Once you arrive in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, you will soon realize how all the roads lead to the Grand Mosque Sheikh Zayed. Immense, gorgeous and glamorous, both in the beating of the desertic sun and when it is lightened brightly under the moon, the Great Mosque of Abu Dhabi is visible from anywhere in the city, so you can not miss it. And anyway, you certainly would not want this, because the construction is impressive and worth visiting at least once.
To get a better understanding of how big the construction is, imagine 4 football stadiums, placed next to each other. Or imagine 12 hectares of land corresponding to just the construction itself, without taking into account the gardens and the surrounding parking area, a place big enough for more than 40,000 people to pray at the same time. Even so, the Sheikh Zayed mosque does not hold the title for the largest mosques in the world, being surpassed by at least the two mosques of the neighboring country of Saudi Arabia, in Mecca and Medina.
The Great Mosque of the United Arab Emirates has been planned as a gigantic project since the beginning, from all points of view, and its completion lasted more than 10 years. The cost, of course, was very big, es expected: a little over half a billion dollars. Although the investment was a huge one, both on the financial side and on the labor force, all these did not represent obstacles for the President of the Emirates at the time, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He had an ambitious and well-defined dream to build the largest and most beautiful mosque in the Emirates, a space that symbolizes peace, love, and tolerance.
Unfortunately, the late president has not lived enough to admire the mosque in all of its splendor, and he died before the project was completed in 2007. However, the first ceremony inside the mosque was dedicated to the funeral of the president, buried at the mosque. Obviously, the name of the building comes from the country’s former leader, Sheikh Zayed.
Visiting the Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi
Visiting hours and rules
Although is the number one tourist attraction in the city and thousands of visitors from all over the world come here each day, the access inside the mosque doesn’t require a ticket and is free. Anyone can visit it, and the schedule is very generous, being opened to the public Sunday to Thursday, from 9 am to 10 pm. However, each Friday or Jumu’ah, as it is called in Arabic, is dedicated exclusively to the Muslims, because it is the most important day of the week in Islam.
I have visited it on a Tuesday afternoon of March. It has been difficult for me to choose the right moment of the day, knowing that the imposing structure is beautiful both during the day and when it is colored in blue lights after sunset. I chose to see it in the natural light, wanting to analyze in detail its architecture and splendid patterns drawn on the white marble. I’ve also seen in the posture of darkness, and I admired it from the exterior, almost every evening of the 6 spent in Abu Dhabi, from the car.
Even if it’s relaxing and enjoyable, a visit to the mosque involves some rules and restrictions that you need to keep in mind, if you do not want to be reprimanded by people from the guard or even banished from the religious site. Both women and men have to respect the choice of a more than decent outfit and to borrow abayas, valid at the entrance to the mosque. Once you have undergone a routine check-up, you have the opportunity to choose a hooded abaya in various colors, from brown to black or blue, depending on their availability. In the case of men, they will wear a long and white coat that covers them entirely, except for the head.
Pay attention to the hood, because the fabric is slippery and it can fell down! In this situation, the guards will attract your attention every time to cover your head. So, I recommend you have at least one clip to help you fix the piece of material. Other important rules are related to the affectional gestures between you and your partner within the mosque. These are completely forbidden! The same is photographing Muslim women or people who are praying. Keep the camera as far away from them and try throughout the tour to have the opposite behavior to the ostentatious word.
Make sure you’re well-hydrated and ate well before because you will not be allowed to consume food or drinks indoors. It is also mandatory to take your shoes off in a specially designed space for shoe storage. You can keep your socks if you want to. Even if these rules seem a bit too strict, you have to keep in mind that you are in a country with a different religion and culture, and these must be respected beyond any personal opinion.
