Kaaba Tiles (more questions than answers)

Ever since my recent visit to Istanbul, Kaaba tiles have been swirling around in my mind. I first discovered them during a trip to Turkey two years ago, when I thought that I’d get home and look them up on the magical interwebs and find information and images to sift through to my heart’s delight. Not so much. Before we go further, here’s one, from the Mosque of Rustem Pasa (in Istanbul):

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Kaaba tile, Mosque of Rustem Pasa, Istanbul

Just look at it for a minute – see the Kaaba (the black rectangle) in the middle? See the minarets around the outside? See how there are six? Well, a seventh one was added to the actual mosque that surrounds the Kaaba after the Blue Mosque (Mosque of Sultan Ahmed) in Istanbul was built with six minarets. Of course, the mosque at Mecca, the center of Islam, had to have one more. So a seventh one was built at the Al-Masjid al-Haram (surrounding the Kaaba and meaning “the sacred mosque”) in 1629. Does that mean that this tile dates to before 1629? It seems like it must, but as with most questions about these tiles, then again, it may not.

Here’s the Al-Masjid al-Haram at Mecca from “a 1718 manuscript of Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli’s (Morocco, d. 1465)”.


Page with a depiction of Meccas from 1718 manuscript of Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli’s (Morocco, d. 1465). Now in the Library of Congress.

Whether or not Mecca actually looked like this, it gives you some sense of scale when compared to the mosque today. (The Kaaba, the big black cube, though it doesn’t look so big below, is in the middle):

Al-Masjid al-Haram, Mecca, Saudi Arabia, today.

Back to Kaaba tiles. We don’t know what purpose they served for sure, though I’ve heard that they’re supposed to remind people of their obligation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca if they’re able. Two other possible explanations make sense to me: 1) Someone who attended this mosque went to Mecca and brought the tile back, and/or 2) They’re meant to be prayed to – a more visual representation of Mecca than just praying toward the qibla wall (which is on the side of the mosque that faces Mecca). I saw a man on his knees, praying to the tile in the New Mosque (not getting trampled while on your knees in that busy mosque is quite a feat, or at least requires a lot of trust), just as people pray in front of the mihrab. The Kaaba tiles are striking, in that the tiles in a mosque are not representational – the tiles decorating mosques are made up of patterns, not scenes. So seeing a tile with an actual depiction of a thing – that thing must be important. When you notice one, it’s arresting. You stop and look, admiring the beauty while wondering what exactly it means.

According to Christie’s, the earliest known Kaaba tile is in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, made in 1642. You can probably imagine my excitement when I saw it in person:


Kaaba tile, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

It’s tucked back into an out-of-the-way hallway-like area (here’s an image) and not easy to get a photograph of, but I think that the above gives you an idea. How fascinating is it that a tile has been placed on top of the representation of the Kaaba? When and why did that happen? Don’t you think that if this were important, they would have tried to actually fix the image, rather than fit in any old tile? (This may not be any old tile, but it definitely doesn’t have the Kaaba on it!) Or does it not matter – a Kaaba tile is a Kaaba tile in any form?

Here’s one more, from the New Mosque in Istanbul:

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Kaaba tile, New Mosque, Istanbul

This tile isn’t going anywhere! The New Mosque is a very active mosque, so I suppose it makes sense to protect it — it looks like it’s already been repaired once (on the bottom left).

Before I leave you, I can’t resist showing you a couple more that are in very good shape, probably because they’re in museums.

Kaaba tile, 17th century, now in the Louvre in Paris

Kaaba tile, 17th century, now in the Louvre in Paris

Is there something missing here? Have pieces of different Kaaba scenes been fitted together, or was it simply repaired at some point?

Kaaba tile, 17th century, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Kaaba tile, 17th century, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

You can even get your very own iPhone cover.


iPhone cover from zazzle.

The more I look at these tiles, the more questions I have. Maybe that makes them even more appealing. If you have more information, please share. I’d love to hear it!


45 thoughts on “Kaaba Tiles (more questions than answers)

  1. Pingback: …Kaaba Tiles (more questions than answers)…. | Glamour,fashion,food,sex,girls,boys etc…

  2. You may also find the ‘Penrose tiles’ in the Andalusian mosques of interest. Penrose tiles, named after Roger Penrose of Oxford University, have patterns that fit together but never repeat (surprisingly). Penrose gave his name to them but was not the first to discover them, as the mosques at Alhambra and the other famous Andalusian city (Cordoba?) show. (Apparently the artist Escher was inspired by these tiles before he came up with his eponymous artwork.)

  3. I am really fascinated by this. The quality of art, the quaintness, the beauty of the patterns and technical achievements. Some pieces of artwork that united high art and craftsmen skills for the glory of the subject. Awesome.

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  5. What an interesting post & observations. I have been to both Istanbul and Mecca & noticed theta there are similarities in the design of the tiles. Is there a possibility that there will be similar tiles elsewhere?

    • I don’t think so, but I don’t know for sure. I haven’t seen them in other mosques I’ve been to (outside of Istanbul), but I wasn’t specifically looking, either. I’ve found surprisingly little on these tiles, and I really don’t understand why – there’s so much to them – interesting composition, technique, function, maybe even patronage. Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

  6. Check out Charlotte Maury’s essay on these tiles in Hajj: Collected Essays.
    Theres at least 60 in existence!

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