotterdam, Makassar (1833-55), he asked the Dutch to make a copy of this selfsame Ménak text for him from the Surakarta court library. He intended this as reading material for the education of his own seven children born in exile, whom he wished to bring up as Javanese not as Bugis or Makassarese. Indeed, Dipanagara was apparently so familiar with the text that he could stipulate (in his own handwriting in Javanese script which is visible in the supporting documents to the Governor-General’s besluit [decision] of 25 October 1844 sanctioning the copying), the exact passage from the Ménak which he wished to have copied: Surat Ménak laré kang ngantos dumugi Lakad [the Ménak tale from (Amir Hamza’s) childhood until his war with (Raja) Lakad] (Carey 2008: 744 fn. 263).

The text of Ménak Amir Hamza, written in Javanese in Arabic (pégon) script, ca. 1800. British Library, Add 12309, ff. 335v-336r  Noc

The Ménak text was just one of several texts requested by the prince in 1844. These included another Javanese-Islamic text linked to the Ménak cycle, the Serat Asmarasupi and several other texts related to the Panji cycle of East Javanese romances (Gandakusuma, Angrèni), a treatise on cosmogony and agricultural myths (Manikmaya), and the Serat Bharatayuda, the tale of the “Brothers’ War” in the Purwa cycle of wayang (shadow-play) tales. Interestingly, one text, which is in the British Library collection of Javanese manuscripts and which clearly belonged to Ratu Ageng Tegalreja, the Serat Anbiya (MSS Jav 74), “a history of all the prophets from the Creation including the history of Java (from the time of the fall of Majapahit and the conversion to Islam)”, written on European import paper and running to some 600 folios or just under half the size of the Serat Ménak, was not included in Dipanagara’s list of texts requested from the Surakarta court library (Carey 2008: 744; Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 69).

Opening pages of Serat Anbiya. British Library, MSS Jav 74, ff. 4v-5r  Noc

Even if it had been, it is very unlikely the Dutch authorities would have agreed with its copying, as they later rejected the Serat Ménak as being too long and too expensive to transcribe, with the cost of all the copies originally requested by the prince amounting to some 358 Indies guilders (₤4000 sterling in present-day [2022] money], equivalent to a month’s salary for a middle-rank Dutch colonial officer (chief secretary) at the time (Houben:92). Pleading poverty, the Dutch government decided to drop the transcription of one of the texts. Their choice fell on the Serat Ménak not only because of its length and expense of transcription, but also because its subject matter—The Prophet’s life— was just too sensitive. After all, why should the government help the exiled prince to bring up his children as devout Muslims?

To conclude, the British Library Serat Ménak copy has a special claim to fame: not only is it the world’s longest single-volume Javanese manuscript, but it was also likely one of the key texts in the upbringing of Indonesia’s foremost national hero (pahlawan nasional) by his Sufi Muslim great-grandmother. It can thus be set in the context of the other Javanese-Islamic texts studied – or read to – Dipanagara, including edifying tales on kingship and statecraft adopted from Persian and Arabic classics, such as the Fatāh al-Muluk (“Victory of Kings”), the Hakik al-Modin and the Nasīhat al-Muluk (Moral lessons for kings), as well and modern Javanese versions of the Old Javanese classics such as the Serat Rama, Bhoma Kāwya, Arjuna Wijaya and Arjuna Wiwāha (Carey 2008: 104-5).

Canto marker in Ménak Amir Hamza. British Library, Add 12309, f. 1494r  Noc

Peter Carey Ccownwork

Peter Carey is Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College, Oxford and Adjunct (Visiting) Professor of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Indonesia (2013 to present). His latest books (with Farish Noor) are Racial Difference and the Colonial Wars of 19th Century Southeast Asia (AUP, 2021) and Ras, Kuasa dan Kekerasan Kolonial di Hindia Belanda, 1808-1830 (KPG, 2022).