Visiting on your own or on a tour
When you visit the opulent mosque, you have two options. Whether you choose to discover each space on your own or choose one of the free one-hour tours that take place several times over the course of a day. I wanted to explore the place in the order of my choice and to allocate to each space a certain time, without being restricted by the group I would have belonged to if I was going for this option. It seems that my choice was inspired because I needed about 3 hours to make the most of every detail of the splendid building.
The Sheik Zayed Mosque Records
Like many other buildings in the Emirates, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque also holds some impressive records. One of them refers to the rug inside the main room of prayer, being the largest in the world. It measures over 5,000 square meters and weighs 35 tons, made entirely of wool, originating in New Zealand and Iran. Although it is decorated with more than 25 colors, the predominant hue is green, which is said to be the favorite color of the former president. Theoretically, the carpet was made from pieces that were later put together right inside the mosque; Practically, it has been made with so much precision that these details are not noticeable. Moreover, the quality is one that you will feel instantly, once you touch it with your bare feet.
Another record is held by one of the seven chandeliers, which is the third largest in the world, decorated with thousands of Swarovski stones of several colors. The chandeliers are covered in 24-karat gold, and every single millimeter shows luxury. If you thought that the luxurious decorations of the immense main prayer room end here, you are wrong! The walls and ceilings are decorated with superb details, and the 96 columns supporting the room are decorated with mother of pearl, making them extremely precious and distinctive. It is a real pleasure to admire all the ornaments that have been so well carved that will make you immediately forget about the outside heat. Especially because the temperature inside the mosque is very pleasant!
This is not the case with regard to the exterior. Here, you will have to bear the hot rays of the sun, which may be stronger or weaker, depending on the season and the time of the day. Whatever it is, you have to be armed with patience, because you will have much to see. Besides the aforementioned 96 columns, the Sheikh Zayed mosque has another 1000, all made of white marble and decorated with a floral mosaic in strong colors. To the top, the shape of these columns mimics the palm tree, a very beautiful detail that creates a bridge between the mosques and the gardens that surround it. The columns are placed in line so that they create very long hallways that give the feeling of an extremely large space. To be honest, it’s not only a sensation …
One of my favorite parts is the interior courtyard, immense, gorgeous and immaculate, guarded by 4 tours or minarets, in the top of which there is a crescent moon, the symbol of Islam. Here, the predominant color is also white, the symbol of peace and purity, given by the marble which was specially brought from Macedonia. The monotony of white is broken by a huge floral pattern.
In fact, all the materials used are of the highest quality, from white marble, crystals, ceramics, gold, semiprecious stones, coming from all over the world, Morocco, Italy, India, New Zealand, Malaysia and the list does not stop here. The impressive construction brought together more than 3,000 workers and more than 30 contract firms, the leader being an Italian company.
Also in the inner courtyard, you will notice that besides the four towers, there are also 82 domes that instantly made me think of Alladyn. The similarity is not at all haphazard, as the mosque architecture is inspired by several mosques in Egypt, Pakistan and even the famous Taj Mahal of India.
Such a grandeur could only be thought of by a very skillful architect, the Syrian Yousef Abdelky. He also thought of an extremely ingenious lighting system designed to synchronize with the phases of the moon. Unfortunately, I did not witness the show offered by this project, but I will definitely do it on my next visit to Abu Dhabi. If you want to find out more about this part of the world, there is a library in the north-west tower of the building that contains an impressive collection of books written in several international languages.
Last but not least, I want to mention another detail that attracted my attention and which I think adds a great plus to the whole architectural ensemble. These are the 10 swimming pools that surround the building, in which the columns and minarets are mirrored, giving the building a sense of continuity and elongation.
How to get to the largest mosque in Abu Dhabi
It is true, most tourists put Dubai on the first place when thinking about a holiday in the Emirates. However, you must know that the capital of Abu Dhabi has a lot to offer in terms of tourist attractions, and the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is just one of them. The distance between Abu Dhabi and Dubai is about an hour and a half, so you can get here on a day trip, either on an organized tour or on a rented car. There is also the option of a bus or taxi.