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Art Through Time: A Global View

Cosmology and Belief Art: Ka’ba

» Unknown architect(s), Mecca


Artist / Origin: Unknown architect(s), Mecca
Region: West Asia
Date: Rebuilt multiple times; latest 17th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Granite and marble, covered with silk
Medium: Architecture and Planning
Dimensions: H: 49 ft. (14.93 m.), W: 39 ft. (11.88 m.), D: 33 ft. (10.05 m.)
Location: Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Credit: © Mohamed Messara/epa/Corbis

Rebuilt innumerable times throughout the centuries, the Ka’ba stands at the center of an enormous public square surrounded by the colonnaded cloister of the Masjid al-Haram mosque in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca.

Cubic in form and built of granite, the Ka’ba rests on a platform of marble and is covered by a black silk drapery called the Kiswa, which is replaced annually. Ritual prayer at the site focuses on the structure’s exterior. The interior is an essentially empty space ornamented only with calligraphic quotations from the Qur’an.

The Ka’ba has a long history as a site of devotional practice. According to the Qur’an (Chapter 3: 96–97), the Ka’ba was a blessed place marked by Abraham and as such became the first house of worship for all religions. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth in the sixth century, the cubic structure was already an important pilgrimage site. Housed within were statues and images representing the gods of many faiths. After a long exile in Medina, Muhammad returned to Mecca, the place of his birth, in 630, and calling for the worship of a single God, cleansed the Ka’ba of its idols. From that point on, the Ka’ba was associated exclusively with Islam.

During daily prayers, no matter where they are, all Muslims turn to face in the direction of the Ka’ba. Moreover, according to Islamic teachings, it is the spiritual duty of every Muslim to make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, called Hajj, at least once in his or her lifetime. Today, millions of Muslims make the journey, which involves several ceremonial acts, including communal circumambulation of the Ka’ba. The Ka’ba is neither the object of worship nor a house in which objects of worship are stored or sacred rituals performed. Rather, it serves to center the individual worshipper and unify the community of the faithful.

Expert Perspective:
Kishwar Rizvi, Assistant Professor of Islamic Art, Yale University

“Well, the Ka’ba in Mecca was, according to belief, built by Abraham, and his son Ishmael as a place of worship for all people, in the sixth and seventh centuries. With Mohammed this site begins to take a different meaning altogether. Mecca was in the sixth and seventh century the most vital city in the Hijaz, in this area which is now Saudi Arabia. And was a place of great diversity. You had people who were Christian, you had Jews, you had pagans primarily. And the Ka’ba was, in a sense, the city shrine in which everybody put in their household gods—that in that there were many, many gods and many different believers. Each tribe had its own god or goddess and it would be placed within the Ka’ba. And it was recognized already, before the time of Muhammad, as a sacred space, as a very vital and powerful sacred space. When Muhammad returns to Mecca in 630, he cleanses the Ka’ba. That is, he removes all the idols, all the different objects of devotion and empties it. And I think that’s a powerful thought, when you think of it. That, in fact, in the center of this devotion that is Islam—that focuses physically, metaphorically in every way, on this empty cube—that there is nothing there. What do we find when we crack the cube? There is nothing. It’s basically yourself, ultimately, that it really is, that monumentalizes this empty space, perhaps it’s this idea of the infinite, as well, that reminds you ultimately of your own very, very finite existence. And I think that’s what so beautiful about the Ka’ba is that—not that it’s a monument, not that it’s this object, which it is, it’s a powerful object, it’s platonic solid, but that there is nothing inside it, ultimately. That, ultimately, whatever we create, whatever your belief is going to be, whatever locates you in the world, is yourself.

There is just one requirement for a mosque, which is that it should give you the direction to the Ka’ba in Mecca. That’s the only requirement. It can be a little niche in the wall, it can be a little placard with an arrow on it, which is what you see in all sorts of places all over the Islamic world, is this little arrow that tells you which is the direction to Mecca. You figure out the direction to Mecca and in that sort of obsessive need to know the direction to Mecca, what is happening is you are being redirected, you are being redirected from your daily concerns towards your worship. So the ultimate goal of Mecca is not to redirect you towards the physical object, per se, which is the Ka’ba, but rather to redirect you from your world, in a sense, from the worldly, from the material, from the details of your daily life, to spend ten minutes praying in devotion and that is ultimately what it does do.

Now the Hajj, which is the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca has a very different focus. Because first of all you are physically there, you are circumambulating the Ka’ba and there are many different rituals and thoughts that you go through. And so it is really ten days of following a journey, an esoteric journey. But then the highlight of that is that circumambulation of the sacred space, of the empty cube. And there you are coming together with the ummah, the community of Muslims. And I think that has a very different focus than that individual prayer that takes place five times a day. But in this coming together you affirm your place as a community of Muslims and that’s what the Hajj does do. The circle, certainly, in that circumambulation, is that it has no direction, that it really points to a journey that is never complete and you could argue that the human life, or the journey towards knowledge is also, well, never complete, in a sense, and that’s what the belief is too. That you’re always approximating a place, you are always getting close to the end of it, but like a circle, you never come to the end of it, and it’s an ongoing journey to find again the spiritual, the ultimate, the truth in different religions and how they define it, God, what have you.”

Additional Resources

Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250–1800. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Ching, Francis D. Architecture: Form, Space, & Order. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2007.

Hillenbrand, Robert. Islamic Architecture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Peters, F.E. The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

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Art Through Time: A Global View


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