Carey, Peter 2008, The Power of Prophecy: Prince Dipanagara and the End of an Old Order in Java, 1785-1855. Leiden: KITLV Press. [Verhandelingen 149.]
_________ 2019, Kuasa Ramalan: Pangeran Diponegoro dan Akhir Tatanan Lama di Jawa, 1785-1855. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia.
Fathurahman, Oman 2016, Shattāriyah Silsilah in Aceh, Java and the Lanao Area of Mindanao. Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
Houben, Vincent 1992, Kraton and Kumpeni; Surakarta and Yogyakarta 1830-1870. Leiden: KITLV Press. [Verhandelingen 164.]
Ricklefs, M.C. and P. Voorhoeve 1977, Indonesian Manuscripts in Great Britain: A Catalogue of Manuscripts in Indonesian Languages in British Public Collections. London: Oxford University Press.

The power of prophesy   Kuasa Ramalan 2019
(Left) Carey 2008, and (right) the Indonesian translation, Carey 2019.


11 July 2022

Beneath the glitter: Kinzan emaki, inside the gold mines of Sado

Amongst the many gilded books and manuscripts in the British Library’s Gold exhibition is one item which tells the story of some of those who, across the centuries and around the world, have laboured under harsh conditions to produce this prized material.

Scenes inside the gold mine
Scenes inside the gold mine. In the centre is a circular mechanical fan to remove foul air and smoke from oil lamps and fires. Below workers remove water by a hand-operated system of buckets and pulleys. British Library, Or 920.  Noc

On display is an illustrated Japanese scroll (Or 920) which gives a glimpse into the workings of a gold mine on the island of Sado in the 18th century. The manuscript bears the title Kinginzan shikinaioka kasegikata no zu 金銀山敷内岡稼方之図 (Illustrations of working methods inside the gold and silver mines) and is one of a set of three scrolls (with Or 918, Or 919) in the Library’s collection which give detailed representations of mine workings - from the miners toiling underground to the smelting process and the manufacture of coins on the surface.

Gold miners toiling at the rock face
Gold miners toiling at the rock face. Wearing only loincloths and with just the light from small oil lamps, they worked for up to eight hours in dark, hot and cramped conditions. British Library, Or 920 (detail).  Noc

Sado Island lies 35 kilometres off the north-west coast of Japan. Today it is well known as the home of the Kōdō drummers but in the past its claims to fame were as a place of exile for disgraced notables and as a source of gold and other precious metals.

The earliest reference to gold from Sado is found in the 12th century anthology Konjaku monogatarishū 今昔物語集 (Collection of tales of things now past). One of the stories describes how the Governor of Noto, hearing of the abundance of gold on Sado, sends iron-workers to the island to bring some back. This story is thought to refer to gold panning rather than mining and for many centuries it was alluvial gold, dug from the sands of the seashore, which was the source of Sado’s riches.

Panning for gold on the seashore
Panning for gold on the seashore. On the left is an Archimedes screw for pumping out excess water. British Library, Or 919 (detail).  Noc

During the 16th century, mining of gold and silver from the rock in underground workings allowed the island's full potential to be developed. An enterprising merchant called Toyama Mouemon 外山茂右衛門 opened the first mine at Tsurushi 鶴子 in 1542. Then in 1589 the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉 (1537-1598) seized control of the mine and sent experts to speed up production.

After the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, the island was placed under direct government control with an official called the Sado daikan 佐渡代官 (Deputy for Sado) and later the Sado bugyō 佐渡奉行 (Commissioner for Sado) in charge of operations. In the years that followed, technological and administrative changes improved the profitability for the government and during the peak years of 1615-1645 Sado’s mines yielded around 400 kilograms of gold per annum. Production declined during the 18th century but enjoyed a brief revival in the 19th century following the introduction of Western mining technology. The last working mine on the island closed in 1985.

Women remove waste material from the ore by washing it in sieves
Women, known as ishierime 石撰女, remove waste material from the ore by washing it in sieves and chipping away the unwanted lode with hammers under the watchful eye of supervisors. British Library, Or 920 (detail).  Noc

The British Library’s scrolls, acquired as part of the collection of Philipp Franz von Siebold in 1868, belong to a genre commonly known as Kinzan emaki 金山絵巻 (Illustrated scrolls of gold mines) or Kinginzan emaki 金銀山絵巻 (Illustrated scrolls of gold and silver mines). Their primary purpose was to provide an accurate representation of the complicated workings of the mines, both below and above ground for the benefit of the government officials appointed every few years. Since their function was to explain the current state of operations it was necessary to have a new scroll prepared when changes in working methods or administrative procedures occurred. Scrolls were also sent back to the government in Edo to keep it informed of developments and officials may have received copies as keepsakes when their term of appointment ended.

