Travels in Arabia, by John Lewis Burckhardt

Some Historical Notices Concerning the Kaaba, and the Temple of Mekka; Extracted from the Works of El Azraky, El Fasy, Kotobeddyn, and Asamy, Writers More Particularly Mentioned in the Introduction.

MOHAMMEDAN mythology affirms that the Kaaba was constructed in heaven, two thousand years before the creation of this world, and that it was there adored by the angels, whom the Almighty commanded to perform the Towaf, or walk round it. Adam, who was the first true believer, erected the Kaaba upon earth, on its present site, which is directly below the spot that it occupied in heaven. He collected the stones for the building from the five holy mountains: Lebanon, Tor Syna (Mount Sinai), El Djoudy (the name given by Muselmans to the mountain on which the ark of Noah rested after the deluge), Hirra, or Djebel Nour, and Tor Zeyt (the mountain to which, as I believe, an allusion is made in the ninety-fifth chapter of the Koran). Ten thousand angels were appointed to guard the structure from accidents: but they seem, from the history of the holy building, to have been often remiss in their duty. The sons of Adam repaired the Kaaba; and after the deluge, Ibrahim (Abraham), when he had abandoned the idolatry of his forefathers, was ordered by the Almighty to reconstruct it. His son Ismayl, who from his infancy resided with his mother Hadjer (Hagar) near the site of Mekka, assisted his father, who had come from Syria to obey the commands of Allah: on digging, they found the foundations which had been laid by Adam. Being in want of a stone to fix into the corner of the building as a mark from whence the Towaf, or holy walk round it, was to commence, Ismayl went in search of one. On his way towards Djebel Kobeys, he met the angel Gabriel, holding in his hand the famous black stone. It was then of a refulgent bright colour, but became black, says El Azraky, in consequence of its having suffered repeatedly by fire, before and after the introduction of Islam. Others say its colour was changed by the sins of those who touched it. At the day of judgment, it will bear witness in favour of all those who have touched it with sincere hearts, and will be endowed with sight and speech.

After the well of Zemzem was miraculously created, and before Ibrahim began to build the Kaaba, the Arab tribe of Beni Djorham, a branch of the Amalekites, settled here, with the permission of Ismayl and his mother, with whom they lived. Ismayl considered the well as his property; but having intermarried with the Djorham tribe, they usurped, after his death, the possession both of the well and the Kaaba. During their abode in this valley, they rebuilt or thoroughly repaired the Kaaba; but the well was choked up by the violence of torrents, and remained so for nearly one thousand years. The tribe of Khozaa afterwards kept possession of the Kaaba for three hundred years; and their successors, of the tribe of Kossay Ibn Kelab, again rebuilt it; for being constantly exposed to the devastations of torrents, it was often in need of repair. It had hitherto been open at the top: they roofed it; and from this period its history becomes less involved in fable and uncertainty.

An Arab of Kossay, named Ammer Ibn Lahay, first introduced idolatry among his countrymen; he brought the idol, called Hobal, from Hyt, in Mesopotamia, [See El Azraky.] and set it up at the Kaaba. Idolatry then spread rapidly; and it seems that almost every Arab tribe chose its own god or tutelar divinity; and that, considering the Kaaba as a Pantheon common to them all, they frequented it in pilgrimage. The date-tree, called Ozza, says Azraky, was worshipped by the tribe of Khozaa; and the Beni Thekyf adored the rock called El Lat; a large tree, called Zat Arowat, was revered by the Koreysh; the holy places, Muna, Szafa, Meroua, had their respective saints or demi-gods; and the historians give a long list of other deities. The number of idols increased so much, that one was to be found in every house and tent of this valley; and the Kaaba was adorned with three hundred and sixty of them, corresponding probably to the days of the year.

The tribe of Kossay were the first who built houses round the Kaaba; in these they lived during the day, but in the evening they always returned to their tents, pitched upon the neighbouring mountains. The successors of the Beni Kossay at Mekka, or Bekka, (the name then applied to the town,) were the Beni Koreysh. About their time the Kaaba was destroyed by fire; they rebuilt it of wood, of a smaller size than it had been in the time of the Kossay, but indicating by the wall Hedjer (already described) its former limits. The roof was supported within by six pillars; and the statue of Hobal, the Arabian Jupiter, was placed over a well, then existing within the Kaaba. This happened during the youth of Mohammed. All the idols were replaced in the new building; and El Azraky adduces the ocular testimony of several respectable witnesses, to prove a remarkable fact, (hitherto, I believe, unnoticed,) that the figure of the Virgin Mary, with the young Aysa (Jesus) in her lap, was likewise sculptured as a deity upon one of the six pillars nearest to the gate.

The grandfather of Mohammed, Abd el Motalleb Ibn Hesham, had restored the well of Zemzem by an excavation some time before the burning of the Kaaba.

When the victorious Mohammed entered the town of his fathers, he destroyed the images in the temple, and abolished the idolatrous worship of his countrymen; and his Mueddin, the negro Belal, called the Moslems to prayers from the top of the Kaaba.

