On my several business trips to Abu Dhabi over a period of two years, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque had been ever present on the horizon, both by day…
…and by night..
However, it was not until my last trip that my visiting colleagues and I made the trip to discover Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque for ourselves.
Unlike many mosques that limit visitors to Muslims, Sheikh Zayed wanted the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque to be a place for Muslims and non-Muslims alike – a place of learning and of discovery of Muslim art, history and philosophy.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is open for visits at specific times every day but is not available to non-Muslims during the morning prayers on Fridays.
Check the website for opening times and for the time of the tours, if you would like to take one. Be respectfully dressed (no shorts, scanty or see through clothes and cover your arms and legs.). Women will be required to wear the traditional black abaya and head scarf if their clothing doesn't pass inspection.
My long sleeved linen shirt was slightly transparent, so I lined up for my abaya. After donning it my colleagues dryly told me black was my colour - but because it was synthetic, the fabric didn't 'breathe'. Although the Grand Mosque is air conditioned, by the end of our visit I was sweltering
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is about a 20 minute drive from Abu Dhabi, and turning off the highway, not extremely well sign-posted. If not driving, it is easiest to get a taxi there and make arrangements with the taxi driver for the return trip, as finding a cab in the area can otherwise be difficult.
From the car park you already gain some sense of the scale of the place.
There are a total of 9 large and 45 smaller domes and four minarets.
I had often seen the Grand Mosque from the highway, where both during the day and in spectacular night illuminations, it is a magnificent sight and obviously of generous proportions.
One night at dinner at Queryat Al Beri shopping mall, it made a stunning sight against the setting sun.
The construction that is the hallmark of Abu Dhabi was ever present around it, both in the mosque grounds itself and within the surrounding area.
As I looked from inside the restaurant at the Grand Mosque across the river, the window reflections gave the impression that the metal lanterns inside had been magically hung in the palms outside.
The dust and heat haze of the Abu Dhabi evening softened the edges of the mosque’s outline against the sunset.
It looked quite different up close – its white outline carved against the dust-softened blue of the sky.
The exterior surfaces of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque are clad in Sivec marble from Greece and Macedonia, and although in fact a milky white, in the glare of the day the whole structure gleams stark white against the blue Abu Dhabi sky.
The palms outside, like those that line the way to the airport, have bags that hang over the dates so they can be more easily harvested when ripe.
When I flew back from Qatar, I always treasured the sight of the palm tree lined boulevards and highways of Abu Dhabi – such a welcome sight against the surrounding desert.
For them, we can thank Sheikh Zayed. I read about Sultan bin Zayed in Arabian Sands
, the compelling account by Wilfred Thesiger’ of his travels between 1945 and 1950 with the Bedouin in what was called the Empty Quarter – the vast and punishing desert of Oman and what is now the Emirates.
Thesiger describes arriving by camel at the small and unprepossessing fort of Abu Dhabi after a long journey and observing Sheik bin Zayed counseling, making judgments, and listening to the stories of his travelling clansmen.
“He was a powerfully built man of about thirty, with a brown beard. He had a strong, intelligent face, with steady, observant eyes, and his manner was quiet, but masterful”.
Thesiger spent several periods of time with bin Zayed, who assisted him in getting approvals to enter various lands over the course of his travels. He vividly describes a hawking expedition together in the desert.
He says that his Bedouin companions, his Bedu, liked Zayed for “his informal manner and friendliness, his shrewdness and his physical strength.”
Zayed had a great reputation amongst the Bedouin for he knew camels, could ride like a Bedu, shoot, and knew how to fight.
This remarkable man was a visionary. His family retain the leadership of the land, and Sheik bin Zayed is fondly seen as the father of the new nation.
The greenery lining the streets is just one of the founding features he implemented in creating the Abu Dhabi of the future from oil and gas revenue.
The making of this mosque was one of his concepts, and it seems appropriate that he is entombed on the grounds beside this fantastic monument. I think it a fitting tribute to a man who grew from a nomadic desert existence to shrewdly negotiating and planning a new, modern nation.
In the mosque, minarets and columns are reflected in the long shallow pools that surround it.
There are over 1000 columns…
…clad in marble panels …
…and inlaid with blue lapis lazuli red agate, the transparent violet of amethyst, the iridescent blues, greens and purples of abalone shell, and creamy white mother of pearl.
These inlays are continued in the grandiose entrance and mirrored in the marble floors.
Elsewhere there are beautiful inlaid panels recessed into alcoves each with a unique design.
A stunning blue chandelier creates the focal point of the entry gallery.
The chandelier below the beautiful entrance dome is one of seven golden chandeliers that were made in Germany and that include Italian glasswork and Austrian Swarovski crystals.
From the majestic entrance, whose dimensions are best seen in scale when relative to a visitor in her abaya (me) kneeling on the marble floor.
People enter the mosque main building through an exquisite glass entrance arch – elegantly exotic in the simplicity of its design.
Looking back through the entrance gallery it gives the impression of capturing and filtering light to bring your soul to a loftier place.
The cut glass flowers in the windows shape views into the courtyard…
…and along the colonnades.
Inside, the stunning huge main hall can accommodate up to 9,000 worshippers.
The giant dome is supported by 96 columns that are inlaid in flowing patterns of mother of pearl.
The luxurious carpet with its specially designed patterns took the women of Khorasan in Iran two years to weave.
Theses specialist carpet makers were flown to Abu Dhabi to join it all together as the largest carpet in the world.
Under the centre dome the carpet pattern changes.
One wonders of the many hopes, dreams, and other thoughts of the village artisans that are tied into the more than 2,268,000 knots of the carpet.
Off to the side of the main prayer space under the dome there are the Women’s Prayer Rooms.
These have Moorish arches and inlaid walls.
Within Sheik Zayad Grand Mosque you are constantly over-awed with the richness of the decorations, the magnificence of the intermixed architectural styles, and the exquisite lighting on peripheral walls.
Together theyform a frame for the magnificent central chandelier.
The mosque seems designed to frame the chandelier from every angle.
It has beend esigned so that each angle has its own symmetry.
This central chandelier is 10 metres high (32.8 feet), and the same distance wide.
It weighs nine tonnes, something I am glad I didn't know when I lay on the carpet under it for this photo.
I wanted to capture the detail of the Swarovski crystal pieces that are intricately inset within it.
With its 24K gold and coloured crystals the central chandelier of Sheik Zayed’s Grand Mosque is magnificent - and within the massive space is perfectly proportioned.
The Qibla wall faces the direction of the Holy City of Mecca.
So as not to distract the worshippers, it is the least elaborately decorated of the whole mosque although the Mehrab niche within it is lined with gold glass mosaic.
The 99 qualities of Allah appear in Kufi calligraphy across the wall’s 50 metre length – subtly lit by LED lights.
It is an Arab Proverb that
If you have much, give of your wealth;
If you have little, give of your heart
In the Sheik bin Zayed Mosque we see an example of a man who gave of both.