Brocade wrapper   gilded title slip of Or 920
Brocade wrapper and gilded title slip of Or 920. British Library.  Noc

The three scrolls constitute a single manuscript which record in detail the processes involved in the extraction and processing of the ore as well as the administrative and commercial activities associated with the mines. Each scroll has a gold paper slip glued to its outer cover bearing an individual title taken from the caption accompanying the first scene. Thus Or 918 is Kobandokoro nite sujigane tamabuki no zu 小判所ニテ筋金玉吹之図 (Illustrations showing the smelting of gold balls in the Mint), Or 919 is Dōtokoya no zu 銅床屋之図 (Illustrations of the copper smeltery) and Or 920 is Kinginzan shikinaioka kasegikata no zu 金銀山敷内岡稼方之図 (Illustrations of working methods inside the gold and silver mines). Comparison with other scrolls of this type shows that Or 920 is actually the first part of the manuscript, Or 919 the second and Or 918 the third.

Inspectors watch closely as gold strips are cut up and weighed ready to be made into coins
Inspectors watch closely as gold strips are cut up and weighed ready to be made into coins. British Library, Or 918 (detail).  Noc

Each scroll consists of a number of silk panels, backed with mica-embossed Japanese paper, and glued together. A white silk edging has been added to the top and bottom of each panel. A brown brocade cover with gold floral designs is attached at the beginning of the scroll while the end is fixed to a wooden roller. The width of the scrolls is consistently 23.5 cm for the painted portion with a further 1 cm edge top and bottom making a total width of 25.5 cm. However, it is clear that the scrolls have been trimmed at some time since in places the captions to the illustrations are cut off at the edge. The length of the individual panels varies considerably, averaging around 120 cm. Or 920 has seven panels, Or 919 and Or 918 each have six. The overall lengths are 822 cm for Or 920, 714 cm for Or 919 and 752 cm for Or 918 giving a grand total of 2,288 cm.

Very few examples of Kinzan emaki bear a date or indication of the artist so dating has to be based on internal evidence, taking into account developments in technology, buildings, changes in management and administration of the mines and even the costumes and hairstyles of the people shown. For example, the Yoseseriba 寄勝場, the building where grading of the ore took place, was constructed in 1759. It is shown in the second of the Library's scrolls so, the manuscript must have been drawn after this date.

Furnaces in the smeltery
Furnaces in the smeltery. The box-like structures at the back are the bellows operated by pulling on a wooden handle. British Library, Or 919 (detail).  Noc

Another aid to dating is the type of bellows used to heat the furnaces in the smithies and smelting workshops. Originally each furnace had its own set of bellows operated by one man but from the Kansei Era (1789-1801) a decline in productivity and a need to reduce the workforce led to the introduction of a system where one set of bellows was placed between two furnaces, halving the number of operatives required. The Library's scrolls show the former arrangement so must depict activities before 1789. While the manuscript, therefore, represents the appearance of the mines between 1759 and 1789, it does not follow that this is when the scrolls were painted.

One of the few examples of Sado kinzan emaki whose artist can be identified is the work of Ishii Natsumi 石井夏海 (1782-1848). Its content and artistic style are very similar to the Library’s copy and while no proof exists that it is also by Ishii Natsumi, it is certainly plausible. Comparison with other similar scrolls suggest that they were painted in the early decades of the 19th century.

The British Library's three Sado kinzan emaki are a fascinating resource for the study of the complex world of mining in pre-modern Japan. They also allow us to gain an understanding of the hard, and often dangerous, lives of the men, women and children who worked in the mines.

Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collections Ccownwork

Further reading:

For a more detailed account of the British Library’s scrolls see: Hamish Todd, 'The British Library's Sado mining scrolls', The British Library Journal, 24.1 (Spring 1998), pp. 130-143.
Trevor D. Ford and Ivor J. Brown, 'Early Gold Mining in Japan: the Sado Scrolls', Bulletin of the Peak District Mines Historical Society, xii, no. 6 (Winter 1995)
Hasegawa Riheiji, Sado kinginzanshi no kenkyū 佐渡金銀山史の研究 (Tokyo, 1991).
TEM Research Institute (ed), Zusetsu Sado kinzan 図説佐渡金山 (Tokyo, 1985).

The exhibition Gold: 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world runs at the British Library until 2 October 2022.  Book your tickets here.

An accompanying book, Gold, presenting 21 highlights from the exhibition, is available from the British Library shop.

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

04 July 2022

A Historical Narrative of the Kaʿba and the Hajj Season Reflecting on the Visual Materials Found in the IOR

The India Office Records (IOR) contain some fascinating visual materials, mainly photographs capturing the Kaʿba and the Hajj Season (pilgrimage) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These visual materials are provided with short descriptions without any further elaboration on the history of the places or people captured. Displaying a number of those photographs along with some external materials, this blog presents a historical narrative of the Kaʿba, its physical features, and the development of its religious status before becoming the site of Muslim pilgrimage.

The Kaʿba and the Great Mosque during the Hajj season in the 1880s
The Kaʿba and the Great Mosque during the Hajj season, 1888. Photographer: al-Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghaffar  (British Library, X463/1)

The Kaʿba is the holiest site in Islam. It is known as al-Bayt al-Haram (the Sacred House), and the second qibla (direction). It is located at the centre of the Great Mosque in Mecca. Although other Kaʿbas existed in the pre-Islamic period, such as the Kaʿba of Petra and the Kaʿba of Najran, the Kaʿba of Mecca was the most popular, hence taking over the name without the need to specify its location (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 380).

The city of Mecca
The city of Mecca. Photographer: H. A. Mirza & Sons, c. 1907 (British Library, Photo 174/3

Muslims in general believe that the Kaʿba was the first structure on earth. Behind its majestic cubic shape hides an interesting story of its construction. Its foundation is believed to go back to the Day of Creation, when Prophet Adam built it as a house of worship.

إنّ أولَ بيتٍ وُضعَ للنّاسِ للَّذي ببكَّة مباركاً وهدىً للعالمين
The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka [Mecca] full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings. (Qurʼan 3:96)

It was, however, during the time of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) that the Kaʿba acquired its current shape and characteristics. Following God’s instructions, Ibrahim and his son Ismaʿil (Ishmael) raised the walls of the building on the foundations that were already in place since Adam’s time. The first Kaʿba was without a roof and there are different traditions concerning the number of its doorways.

وإذْ يَرفَعُ ابراهيمُ القواعدَ منَ البيتِ واسماعيلُ ربَّنا تقبلْ منّا إنكَ أنتَ السميعُ العليمُ
And remember Abraham and Ismail raised the foundations of the House (with this prayer): “Our Lord! accept (this service) from us for thou art the All-Hearing and the All-Knowing” (Qurʼan 2:127)

The significance of Ibrahim’s Kaʿba is in establishing of most of the features present in today’s Kaʿba. These are, al-Hajar al-Aswad (the Black Stone), Maqam Ibrahim (the Station of Ibrahim), Hijr Ismaʿil (the Lap of Ismaʿil), Biʾr Zamzam (the Well of Zamzam), and al-Mataf (the circular space around the Kaʿba).

Situated in the eastern corner of the Kaʿba, al-Hajar al-Aswad is believed to have descended to Ibrahim from heaven. He then set the stone as the starting point of tawaf (circumambulation) around the Kaʿba. When pilgrims pass by the stone, they know they have completed one round. Maqam Ibrahim on the other hand, is named after the place that is believed to have “miraculously” preserved the marks of Ibrahim’s feet when standing at the spot to build the Kaʿba. Today, the Maqam is in a multilateral structure made of glass and brass bars.