The Koreysh had built a small town round the Kaaba, which they venerated so much that no person was permitted to raise the roof of his house higher than that of the sacred structure. The pilgrimage to this holy shrine, which the pagan Arabs had instituted, was confirmed by Islam.

Omar Ibn Khatab first built a mosque round the Kaaba. In the year of the Hedjra 17, having purchased from the Koreysh the small houses which enclosed it, and carried a wall round the area, Othman Ibn Affan, in A.H. 27, enlarged the square; and in A.H. 63, when the heretic and rebel Yezyd was besieged at Mekka by Abdallah Ibn Zebeyr, the nephew of Aysha, the Kaaba was destroyed by fire, some say accidentally, while others affirm it to have been done by the slinging machines directed against it by Yezyd from the top of Djebel Kobeys, where he had taken post. After his expulsion, Ibn Zebeyr enlarged the enclosure of the wall by purchasing some more houses of the Mekkawys, and by including their site, after having levelled them, within the wall. He also rebuilt the Kaaba upon an enlarged scale, raising it from eighteen pikes (its height under the Koreysh) to twenty-seven pikes, or nearly equal to what it was in the time of the Beni Kossay. He opened two doors into it, level with the surface of the area, and constructed a double roof, supported by three instead of six pillars, the former number. This new building was twenty-five pikes in length, twenty in breadth on one side, and twenty-one on the other. In the interior, the dry well, called Byr Ahsef, still remained, wherein the treasures were deposited, particularly the golden vessels that had been presented to the Kaaba. It was at this period that the structure took the name of Kaaba, which is said to be derived from kaab, a die or cube, the form which the building now assumed. Its former title was the House of God, (Beitullah) or the Old House, a name still often applied to it.

Twenty years after the last-mentioned date, El Hadjadj Ibn Yousef el Thakafy, then governor of Mekka, disliking the enlarged size of the Kaaba, reduced it to the proportions it had in the time of the Koreysh, cutting off six pikes from its length; he also restored the wall called Hedjer, which Ibn Zebeyr had included within the building. The size then given to the edifice is the same as that of the present structure, it having been scrupulously adhered to in all the repairs or re-erections which subsequently took place.

Towards the end of the first century of the Hedjra, Wolyd Ibn Abd el Melek was the first who reared columns in the mosque. He caused their capitals to be covered with thin plates of gold, and incurred a great expense for decorations: it is related that all the golden ornaments which he gave to the building were sent from Toledo in Spain, and carried upon mules through Africa and Arabia.

Abou Djafar el Mansour, one of the Abassides, in A.H. 139, enlarged the north and south sides of the mosque, and made it twice as large as it had been before, so that it now occupied a space of forty-seven pikes and a half in length. He also paved the ground adjoining the well of Zemzem with marble.

The Khalife El Mohdy added to the size of the mosque at two different periods; the last time, in A.H. 163, he bought the ground required for these additions from the Mekkawys, paying to them twenty-five dinars for every square pike. It was this Khalife who brought the columns from Egypt, as I have already observed. The improvements which he had begun, were completed by his son El Hady. The roof of the colonnade was then built of sadj, a precious Indian wood. The columns brought from Egypt by El Mohdy, were landed at one day’s journey north of Djidda; but some obstacles arising, they were not all transported to Mekka, some of them having been abandoned on the sands near the shore. I mention this for the sake of future travellers, who, on discovering them, might perhaps consider them as the vestiges of some powerful Greek or Egyptian colony.

The historians of Mekka remark, and not without astonishment, that the munificent Khalife Haroun er Rasheid, although he repeatedly visited the Kaaba, added nothing to the mosque, except a new pulpit, or mambar.

A.H. 226. During the Khalifat of Motasem b’illah, the well of Zemzem was covered above: it had before been enclosed all round, but not roofed.

A.H. 241. The space between the Hedjer and the Kaaba was laid out with fine marbles. At that time there was a gate leading into the space enclosed within the Hedjer.

The Khalife El Motaded, in A.H. 281, put the whole mosque into a complete state of repair: he rebuilt its walls; made new gates, assigning to them new names; and enlarged the building on the west side, by adding to it the space formerly occupied by the celebrated Dar el Nedowa; an ancient building of Mekka, well known in the history of the Pagan Arabs, which had always been the common council-house of the chiefs of Mekka. It is said to have stood near the spot where the Makam el Hanefy is now placed.

In A.H. 314, or, according to others, 301, Mekka and its temple experienced great disasters. The army of the heretic sect of the Carmates, headed by their chief, Abou Dhaher, invaded the Hedjaz, and seized upon Mekka: fifty thousand of its inhabitants were slain during the sack of the city, and the temple and the Kaaba were stripped of all their valuable ornaments. After remaining twenty-one days, the enemy departed, carrying with them the great jewel of Mekka, the black stone of the Kaaba. During the fire which injured the Kaaba, in the time of Ibn Zebeyr, the violent heat had split the stone into three pieces, which were afterwards joined together again, and replaced in the former situation, surrounded with a rim of silver; this rim was renewed and strengthened by Haroun er Rasheid.

