Section 2: Sacred Topographies

Whichever city they live in, the most important place in the heart of Muslims is not their home; it is Mecca, a city in Saudi Arabia and the most holy city in Islam, because it was the place where the Prophet Muhammad first received divine revelations from Allah, and it was also his birthplace. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter Mecca.

Muslims pray (salat) 5 times a day. When they pray, they always face the direction of Mecca (qiblah). In addition, Muslims who are physically able and of sound financial standing must perform the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) at least once in their lifetime.

Artefact #2-1: Double-Page Composition Showing Mecca and Medina

Here is a double-page drawing of two very sacred Islamic sites:

  • the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, and
  • the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina.


Figure 3.1: Double-Page Composition Showing Mecca & Medina
Probably Turkey
November 1818
Watercolour, Ink and Gold on Paper; Leather Binding with Lacquer and Gilding
Folios 110v and 110r from a Manuscript of the Dala’il al-khayrat (Guidelines to Blessings) by Muhammad ibn Sulayman-al-Jazuli

The Sacred Mosque in Mecca

The right page depicts the Sacred Mosque in Mecca. It is the largest mosque in the world and surrounds a black cuboid structure called the kaaba. The kaaba is one of Islam’s most sacred structure.

Do you see the kaaba? There is a black-and-red shape surrounded by an almost circular enclosure. The kaaba is the reason that Muslims had to face Mecca when they pray, and also is the main focus for the hajj.

Muslims believe the kaaba was built by the Arabs’ ancestor called Abraham, another prophet who is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. It was the first building constructed for mankind to worship Allah, and it reminds the people that they must worship only Allah, and no other gods. When Muslims visit the kaaba during the hajj, they will circumambulate it 7 times in an anti-clockwise direction (tawaf). This demonstrates their unity in the worship of one God, no matter which part of the world they live in.

The Prophet’s Mosque in Medina

The left page depicts the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Medina is another city in Saudi Arabia and is the second most holy city in Islam. It was the first religious base established by the Prophet Muhammad after his escape from Mecca when his enemies persecuted him. It is also the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad and his two successors, Abu Bakr and Umar.

The Prophet’s Mosque is always identified by the:

  • Dome: top left
  • 3 Tombs: in a rectangular enclosure below the dome

Do you see them?

The 3 tombs belong to the Prophet Muhammad and his two successors Abu Bakr and Umar. The dome covers the structure that enclosed the tombs


In both pages, do you see a right-angled triangle with steps and two pillars? This structure is called the minbar (see example), which is a stepped pulpit. When the Prophet Muhammad faced a huge congregation, he had to be seen and heard. Hence he climbed up the minbar, and gave his sermon from his elevated position. From then on, it became tradition for the imam to climb up the minbar to deliver his sermons.

Artefact #2-2: Double-Page Composition Showing Mecca and Medina

Like the previous artwork, this double-page art also shows the same two mosques–the Sacred Mosque in Mecca on the right page and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina on the left:


Figure 3.2: Double-Page Composition Showing Mecca & Medina
North Africa
Probably 19th Century
Watercolour, Ink and Gold on Paper
Folios 16v and 17r from a Manuscript of the Dala’il al-khayrat (Guidelines to Blessings) by Muhammad ibn Sulayman-al-Jazuli

The Sacred Mosque in Mecca

On the page depicting the Sacred Mosque, in addition to the kaaba in the centre and the minbar at the left, do you also see 7 minarets?

In the 17th century, the Ottomans who had ruled over Saudi Arabia renovated the mosque extensively, which included constructing more minarets. After the renovation, the Sacred Mosque had 7 minarets, and this had remained unchanged for 3 centuries. In the 20th century, the Saudi kings had added more minarets to the existing 7. The 7 minarets tell us that this art was painted before the Saudi kings’ renovation and after the Ottomans’.

The Prophet’s Mosque in Medina

On the page depicting the Prophet’s Mosque, in addition to the 3 tombs, do you also see an arched wall with inscription near the top of the artwork? This wall is called the qiblah wall, which orientates the praying Muslim to the direction of Mecca. It is decorated with a prayer niche (indicated by the arch) called the mihrab (see example). The minbar by tradition is positioned against the qiblah wall, to the right of the mihrab.

Q: All mosques except one has a qiblah wall. Which mosque does not have a qiblah wall?
A: The Sacred Mosque in Mecca, because the kaaba is located in the central open courtyard (known location to the Muslims), hence it does not need a qiblah wall.

Artefact #2-3: Embroidered Panel from the Hizam of the Kaaba

Do you know why the kaaba is black with a little bit of red? This is because it is fully draped every year with a ritual covering called the kiswah. The kiswah is made up of black silk, and is adorned with a belt called hizam:


Figure 3.3: Embroidered Panel from the Hizam of the Kaaba
Ottoman Egypt, Cairo
Late 19th or Early 20th Century
Silk Embroidered with Gold and Silver Thread

The hizam is positioned two-thirds of the way up the height of the kaaba. It is embroidered with verses from the Qu’ran, Islam’s central religious text. Hence, the hizam forms the most important and visual decoration of the kaaba.

The black kiswah and the hizam are replaced every year, and the fabrics from the previous year would be cut into fragments and sold to rich pilgrims as hajj souvenirs. In this way, many of these fabrics end up in museums.