Main physical features of the Kaʿba
A photograph showing the main features of the Kaʿba (British Library, 1781.b.6/2)

Hijr Ismaʿil refers to the place where Ibrahim left his wife and son in Mecca. The Hijr is situated on the north-western side of the Kaʿba, and is marked by a wall surrounding it. Biʾr Zamzam, on the other hand, is believed to have sprung in the place where Ismaʿil stood, thirsty, while his mother engaged in finding water for him. Although it was subject to periods of dryness, the well continues to provide pilgrims with water until today. Al-Mataf refers to the courtyard around the Kaʿba and starts from a fixed point: al-Hajar al-Aswad.

Kaʿba during the Hajj season
Kaʿba during the Hajj season. Photographer: H. A. Mirza & Sons, c. 1907 (British Library, 174/5)

Announcing the Kaʿba as the House of One God, Ibrahim is considered the founder of tawhid (monotheism) in Mecca, and the one who set up the pilgrimage ritual. It is believed that, pilgrimage performed by Muslims today is very similar to the one practiced during Ibrahim’s time. The Kaʿba continued its status as a place of monotheistic religion under its new guardians, the Yemenite tribe of Jurhum. The Jurhum claimed ‘they were related to Ismaʿil by intermarriage, hence their right to the guardianship’ (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 100 and 222). They were powerful in the region and greatly contributed to the prosperity of Mecca. Pilgrims brought expensive gifts to present to the Kaʿba, which eventually became full of treasure.

Pilgrims camping near Mecca in the 1880s
Pilgrims camping near Mecca in the 1880s. Photographer: al-Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghaffar, 1886-9 (British Library, X463/8)

The major change to the Kaʿba occurred when the head of the Khuzaʿa tribe, ʿAmr bin Luhayy al-Khuzaʿi, took over the guardianship from the Jurhum. During his trading expeditions, al-Khuzaʿi came across numerous idols (assnam); worshipped by the locals. He brought some of those with him to Mecca and placed them inside and around the Kaʿba. Al-Khuzaʻi was thus the first to introduce paganism to the region (Ibn al-Kalbi, Kitab al-Assnam, 8-9). Eventually, each of the region’s tribes began to install its own idol in the courtyard of the Kaʿba, which housed over three hundred of them (Hebbo, Tarikh al-ʿArab, 366). The most popular of these were Hubal, Manat, Allat, and al-ʿUzza.

Relief_of_the_Arabian_goddess_Al-Lat _Manat_and_al-Uzza_from_Hatra._Iraq_Museum
Manat, Allat and al-ʿUzza, from the 5th temple at Hatra, Ninawa Governorate, Iraq. Parthian period, 1st to 3rd century CE. Iraq Museum, Baghdad
Wikimedia Commons

Another exterior addition to the Kaʿba under the Khuzaʿa was the tradition of hanging poems on its walls. These were chosen during literary ceremonies usually performed during the pilgrimage seasons. One of these poems was the muʿallaqa of Zuhair bin Abi Sulma, which has a reference to the Quraysh and the Jurhum tribes performing pilgrimage:

فأقسمتُ بالبيتِ الذي طافَ حولَهُ         رجالٌ بنوهُ من قريشٍ وجرهم
And I swore by the House, men of Quraysh and Jurhum built it and performed circumambulation around it

Later on, a new tradition was instituted, namely, the covering of the Kaʿba called Kiswa (also Kuswa). There are different accounts about the first person who put the Kiswa on the Kaʿba, the majority of which agree on the name of the King of Himyar, Tubbaʿ al-Himyari. During his pilgrimage, al-Himyari brought the first Kiswa made of the finest of cloths from Yemen as a gift to the Kaʿba. This influenced many tribes to follow his example up until the time of Qussay bin Kilab of the Quraysh tribe.

Kiswa fragment
Kiswa fragment. Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888 (British Library, 1781.b.6/32)

When Qussay bin Kilab, the Prophet Muhammad’s fourth grandfather, came to power he announced himself the new guardian of the Kaʿba, and established the Quraysh power in Mecca. Qussay rebuilt the Kaʿba with stronger walls and for the first time in its history, the Kaʿba was roofed. He allowed the Kiswa to be placed over the Kaʿba only by the head of a tribe, and each year by a different tribe. The covering of the Kaʿba with a Kiswa continues to be a significant custom today.

