Key for the Ka’ba
Museum of Islamic Art
Hegira 765 / AD 1363
Copper inlaid with silver.
Length 34 cm
A single key that was used for the Ka'ba (meaning literally cube in Arabic). It consists of a ring (the diameter 3.6 cm) that is attached to a moveable cube-like shape with bevelled edges, and which is linked to the handle of the key. The handle consists of three small cuboids that alternate with two baluster-shaped separators. The body of the key itself assumes the form of an elongated cuboid whose cross-section is small in relation to its length, measuring 13 cm. The body of the key terminates with four protrusions.
A number of inscriptions with religious, political and documentary significance ornament the key including a series of inscriptions written in naskhi script that appear on all three of the handle cuboids. The inscriptions, carved on four planes of the first, read as follows: 'It is He who has sent His messenger with guidance and the religion of truth to prevail it over all religion' (Qur'an: 'The Victory'; 48:28). The inscriptions written on the second are: 'By order of Allah, no God but Allah – Sha'ban ibn Husayn – in the year 765'; while the inscriptions on the third cuboid read: 'One of the things made for Bayt al-Haram (the Sacred House, the Ka'ba) during the reign of our lord the Sultan al-Malik al-Ashraf'. Thus, the inscriptions clearly indicate that the owner of the key was the Mamluk Sultan al-Ashraf Sha'ban ibn Husayn who began his reign on a Tuesday, the 15th day of the month of Sha'ban, in the year AH 764 (AD 1362), when he was 12 years old, and that he ruled Egypt and the Levant until his death in AH 778 / AD 1376. The key bears the date of manufacture, AH 765 (AD 1363).
On the shaft of the key there are a number of inscriptions in Mamluk naskhi script, distributed over its four surfaces. These consist of the following Qur'anic verses: 'Verily We have granted thee a manifest victory: That Allah may forgive thee the faults of the past and those to follow; Fulfil his favour to thee and guide thee on the straight way. And that Allah may help thee with powerful help. It is He who sent down tranquillity in to the hearts of the believers to increase their faith'. ('The Victory'; 48:1–4). 'The first house [of worship] appointed for men was that at Bakka full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings. In it our signs manifest; (for example), the Station [maqam] of Abraham; whoever enters it attains security; Pilgrimage thereto is a duty men owe to Allah – those who can afford the journey; but if any deny faith, Allah stands not in need of any of his creatures.' ('Al-Imran'; 3:96–7).
It may be observed that the Qur'anic verses recorded on the body of the key complement the key's objective, and affirm the religious obligation of the Hajj (pilgrimage) on Muslims. In addition, the verses allude to the city of Mecca by the name 'Bakka' which is one of a number of names given to the city including, 'Umm al-Qur'a', 'al-Balad al-Amin' and 'al-Bayt al-Haram'. Likewise, the verses also point out the Station of the Prophet Abraham. According to Imam al-Bukhari, the intended meaning of the Station of Abraham is a rock, upon which Abraham is believed to have stood when he raised the building of the Ka'ba. The rock is located in proximity to the Ka'ba and is covered by a wooden dome, the interior of which is decorated with gilded ornamentation. The structure rests on stone supports, between which there are four iron windows.
Egypt used to send the keys of the Ka'ba with the kiswa (cover) every year to Mecca. Despite the fact that the keys were presented every year, those housed in museums today number very few, and date back to the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. The Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul has acquired most of the Ka'ba keys, while the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo houses only this one Ka'ba key.
Sultans and amirs sent gifts to the holy sites in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. This key was a gift from Sultan Sha'ban to the Ka'ba. It is decorated with verses from the Qur'an, ornamentation and inscriptions. A kiswa (covering) for the Ka'ba was sent with the key every year in the pilgrimage season.
Sultan al-Ashraf Sha'ban ibn Husayn
The key is accurately dated by the inscription recorded on it.
This object was purchased in 1945 from a dealer of antiquities, Ralph Harari.
It is likely that this key was made in Egypt since it carries the name of the sultan of Egypt at the time and the year of production. That this piece was made in Egypt is further supported by the fact that Egypt was responsible for despatching the kiswa along with the key each year to Mecca.
Atil, E., Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks, Washington D.C., 1987.
Majid, Abdel Al-Mon'em, “Mafatih al-Ka'ba [Keys of the Ka'ba]”, Mijalat Kuliyat al-Athar [Journal of the Faculty of Antiquities], Vol. 1, 1978, pp.108–9.
Sayour, S., “Mafatih wa Kiswa al-Ka'ba [Keys and the Covering of the Ka'ba]”, Prism Magazine (Foreign Cultural Relations Dept., the Egyptian Ministry of Culture), No. 6, 2000, pp.29–32.
Stierlin, H., and Stierlin A., Splendours of the Islamic World: Mamluk Art in Cairo (1250–1517), London, New York, 1997.
Salah Sayour "Key for the Ka’ba" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2021. https://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=object;ISL;eg;Mus01;11;en
Prepared by: Salah SayourSalah Sayour
Salah Ahmad Sayour holds a BA in Islamic Antiquities, Faculty of Arts, Cairo University (1973) and is currently studying for an MA in the same field. In 1979 he had a four-month scholarship at Austrian museums to study museology. Preparing exhibitions for the Museum of Islamic Art's collections in the Arab World Institute, Paris and curating exhibitions held in host museums in the USA and Paris augmented his experience leading to his appointment as head of several sections at the Museum. He has written several articles on Islamic painting and arts for Prism Magazine published by the Ministry in different languages and has participated in preparing scientific texts for the catalogues for the Museum's exhibitions at home and abroad.
Copyedited by: Majd Musa
Translation by: Amal Sachedina (from the Arabic).
Translation copyedited by: Mandi GomezMandi Gomez
Amanda Gomez is a freelance copy-editor and proofreader working in London. She studied Art History and Literature at Essex University (1986–89) and received her MA (Area Studies Africa: Art, Literature, African Thought) from SOAS in 1990. She worked as an editorial assistant for the independent publisher Bellew Publishing (1991–94) and studied at Bookhouse and the London College of Printing on day release. She was publications officer at the Museum of London until 2000 and then took a role at Art Books International, where she worked on projects for independent publishers and arts institutions that included MWNF’s English-language editions of the books series Islamic Art in the Mediterranean. She was part of the editorial team for further MWNF iterations: Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean Virtual Museum and the illustrated volume Discover Islamic Art in the Mediterranean.
True to its ethos of connecting people through the arts, MWNF has provided Amanda with valuable opportunities for discovery and learning, increased her editorial experience, and connected her with publishers and institutions all over the world. More recently, the projects she has worked on include MWNF’s Sharing History Virtual Museum and Exhibition series, Vitra Design Museum’s Victor Papanek and Objects of Desire, and Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s online publication 2 or 3 Tigers and its volume Race, Nation, Class.
MWNF Working Number: ET 20
Islamic Dynasties / Period
On display in
Discover Islamic Art Exhibition(s)The Mamluks | The Sultan and his Court Pilgrimage | The Haram at Mecca and the Ka’ba
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