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Two-dimensional birds eye painting of Mecca, depicted in a simple colour palette with concentric organization. Small black inscriptions label relevant architectural elements and buildings.
AKM529, Depiction of the Masjid al-Haram (Holy Sanctuary) at Mecca

© The Aga Khan Museum

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Depiction of the Masjid al-Haram (Holy Sanctuary) at Mecca
  • Accession Number:AKM529
  • Place:Saudi Arabia, probably Mecca/Hijjaz
  • Dimensions:61.5 x 85.0 cm
  • Date:late 18th century
  • Materials and Technique:paper; watercolour and ink
  • This monumental work on paper depicts the great Mosque with the Ka‘ba in Mecca, the sacred site that each Muslim should visit once in their lives, if they are able to do so. Here, the site is rendered as a stylized and two-dimensional bird’s-eye view, with the black-shrouded Ka‘ba—the house of Allah—like a pulsing magnet at the centre. The painting is part of a well-established tradition of Ka‘ba/Mecca imagery that began in the 12th–13th centuries. Similar depictions of Mecca on paper or cloth commonly appear on illustrated Hajj certificates (documents which affirm that an identified individual or his/her representative has fulfilled the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca and surrounding sites). [1] However, the absence of text affirming such a purpose and the work’s monumental size (61.5 x 85 cm) suggests that it may have been conceived as an individual image. While it may have hung on a wall, the use of paper and the folding traces suggest that its owner may rather have stored it. Before the time of photography, such Mecca depictions were pricy souvenirs that served as visual reminders of this holiest of Muslim places.


Further Reading


This large painting is composed in a conventional two-dimensional style, depicted in a simple colour palette with concentric organization. Small black inscriptions label relevant architectural elements and buildings. The holy sanctuary appears as a large rectangle with three rows of surrounding porticos, marking an angle at the lower left corner. The cubicle of the black-shrouded Ka‘ba is shown as a vertical rectangle that acts as a focal point to which the other elements converge: buildings, gates, pilgrimage paths, and the reddish drop-like Zamzam water jars that are sprinkled between the paths. Familiar details of the Ka‘ba are  the door and the black stone (hardly visible, but inscribed) on the left, or the waterspout. This latter is labeled here in Arabic mirzab rahman, pointing to the Arabic tradition in which this painting was created. [2] The semi-circle stands for the low hatim wall, inscribed as hijr (stone of) Isma‘il, where Abraham built a shelter for Hajar and their son Isma‘il. The three-quarter circle with arrows represents the high circle of metal with suspended lamps. Between this and the outer closed circle is the mataf, a space for worshippers to walk (circumambulate) around the Ka‘ba. This space encloses the four maqams or pavilions of the four legal schools of Sunni Islam—hanafi (right), malaqi (above), hanbali and sha‘fi (both lower left). Following convention, the maqam sha‘fi is depicted in the prime position—on the upper level of a two-storey building, above the zamzam dwell, indicated here in traditional sign language as a circle. [3] Next to it are the maqam Ibrahim, and below it, the old arched gate bab salam and staircase, and further to the right, the minbar (pulpit) of the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman. The latter is marked with a tall conical top, echoing the Ottoman style of minarets and minbars. [4] Outside the hatim or semi-circular wall are the two domed buildings Qubbatayin, storage houses for carpets, drinking water, olive oil, and other supplies. Entrance gates (bab) to the holy sanctuary are marked with staircases in front of brown-filled arches. They include Salama, Nabi, ‘Abbas, ‘Ali, Zubayn, al-Safa, Rahman, Ibrahim.


The concentric composition is reminiscent of the circumambulating that pilgrims to Mecca are required to perform. [5] It also evokes the direction of prayer that the Ka‘ba Muslims have to follow in any prayer, and emphasizes that the Ka‘ba is the house of God and the holy centre of the Muslim world. However, the minarets—rocket-like towers—deviate from that design. Probably due to limited space, four of towers are vertically staggered on the sides, and two are laid horizontally, on the lower end of the rectangular sanctuary. At the bottom of the composition is the mas‘a road, where following the visit of the holy enclosure, pilgrims have to walk and run, between Marwa—shown here as a domed building with stairs, also vertically oriented, on the right—and Safa on the left, depicted as a triple arched buildings with stairs. Two narrow horizontal red stripes touching the road probably represent the pair of milestones, indicating the running part of the ritual.


The painting has been coloured in few tones and with little differentiation or hierarchy given to details. Grey-blue is used for domes, minaret towers, pilgrimage paths and the hatim area; red-brown to colour buildings, but also zamzam water jars or the milestones between Marwa and Safa; and brown to fill certain gates and even precious details such as the gilt waterspout or the golden band of Ka‘ba. The Ka‘ba is black in accordance with its black shroud. The simple colour palette and the stylized graphic approach suggest commercial art. A group of comparable examples exist; for instance, one such example is a Hajj certificate dating to 1192 H/1778-79 (in the Aga Khan Museum, AKM528 [6]), dating such a commercial workshop in the late 18th century. [7]


Completing the pilgrimage is highly important in the life of a Muslim, and brings pride to the pilgrim hajji/hajja and his/her family. Upon return from the journey, it is customary to celebrate and visit the hajji/hajja. Traditions exist to visually mark the accomplishment of the Hajj for the community, such as adding a small Ka‘ba painting to the entrance of the house, hanging the pilgrimage certificate in the mosque, or even commissioning a Ka‘ba/Mecca tile for a mosque.[8] Thus, Hajj certificates not only were attestations for the pilgrims, but also served as pilgrimage “ex-votos” to announce the broader community that sites and prescribed rites were completed by a pilgrim or the official representative.[9]


While the function of certificate is not certain in this work on paper, its large size reminds us of the visual and religious purpose of depicting the Ka‘ba. In a time before photography, images and maps of the Holy Site in Mecca reminded Muslims both about their mandatory pilgrimage, and about the journey to be completed in the future. Such depictions focusing on the Ka‘ba were also visual symbols of the house of God, and thus of Allah. Hanging on the wall, or stored and to be looked at like a precious showpiece work of art, they could be enjoyed alone or together with special guests.


— Deniz Beyazit

[1] Hajj certificates were issued to pilgrims as well as to people who, due to a fragile health condition (sickness or age), were unable to perform the pilgrimage themselves.
[2] Other examples from the Ottoman realm often use the Turkish-Ottoman term “altın oluk” for Golden Spout. For example, the renowned Mecca painting-map from the University Library of Uppsala, also uses the Turkish term, see Hans Nordesjö, This is particularly the case for Ottoman tiles, see AKM 587. See also Maury 2013, 149, note 71.
[3] Milstein 2006, 168, 171.
[4] The arched gate is supposed to be a vestige of an early entrance to the Haram, giving pilgrims access to the Haram. It is sometimes known as “arch” (Taq; see, for example, AKM 587); see Milstein 2006, 171.
[5] Maury 2010, 550.
[6] The Path of Princes: Masterpieces from the Aga Khan Collection, Geneva: Aga Khan Trust for Culture, 2008, cat. 19, 78–9.
[7] Similar examples are also in the Khalili Collection, see Nassar in Rogers 2009, cat. 293, 294, 296, 297.
[8] Maury 2010, 547–59; Maury 2013, 143–59.
[9] For medieval examples, see Sourdel and Sourdel-Thomine 1983, 167–273; Sourdel and Sourdel-Thomine, 2001, 212–33; Sourdel and Sourdel-Thomine 2006; Aksoy and Milstein 2000, 101–34. For an Ottoman example, see Esin 1984, 175–90; see also on the Doha scroll, dated 1433, Chekhab-Abudaya et al. 2016, 345–407.

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--. “Depictions of the Haramayn on Ottoman Tiles—Content and Context.” In The Hajj: Collected Essays, eds. Venitia Porter and Liana Saif. London: British Museum, 2013, 143–59. ISBN: 978-086159-193-0
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Note: This online resource is reviewed and updated on an ongoing basis. We are committed to improving this information and will revise and update knowledge about this object as it becomes available.


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