Drawing of a 19th century ceremonial mahmal carrying the Kiswa to Mecca
Drawing of a 19th century ceremonial mahmal carrying the Kiswa to Mecca, 1888  (British Library, 1781.b.6/5)

Qussay was also the holder of the key to the Kaʿba, which was transferred to his descendants until it reached its final destination in the hands of a Meccan family called, the Banu Shayba who are still the key holders today.

Sons of Banu Shayba
Sons of Banu Shayba. Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888  (British Library, 1781.b.6/22)

A few years before the advent of Islam, between 600 and 607 CE, Quraysh decided to rebuild the Kaʿba, adding more facilities to the building. According to the Sira (Prophet’s biography), when the Quraysh tribes rebuilt the Kaʿba, there was a debate on who would replace the Black Stone back on its wall. Muhammad bin ʿAbd Allah (later Prophet Muhammad) was chosen to do so. He placed the stone in the middle of a robe and asked for one man of each tribe to hold onto the robe while he placed the stone to the wall. This way all the tribes participated in placing it into the wall (Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham, 33-35).

Muhammad and the black stone. Eul.Or.MS.20.f45r
Muhammad helping in placing the Black Stone. From Jamiʻ al-tawarikh by Rashid al-Din.Iran, c.1314 (Edinburgh University Library Or.MS.20, f. 45r)
©The University of Edinburgh

During the ascent of Islam, Prophet Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca and captured the Kaʿba in the eighth year of the Hijra (629-30 CE). The Prophet’s first mission was to revive the function Ibrahim built the Kaʿba for. He himself broke the idols inside and around it (Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham, 234-235 and Kitab al-Assnam, 31). As the Kaʿba was recently built, the Prophet decided to keep the old building, announcing the Kaʿba as the House of the One God, where Muslims are to perform their annual pilgrimage. One of the Prophet’s companions, Bilal bin Rabah, was the first to raise the adhan (the call for prayer) from the roof of the Kaʿba.

From that day on, the Kaʿba continues to be Islam’s holiest place of worship. Today, over two million Muslim worshippers from all over the world, gather around the Kaʿba to perform their annual ritual of Hajj during the month of Dhul-Hijja of the Islamic Hijri calendar.

Zanzibar pilgrimsPilgrimsPilgrims
PilgrimsPilgrimsZanzibar pilgrims
Pilgrims from Morocco, Malaysia, Java, Sumbawa, Baghdad, and Zanzibar. From ‘Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka.’ Photographer: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, 1888 (British Library, 1781.b.6)

To mark the conclusion of the ritual, pilgrims sacrifice animals in the name of God and start their celebration of ʿEid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice), which this year falls on Saturday July 9th.

Day of ʿArafa followed by animal sacrific and ʿEid celebration
Day of ʿArafa followed by animal sacrific and ʿEid celebration (British Library, Photo 174/6)

Primary Sources
Album of 'Views of Mecca and Medina' by H. A. Mirza & Sons, Photographers ‎ (c. 1907). Photo 174
‘Bilder-Atlas zu Mekka’, by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje ‎ (1888). 1781.b.6
‘Bilder aus Mekka’, by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1889). X463
Ibn Hisham, Mukhtassar Sirat Ibn Hisham: al-Sira al-Nabawiyya. Ed. Muhammad ʿAfif al-Zuʻbi. Beirut: Dar al-Nafaʼis, 1987.
Ibn al-Kalbi. Kitab al-Assnam. Ed. Ahmad Zaki Pasha. Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya, 1995.
The Holy Quran translated by A. Yusuf Ali

Secondary Sources
Ahmed Hebbo. Tarikh al-ʿArab qabla al-Islam. Hims: Manshurat Jamiʿat al-Baʿth, 1991.

Ula Zeir, Content Specialist Arabic Language and Gulf History/ British Library Qatar Foundation Project