We stare at the dazzling white columns surrounding the courtyard of the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, the sunlight forming pools on the marble mozaic floor. The effect is mesmerizing, a play of light and perspective that renders us momentarily speechless.
“It’s better than the Taj Mahal,” my husband says at last, and I have to agree. The architects have taken the best of traditional and contemporary Islamic architecture and combined it with modern building techniques and materials, sparing no expense to create the third largest mosque in the world.
We move through the arcade admiring the pillars, intricate floral designs winding their way up from the floor. These are fashioned from gold and semi-precious stones, including lapis lazuli, amethysts and mother of pearl. The guidebook tells us that the architects sourced materials from all around the world: the marble alone came from 28 different countries, including India, China, and Italy.
In Your Bucket Because…
- This is one of the few mosques in the Middle East that welcomes non-Muslim visitors
- The peace and harmony provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Abu Dhabi city, and you will marvel at the design and opulence of the building
- Good for visitors who appreciate art, architecture, and visiting sacred sites.
I look up to see a guard beckoning furiously to me, and I approach nervously, hoping I haven’t violated the strict dress code in any way. We have already seen a young man step out of a taxi only to be turned away because his shorts did not cover his knees. But the guard just points wordlessly at the cloakroom, and I realise that I am expected to don an abayah — (the traditional black cloak) and head covering if I am to continue my visit.
A Vast Prayer Hall
I struggle a bit to arrange the headscarf but finally it falls into place. It is surprisingly cool and I find that I am enjoying the strange sense of anonymity as we remove our shoes and move into the mosque. The building is vast: the main prayer hall can accommodate 7,000 people. Today it is just us and two or three others, and we can almost feel the silence and the space pressing down upon us.
The carpet is soft beneath our feet. This is the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, specially made to a contemporary Iranian design. Everything is big here: the site occupies an area of 22,000 square meters (equivalent to five football pitches), and at busy times up to 40,000 people can be packed into the mosque and courtyard.
Not just big, but opulent as well. The seven chandeliers in the main hall feature Austrian Swarowski crystals and Italian glasswork. The central chandelier is 10 meters high and weighs 9 tonnes. In keeping with the cosmopolitan nature of the building, we see many Turkish Iznik panels: ceramic tiles with intricate designs.
We stop to look at the Qibla Wall, which faces towards Mecca and features the 99 names of Allah in traditional Kufi calligraphy, before returning to the courtyard. More big numbers: the arcades around the courtyard are lined by around a thousand columns; the mosque includes four minarets and over eighty domes. The floor of the courtyard, with its contemporary floral pattern, is supposedly the largest marble mozaic in the world.
Grounds of the Mosque
The heat hits us as we step outside into the grounds. It is peaceful here, the only sound the afternoon call of the muezzin. Although the mosque was completed in 2007, the gardens are still under construction. Like much of Abu Dhabi, this is work in progress, but it does not diminish our enjoyment of the mosque.
Eventually the building will be surrounded by shallow pools: as is common in Islamic design, reflections of the building in the water will be an integral part of the architecture. Today the pools are empty and two children, too young to be restricted by the robes of their elders, are running around in them, their shrieks piercing the silence.
It is time to take my abayah back to the cloakroom and to return to the bustle of the city. Later in the evening we will sit outside the nearby Shangri-La Hotel and, as the sun sets, look across the water to the floodlit mosque.
- The mosque is open from 10 am to 9 pm every day, but is used for worship on a Friday. There is no entrance charge.
- Free tours are available: see website for details.
- There is a strict dress code. Shoes must be removed before entering the mosque.
- Non-Muslims are welcome, but are asked not to touch copies of the Koran.