The Carmates carried the stone to Hedjer, [Asamy says that the stone was carried to El Hassa, near the Persian Gulf, a town which had been recently built by Abou Dhaher. I find, in the Travels of Ibn Batouta, a town in the province of El Hassa, called Hedjer.] a fertile spot in the Desert, on the route of the Syrian caravan, north of Medina, which they had chosen as one of their abodes. They hoped that all the moslems would come to visit the stone, and that they should thus succeed to the riches which the pilgrims from every part of the world had brought to Mekka. Under this impression, Abou Dhaher refused an offer of fifty thousand dinars as a ransom for the stone; but after his death, the Carmates, in A.H. 339, voluntarily sent it back, having been convinced by experience that their expectations of wealth, from the possession of it, were ill founded, and that very few moslems came to Hedjer for the purpose of kissing it. At this time it was in two pieces, having been split by a blow from a Carmate during the plunder of Mekka.

Seventy years after its restoration to its ancient seat, the stone suffered another indignity: Hakem b’amr Illah, the mad king of Egypt, who had some intentions of claiming divine honours for himself, sent in A.H. 413, an Egyptian with the pilgrim caravan to Mekka, to destroy the stone. With an iron club concealed beneath his clothes, the man approached it, and exclaimed, “How long shall this stone be adored and kissed? There is neither Mohammed nor Aly to prevent me from doing this, and today I shall destroy this building!” He then struck it three times with his club. A party of horsemen, belonging to the caravan in which he had travelled from Egypt, were ready at the gates of the mosque to assist the lithoclast, as soon as he should have executed his task; but they were not able to protect him from the fury of the populace. He was slain by the dagger of a native of Yemen; the horsemen were pursued; and the whole Egyptian caravan was plundered on the occasion.

Upon inspection, it was found that three small pieces, of the size of a man’s nail, had been knocked off by the blows; these were pulverised, and their dust kneaded into a cement, with which the fractures were filled up. Since that time, the stone has sustained no further misfortune, except in the year 1674, when it was found, one morning, besmeared with dirt, together with the door of the Kaaba; so that every one who kissed it, retired with a sullied face. The author of this sacrilegious joke was sought in vain; suspicion fell upon some Persians, but the fact could not be proved against them. [See Asamy for these details.]

The sanctity of the stone appears to have been greatly questioned by one of the very pillars of Islam. El Azraky gives the testimony of several witnesses, who heard Omar Ibn Khatab exclaim, while standing before it:— “I know thou art a mere stone, that can neither hurt nor help me; nor should I kiss thee, had I not seen Mohammed do the same.”

In A.H. 354, the Khalife El Mokteder built the vestibule near the gate of the mosque, called Bab Ibrahim, which projects beyond the straight line of the columns, and united in it two ancient gates, called Bab Beni Djomah and Bab el Khayatein. From that time no further improvements were made for several centuries.

In A.H. 802, a fire completely destroyed the north and west sides of the mosque: two years after, it was rebuilt at the expense of El Naszer Feradj Ibn Dhaher Berkouk, Sultan of Egypt. The wood necessary for that purpose was transported partly from Egypt and partly from Tayf, where the tree Arar, a species of cypress or juniper, furnished good timber.

In A.H. 906, Kansour el Ghoury, Sultan of Egypt, rebuilt the greater part of the side of Bab Ibrahim; and to him the Hedjaz owes several other public edifices.

In A.H. 959, in the reign of Solyman Ibn Selim I., Sultan of Constantinople, the roof of the Kaaba was renewed.

In A.H. 980, the same Sultan rebuilt the side of the mosque towards the street Mosaa, and caused all the domes to be raised which cover the roof of the colonnades. He also placed the fine pavement, which is now round the Kaaba, and a new pavement all around the colonnades.

In A.H. 984, his son Murad repaired and partly rebuilt the three other sides, that had not been touched by him.

In the year 1039, (or 1626 of our era,) a torrent from Djebel Nour rushed into the town, and filled the mosque so rapidly, that all the persons then within it were drowned; whatever books, fine copies of the Koran, &c. &c. were left in the apartments round the walls of the building, were destroyed; and a part of the wall before the Kaaba, called Hedjer, and three sides of the Kaaba itself, were carried away. Five hundred souls perished in the town. In the following year the damage was repaired, and the Kaaba rebuilt, after the side which had escaped the fury of the torrent had been pulled down.

In 1072, the building over the well Zemzem was erected, as it now stands; and in 1079, the four Makams were built anew.

After this time, the historians mention no other material repairs or changes in the mosque; and I believe none took place in the eighteenth century. We may, therefore, ascribe the building, as it now appears, almost wholly to the munificence of the last Sultans of Egypt, and their successors, the Osmanly Sultans of Constantinople, since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In the autumn of 1816, several artists and workmen, sent from Constantinople, were employed in the Hedjaz to repair all the damage caused by the Wahabys in the chapels of the saints of that country, as well as to make all the repairs necessary in the mosques at Mekka and Medina.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31