An Abbasid Ka'ba Key, Mecca, Arabia, Dated A.H. 575/A.D. 1179-1180
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.
NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF BUSINESS PRINTED IN THE SALE CATALOGUE."
Qur'an, surah al-Hajj (XXII), 27), followed by: 'The Most Supreme God told the truth'.
On the other side:
hadha ma 'umila li-bayt allah al-haram fi ayyam mawlana al-imam ibn al-imam al-muqtadi abu ja'far al-mustansir abu'l-'abbas / bi-tarikh khamsam'a wa khams wa sab'in
'This is what was made for the Holy House of God (The Ka'ba) during the time of our lord the Imam son of the Imam al-Muqtadi Abu Ja'far al-Mustansir Abu'l-'Abbas 573 (A.D. 1177-1178)'.
Perhaps one of the most powerful symbols of Islam, the ka'ba key is perceived to carry as much blessing as the kiswa cloth that covers the structure itself. This key unlocks the doors of one of the most iconic buildings of the world, and certainly the most highly honoured within the pan-Islamic community.
The tradition of dedicating the key to each Caliph seems to have originated with the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad. As a physical object it demonstrates the power of the reigning monarch, the key to the holiest building of an entire religion lies in his hands. It is the ultimate emblem of power, and to engrave such an object with his name is an even bolder assertion of the custodian's might than representing himself as a lion, or inlaying his name as a shining sun. Aesthetically the object might appear unprepossessing, but symbolically it should not be underestimated. It is not just a political tool though, metaphysically the key represents the unveiling of the soul in the eyes of God, the opening of the mind to enlightenment and the ultimate capitulation to God. Of all the symbols of Islam, this is arguably the most iconic.
In later periods the key continued to be engraved with the Caliph's name, certainly during the Mamluk and Ottoman eras, when the key and the kiswa were both produced in Egypt.
Fifty-eight keys, apart from this, are recorded: fifty-four are in the Topkapi Palace Museum; two, previously owned by Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan are in the Nuhad Es-Said Collection; one is in the Louvre, previously in the Peytel collection; and another is in the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo. Of these, seven date from the Abbasid period. The earliest is dated A.H. 555/A.D. 1160. This key is the second earliest example known, and is previously unpublished.
Max van Berchem was the first to publish two ka'ba keys in 1904, one of which from the Peytel collection, now in the Louvre, is dated A.D. 1363-4. Janine Sourdel-Thomine studied the Topkapi collection between 1966 and 1970 for Gaston Wiet's corpus of inscriptions of Mecca and Medina. She notes seven Abbasid keys dated between 555/1160 and 622/1225, and quotes the earliest written record of a gold lock sent in the year 219/834 for the door of the ka'ba by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu'tasim.
This key is a significant and rare addition to the corpus of known keys to the ka'ba, despite the number of keys manufactured there are very few extant, and of these they are all in museums.