Artefact #2-4: Hajj Certificate with Image of the Sacred Mosque at Mecca

Completion of the hajj was a source of great pride and often marked by an illustrated certificate, like this:


Figure 3.4: Hajj Certificate with Image of the Sacred Mosque at Mecca
Iran, or Probably Hijaz
3 March 1778
Ink, Watercolour and Silver on Laid Paper

However, if a Muslim is physically unable to perform the hajj himself, for example, due to disease or a handicap, he could get a proxy to do so on his behalf, and still fulfill his mandatory Muslim duty.

This example depicts a schematic view of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, with the Kaaba in the centre, surrounded by the mosque building with its 7 minarets. The Persian text below this illustration reveals that this certificate belonged to one Bibi Khanum, who required a certain Sayyid ‘Ali Wali to perform the pilgrimage for her as a proxy.

Artefact #2-5: Hajj Scroll

To the Muslim, the hajj is the most momentous event of his life. Hence, he would usually talk about it, or depict the journey in some other ways. The artwork in the hajj scroll here is 9m long and depicts a pilgrim’s journey and the sights he saw:


Figure 3.5: Hajj Scroll
Hijaz, or Possibly India
1787 – 1788 CE
Watercolour, Ink and Gold on Paper Mounted on Cloth Backing

The pilgrim’s journey starts near the bottom of the scroll, with the Islamic declaration of faith (shahada): “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.” He then enters a garden and eventually arrives at the Arabian port of Jedda, where triple-masted ships are at anchor. He then goes past the fortified city of Jedda and an elaborate round structure containing a well. After that he finally arrives at the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, where the kaaba is.

The scroll also includes pilgrimage sites such as the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf in Iraq and the shrine of Imam Husayn in Karbala in Iraq, which are not shown. This shows that the hajj scroll was commissioned by a Shia pilgrim.

Ali was the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the 4th Sunni caliph who ruled the Muslims. However, his loyal followers, called the Shia, acknowledge Ali as the first imam and refuse to recognise the leadership of the first 3 Sunni caliphs. The Shia believe the Islamic leadership comes only from the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad and Ali.

After the death of Ali, his eldest son Hasan took over as the second Shia imam. However, he soon died and his younger brother Husayn succeeded him. Husayn strongly opposed the Sunni Umayyads who were in power at that time. When Husayn and his family and followers went to Karbala in modern-day Iraq, the Umayyads ambushed him and massacred nearly the entire group. The martyrdom of Husayn in this Battle of Karbala caused the permanent divide between the Sunni and the Shia Muslims.

Shia Muslims mourned the martydrom of Husayn every year in the Islamic month of Muharram. The mourning begins on the first day and reaches its climax on Muharram 10, the day of the battle, known as Ashurah.

Artefact #2-6: Illustration of the Sacred Mosque at Mecca

This is a Chinese artefact! Although China was and is never a Muslim country, or ruled by Muslims, they do have ethnic minorities who are followers of Islam. This book was printed using woodblock print on Xuan paper, both Chinese inventions.


Figure 3.6: Illustration of the Sacred Mosque at Mecca
1861 CE
Woodblock Print on Rice Paper
Illustration from a Manuscript of Chao Jin Yu Ji

This book was written by a Chinese Muslim scholar from the Hui tribe, called Ma Fuchu, a.k.a. Ma Dexin, during the Qing dynasty. He was very highly regarded and many of his works show a synthesis of Islam with neo-Confucianism which helped to foster understanding between the Chinese Muslims and the Han Chinese.

This book describes his pilgrimage from China to Mecca. It was originally written in Arabic and later translated into Chinese. The Arabic text above the image reads ‘Likeness of the Sacred Mosque and the Kaaba.’ Unlike the other artwork of the Sacred Mosque in this section, this image of the Sacred Mosque is depicted using linear perspective and an elevated viewpoint to provide a bird’s-eye view of the interior. Note the similar technique of using an elevated viewpoint to view the interior of a building here.

Artefact #2-7: Tile with Image of the Sacred Mosque at Mecca

This is an Iznik tile, a very famous type of ceramics produced in Ottoman Turkey. We will view more Iznik tiles in the next section. Like most artefacts in this section, this tile depicts the kaaba in Mecca and functions as a mihrab tile.


Figure 3.7: Tile with Image of the Sacred Mosque at Mecca
Iznik, Turkey
17th Century
Glazed Fritware

As mentioned previously, all mosques, except for the Sacred Mosque in Mecca, have a qiblah wall which points to Mecca. The qiblah wall is decorated with a prayer niche called the mihrab. This tile is often found in or around the mihrab on the qiblah wall to help Muslims visualise what they were praying towards. These tiles might also have been sold as luxurious hajj commemorations for the rich in Ottoman Turkey, or for donation to religious establishments.

The Ottomans had invented a type of painting genre called the topographical painting. This genre of art involves the painting of a composite scene in 2-D with elements that are viewed from different perspectives and with no human figures. In this tile, you can see the various types of structures painted in 2-D and in different perspectives. Some artefacts we have seen just now also were also depicted in this manner (see artefacts #2-1, #2-2, #2-4 and #2-5).


We have just viewed artefacts relating to the hajj and sacred Islamic sites, which gave you a glimpse of some beliefs of Muslims and the rituals they perform.

We will proceed to the next section called Religious and Funerary Architecture. Stay tuned!



  1. Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Architecture in Islamic Arts. PP 44-47, 52-55, 58-63.
  2. The Hidden Art of Islam by BBC. Released in 2012.
  3. Wikipedia – Kaaba:
  4. Wikipedia – Mecca:
  5. Wikipedia – al-Masjid al-Nabawi:
  6. Wikipedia – Battle of Karbala:
  7. Wikipedia – Ottoman Miniature: