Egyptian family carries on tradition of Kaaba’s kiswah cover-making

Egyptian family carries on tradition of Kaaba’s kiswah cover-making

(AFP): Ahmed Othman, an Egyptian craftsman of Turkish descent, continues to embroider Quran verses on black fabrics with golden threads to keep his family tradition alive in his workshop under the cooling effect of a ceiling fan in Egypt’s hot atmosphere. His grandfather’s work once adorned the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

A ceremonial hanging of the kiswah, huge pieces of black silk embroidered with gold patterns, over the cubic structure that is the centerpiece of the Grand Mosque symbolizes the launch of the annual hajj pilgrimage, which starts this week.

Othman’s family used to be honored with the task of producing the kiswah. His family’s creations would be despatched in a camel caravan to Islam’s holiest site in western Saudi Arabia toward which Muslims across the world turn to pray.

Now, Othman keeps the tradition alive in a small workshop, tucked above the labyrinthine Khan al-Khalili bazaar in central Cairo, where mass-produced souvenirs line the alleys.

Egyptian embroiderer Ahmed Othman el-Kassabgy sews with gold thread a verse from the Quran onto a replica drape to be sold as a souvenir for tourists visiting Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2022. (AFP Photo)
Egyptian embroiderer Ahmed Othman el-Kassabgy sews with gold thread a verse from the Quran onto a replica drape to be sold as a souvenir for tourists visiting Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2022. (AFP Photo)

The area is historically home to Egypt’s traditional handicrafts, but artisans face growing challenges. Materials, mostly imported, have become expensive, particularly as Egypt faces economic woes and a devalued currency.

Plummeting purchasing power makes high-quality hand-crafted goods inaccessible to the average Egyptian, while master craftspeople find it hard to hand down their skills as young people turn to more lucrative jobs.

This wouldn’t be the case “if there was good money in the craft,” Othman sighed, hunched over one of the many tapestries that fill his workshop.

Sheets of black and brown felt are covered in verses and prayers, delicately embroidered in silver and gold.

Every stitch echoes the “sacred ritual” Othman’s grandfather was entrusted with in 1924.

“For a whole year, 10 craftsmen” would work on the kiswah that covers the Kaaba which pilgrims circumambulate, using silver thread in a lengthy labor of love.

Egyptian embroiderer Ahmed Othman el-Kassabgy sews with gold thread a verse from the Quran onto a replica drape to be sold as a souvenir for tourists visiting Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2022. (AFP Photo)
Egyptian embroiderer Ahmed Othman el-Kassabgy sews with gold thread a verse from the Quran onto a replica drape to be sold as a souvenir for tourists visiting Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2022. (AFP Photo)

Sprinkled rosewater

From the 13th century, Egyptian artisans made the giant cloth in sections, which authorities transported to Mecca with great ceremony.

Celebrations would mark the processions through cities, flanked by guards and clergymen as Egyptians sprinkled rosewater from balconies above.

Othman’s grandfather, Othman Abdelhamid, was the last to supervise a fully Egyptian-made kiswah in 1926.

From 1927, manufacturing began to move to Mecca in the nascent Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which would fully take over the production of the kiswah in 1962.

The family went on to embroider military regalia for Egyptian and foreign dignitaries, including former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

“In addition to our work with military rank embroideries, my father started embroidering Quranic verses on tapestries,” and then reproducing whole sections of the kiswah.

Egyptian embroiderer Ahmed Othman el-Kassabgy (R) supervises as another employee (L) sews with gold thread a verse from the Quran onto a replica drape to be sold as a souvenir for tourists visiting Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2022. (AFP Photo)
Egyptian embroiderer Ahmed Othman el-Kassabgy (R) supervises as another employee (L) sews with gold thread a verse from the Quran onto a replica drape to be sold as a souvenir for tourists visiting Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2022. (AFP Photo)

Clients began flooding in for “exact replicas of the kiswah, down to the last detail.”

Though today they offer small tableaus for as little as 100 Egyptian pounds (about $5), massive customized orders go for several thousand dollars, such as replicas of the Kaaba door, which Othman proudly claims are indistinguishable from the originals in Mecca.

Back-breaking

But the family has not been immune to the economic turbulence that began with the coronavirus pandemic, which decimated small businesses and craftsmanship in Egypt.

Since early 2020, they have sold around “two pieces per month,” whereas before they would sell at least one tapestry a day.

Othman worries that a sense of “worldwide austerity” makes business unlikely to bounce back.

Egyptian embroiderer Ahmed Othman el-Kassabgy sews with gold thread a verse from the Quran onto a replica drape to be sold as a souvenir for tourists visiting Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2022. (AFP Photo)
Egyptian embroiderer Ahmed Othman el-Kassabgy sews with gold thread a verse from the Quran onto a replica drape to be sold as a souvenir for tourists visiting Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2022. (AFP Photo)

Today, there might only be a dozen or so craftsmen whose work he considers authentic, with many artisans leaving the craft for quicker cash flows.

“They can make 200 to 300 pounds a day,” ($10-$16) driving a tuk tuk auto rickshaw, or a minibus, Othman said. “They’re not going to sit on a loom breaking their backs all day.”

But still, a century and a half after his great grandfather left his native Turkey and brought the craft with him to Egypt, Othman stayed loyal to the techniques he learnt as a child when he would duck out of school to watch his father work.

“It’s on us to uphold the craft the same way we learned it, so it’s authentic to the legacy we inherited,” he said.

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