114. Ka’ba Key?

Probably made in Mecca, bearing the date 573 ah/1177–8 ad
Size: 37 cm long
Iron, copper and silver alloy

This object has an interesting tale to tell. It might be a mournful lament if it were not so interesting. It came up for auction in London in 2010 and sold for £9.2 million. The whole room erupted with applause so unexpected was the price; the estimate in the catalogue was £400,000–500,000. Two weeks later Souren Melikian published an article in the Herald Tribune declaring the Key a fake. The legal representatives of the buyer, the King of Saudi Arabia, cancelled the sale.

Melikian’s opinions are notoriously unreliable. He knows a lot in the field of Islamic art, but there is something that twists his judgements, along with a propensity to attribute most works of art to Iran, including, incredibly, the Pisa Griffon. I am not alone in saying this: Abolala Soudavar’s 44-page demolition of Melikian’s catalogue for the Safavid exhibition at the Louvre, Le Chant du Monde, entitled ‘A Disenchanting Echo of Safavid Art History’ reflects what I, and many others, think. ‘There is hardly a page without a mistake. Typos and erroneous cross-references notwithstanding, the major problem of the catalogue is its methodology, one that solely relies on deciphering inscriptions, often wrongly, and using them to embark on a fantasy trip by developing theories in defiance of available evidence… I believe that the long list of his mistakes shall justify the harsh criticism that I have presented in this introduction.’

Early in my career as an art dealer, I wrote a letter to the Herald Tribune cataloguing a whole series of glaring errors in what he had written in his reports of Islamic auctions. It took a lot of prodding, but eventually they published my complaint, but without its original title: ‘Souren Melikian: the biggest fake in the Persian art market’. He was in a powerful position with his weekly column, read by many, but he seemed to be driven by a hatred of the traders. He saw himself more intelligent and qualified, and yet it was they who were making the money. It is understandable, but he has done a lot of damage, unjustifiably.

Returning to the Key and its inscriptions, Melikian wrote: ‘Conceivable in the later Turkish Ottoman or Persian usage when writing official inscriptions in Arabic, it would be astounding on a key, a key made in the 12th century for the most important shrine in Islam. Further stretching incredulity, the script attempted, unsuccessfully, to imitate the Kufic letter forms of ninth-century manuscripts. At that point it was difficult to reject the suspicion that here was one of those late apocryphal artefacts made for Ottoman sultans, who were keen to show they preserved in their treasury works loaded with a symbolism important to the world Islamic community that they aspired to rule.’

He also declared the cover illustration of the same catalogue, a Nasrid enamelled gold buckle, to be fake. ‘Similar inconsistencies marred the script of the other star lot in Sotheby’s sale. A gold and enamel buckle was celebrated in the catalogue as ‘an extraordinary example of the art of the goldsmith in 14th century Spain’ under the heading ‘an exceptionally Rare Royal Belt Buckle from Al-Andalus.’ The Arab name of Andalucia is another of those words with a powerful emotional charge – Romantic writers of the 19th-century Arab literary Renaissance sung in vibrant tones the lost province of the westernmost extremity of the Arab world. So deeply stirred were the bidders sitting in Sotheby’s room that they did not spend much time looking at the object. Otherwise, they might have noticed the wobbly lettering, made more improbable by its attempt at emulating certain forms of much earlier writing, such as the extremities of the taller letters. These occur in the Middle East, but are not matched in the body of inscriptions from Arab Spain. The word ‘al-sultan’ at the bottom has its initial alif (letter A) nearly attached to the following lam (letter L) and its entire appearance is improbable in 14th-century Spain. The enamelling is poor and the design miserable with its formless stylised vegetal motifs. No wonder that the supposedly important Buckle remained previously unpublished. It might have been best if it had remained so.’

In the case of the Buckle there is irrefutable scientific evidence from two different laboratories that it is genuine, but this seems to have had no weight compared to Melikian’s own high opinion of his own opinion. What he wrote is an illustration of what Abolallah Soudavar describes, as quoted above. His critique of the Buckle is pure twaddle, and his peculiar bias is also on full display.

There can be no question about authenticity of the Buckle, but the Key is more ambiguous. It underwent scientific examinations in two specialised laboratories. The first concluded that the iron body of the Key was probably ancient, consistent with the date in the inscription, but that the silver alloy of the top and cap was probably more recent. The second report was unambiguous: it’s a fake. The British Museum also produced a study closely following Melikian’s line, but so superficial and full of inconsistences that it failed to address any of the questions that such an object presents.

The purpose of all this is not to plead the authenticity of the Key: I don’t know, like everybody else. It is rather a story of the strange nature of the art market. To me it is like an Oriental tale, in which an evil genie, whose role is to frustrate all human activities where possible, has turned something valuable into something worthless.*

The custom of dedicating the lock and key to each Caliph seems to have originated during the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. It symbolised the Caliph’s role as a guardian of the holiest site in Islam, which carried with it huge prestige. The practice continued under the Mamluk sultans of Egypt and then with the Ottoman sultans of Turkey.

Fifty-eight keys, apart from this one are recorded; fifty-four are in the Topkapi Palace Museum; two, previously owned by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, are in the Nuhad Es-Said collection, now in Qatar; one is in the Louvre; and one was previously in the Peytel collection. Of these, seven date from the Abbasid period. The earliest is dated 555 ah/1160 ad. This key, if genuine, is the second earliest example known, and previously unrecorded. It seems likely that all the Ka’ba keys were made in Mecca. The key dated 555 ah is signed by Ilyas ibn Yusuf Ahmad al-Makki. The keys all have provincial features in their decoration, reflecting Abbasid, Mamluk and Ottoman styles, but they differ in quality from products of metropolitan workshops.

Max van Berchem was the first to publish two Ka’ba keys in 1904, one, of which, from the Peytel collection, dated 1363/4, is now in the Louvre. 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 year 219/834 for the door of the Ka’ba by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mu’tasim.

In 1516, the Ottoman army under Sultan Selim I defeated the Mamluks. As a result, the Sherif of Mecca Abu Namayy Muhammad II bin Barakat, sent his son to congratulate the Sultan, taking with him the keys to the Ka’ba that were stored in Mecca. These were presented as a gift in recognition of the Sultan’s role as protector of the Two Holy Places, and have resided in Topkapi ever since.

* Idries Shah published a story, ‘The Princess of the Water of Life’ (Seeker After Truth, Octagon Press, 1992. pp. 166–7), which neatly encapsulates the operation of ‘malevolence’ in human affairs. The point of such a story is, I believe, not to explain it, but to provide a point of reference to recognise it.


Max van Berchem, Deux clefs de la Mecque, Notes d’archéologie arabe III, JA, 1904, 1, pp. 90–96.
Gaston Migeon, Musée de Louvre. L’Orient musulman, Paris, 1922, I, no. 48 and plate XVII.
Gaston Migeon, Manuel d’art musulman. Les arts plastiques et industriels, 2nd edition, Paris, 1927, I, pp. 390–392.
Gaston Wiet, Objets en cuivre, Cairo, 1932, p. 227, no. 311.
Sourdel-Thomine, J. ‘Clefs et serrures de la Ka’ba. Notes d’epigraphie arabe’, Revue des Études Islamiques, Vol. 39, 1971, pp. 29–86.
Allan, James, W., Islamic Metalwork, The Nuhad Es-Said Collection, Sotheby Publications, London, 1982.