“We should preserve our traditions and national heritage. We should stick to our roots and our Arabic and Islamic traditions.” Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayhan
I was driving past the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque earlier this week and I realised that I have never featured this magnificent architectural and religious site on the blog. I’ve mentioned it in passing in various Abu Dhabi visitor related posts but I haven’t given it the full recognition it deserves especially as it’s just been voted as TripAdvisor’s world’s second favourite landmark and what better time to feature it then during the Holy Month of Ramadan.
This colossal sized place of worship is the UAE’s largest and most famous mosque, an iconic landmark that attracts millions of worshippers and curious tourists every year. A breathtaking sight from every angle, its elevated position near the three bridges that connect Abu Dhabi Island to the mainland serves as a memorable welcome to the city. Commissioned by its namesake, the late founder and president of the UAE Sheikh Zayed Al Nayhan, the vast project gave architects from all over the world the opportunity to submit their designs. The chosen blueprint incorporated characteristics and inspiration from Persian, Mughal and Moorish mosque architecture, in fact the mosque unites the world with elements of its design, construction and materials coming from twelve countries around the globe as well as the UAE.
Sitting on 22,000 square metres with eighty-two domes, over a thousand columns of embellished marble, four minarets that sit over 100 metres high, 24-carat gold gilded chandeliers and a capacity for over 40,000 worshippers it’s hardly astonishing that the construction took just under twelve years. Sadly its completion came after Sheikh Zayed’s passing in 2004 so he didn’t witness the finalisation of this enormous project but his sons honoured their father’s vision to continue his legacy. The mosque finally opened on 20th December 2007, Sheikh Zayed’s final resting place is inside a standalone mausoleum in the mosque grounds where attendants recite prayers continuously.
Not only does this amazing building stand out as the top attraction to visit in the capital but its also offers non-muslim visitors an educational insight into Islam. This modern reinterpretation of the Islamic place of worship is one the world’s largest mosques, an architectural work of art both inside and out. Much thought and attention to detail has been given to the overall design and the site in general that is a haven of of calm and tranquility. This remarkable white and gold edifice glistenings in the daily sun surrounded by the immaculate landscaped gardens and water features but in my opinion the optimum time to visit is sunset when it’s radiance is reflected in the pools that surround it. Further transformation occurs at night aided by its distinctive lightning system which reflects the different phases of the moon, becoming lighter as the moon becomes fuller. At the moment part of the site is going through a construction phase so is not looking it prettiest from some angles.
One of the mosque’s most notable features is the colourful hand knotted carpet in the main prayer hall. Made in Iran by 1,300 artisans using twenty-five different coloured wools (green being most prominent as its was Sheikh Zayed’s favourite colour) the gigantic carpet (which measures 5,630 m²) was dissected into nine pieces for transportation to Abu Dhabi then reassembled inside the building. Raised horizontal lines which are not visible from afar are integrated into the overall pattern so that the 9,000 worshippers that the hall accommodates can align for prayer. In true UAE fashion the mosque is the proud owner of a Guinness World Record for the largest hand-woven carpet and previously also held the record for the largest chandelier until a bigger one was built in Qatar.
Another stunning attribute is the gigantic steel, gold, brass and crystal chandelier hanging in the main prayer hall that is a whopping ten metres in diameter, fifteen metres in height and weighs twelve tonnes. The decorative light fixture is one of seven made in Germany costing more than eight million US dollars, hanging alongside two others of the same design. Collectively they project flashes of colour and light from the Swarovski crystals and shine from the 24-carat galvanised gold across the main prayer hall. There are two smaller prayer halls that each accommodate 1,500 worshippers, one of which is for ladies only. Externally the mosque has one high main 85m dome and two 75m high domes on either side of it. Three versions of traditional calligraphy by artists from the UAE, Syria and Jordan feature on the Qibla wall including ninety-nine names of Allah (God).
I had the privilege to attend a presentation at the teenagers school a few years ago by fellow Brit Kevin Dean, the creator of the delicate botanic mosaics inherent to the mosques overall appearance. Dean, who hails from Southsea in my home county, is an illustrator and artist who graduated from the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. His colourful floral designs incorporate flowers and plants from the Northern and Southern hemispheres as well as the Gulf region. His original small-scale sketches were transformed onto the huge white Italian marble canvas of the mosque’s 17,400 square foot Sahan (outdoor prayer area/courtyard) as well as some of the walls and arches. Thirty-seven shades of marble inlaid with semi-precious stones such as mother-of-pearl and amethyst were used to recreate the irises, lilies, tulips, roses, jasmines and passifloras from Dean’s initial designs.
When I first visited the mosque back in February 2009 it was easy to collect an abeya or kandura at the public entrance and roam free through the communal areas. Over the years the mosque’s growing popularity has meant an increase in tourists so these days obtaining the appropriate clothing is a more time-consuming process requiring visitors to traipse through the underground basement car park and provide relevant ID, then repeat the process to return the clothing (read about mosque etiquette here).
Rope barriers have also been introduced to cordon off zones of the carpet in the main hall confining sightseers to certain areas. The increase in visitors (estimated at three million worshippers and tourists combined last year) has also seen commercialism infiltrate the site in the form of Australian brand The Coffee Club opening a cafe in the grounds. Luckily it’s tucked away in a far corner so does not encroach on the serenity of the mosque but does give the bus loads of tourists a refreshment stop.
Last month, as mentioned earlier in this post, the mosque received the accolade of the world’s second favorite landmark from TripAdvisor’s annual Travelers’ Choice Awards of 2016. Top spot went to Machu Picchu who along with Sheikh Zayed mosque beat the historical and architectural favourites Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower in the process. The travel website which is a trusted source of information for most people ranks travellers top twenty-five hotels, destinations, beaches, islands and landmarks to visit around the globe. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a sight to behold and most definitely worth a visit if you haven’t been already to appreciate its sheer size, architectural brilliance and beauty, certainly a spiritual and sightseeing ‘must-do’ for any visitors too. My top tips are to factor in plenty of time to collect the required clothing especially if you are planning to capture some sunset photographs (the sun disappears quickly here), always check ahead for prayer timings and I would recommend joining one of the free and insightful guided tours which are available in both English and Arabic.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Location: Situated between the Maqta, Mussafah and Sheikh Zayed bridges on the mainland.
Opening Times: The mosque is open daily from 9am to 10pm (last entry at 9.30 pm), Saturday to Thursday and 4.30pm to 10pm on Fridays (Friday morning is for worshippers only). Prayer times change daily – click here for more details.
During the Holy Month the mosque continues to be open daily (except Friday) from 9am to 2pm (last entry at 1.30pm). Twelve air-conditioned tents have been set-up in the grounds to accommodate the large number of additional worshippers during Ramadan.
Visitors are free to photograph all parts of the mosque except Sheikh Zayed’s mausoleum which is strictly not permitted.
Complimentary one hour guided tours run from Sunday – Thursday at 10:00am, 11:00am and 5:00pm. Friday times are 5:00pm and 7:00pm and on Saturday’s at 10:00am, 11:00am, 2:00pm, 5:00pm and 7:00pm.
Click here for a virtual tour of the mosque via Google Street View
All views are my own. Unless otherwise stated, all photos on this page © Jo Brett 2009 – 2016. All rights reserved. Final photo used courtesy of www.szgmc.ae