Image by Naufal MQ Getty Images
Rising majestically from beautifully manicured gardens and visible from each of the bridges joining Abu Dhabi Island to the mainland, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque represents an impressive welcome to the city. Conceived by the first president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed, and marking his final resting place, the mosque accommodates 50,000 worshippers and is one of the few in the region open to non-Muslims.
With more than 80 marble domes on a roofline held aloft by 1000 pillars and punctuated by four 107m-high minarets, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a masterpiece of modern Islamic architecture and design. More than 90,000 tonnes of pure white Greek and Macedonian marble were used in its construction. Delicate floral designs inlaid with semi-precious stones, such as lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone, jasper and mother-of-pearl, decorate a variety of marbles and contrast with the more traditional geometric ceramic details.
While it includes references to Mamluk, Ottoman and Fatimid styles, the overwhelming impression of the breathtaking interior is contemporary and innovative, with three steel, gold, brass and crystal chandeliers filling the main prayer hall with shafts of primary-coloured light. The chandeliers, the largest of which weighs approximately 11 tonnes, sparkle with Swarovski crystals and shine with 40kg of 24-karat galvanised gold.
One of the prayer hall's most impressive features is the world's largest loomed carpet fashioned from Iranian cotton and New Zealand wool and flown in from Mashad, Iran, on two aeroplanes. The medallion design with elaborate arabesque motifs took 1200 craftspeople two years to complete, half of which was spent on hand-knotting the 5700 sq metres of woollen thread on a cotton base. That translates as 2.268 billion knots!
Visitors are welcome to enter the mosque except during prayer times. A worthwhile free 45-minute guided tour (in English and Arabic) helps explain some fundamentals of the Islamic religion while pointing out some of the stylistic highlights of the interior (otherwise comprehensive audio tours are available in 11 languages). Check the website for prayer times, which change daily. Mosque etiquette requires all visitors to wear long, loose-fitting, ankle-length trousers or skirts, long sleeves and a headscarf for women. Those not dressed appropriately are asked to go into a changing room at security, where hooded abayas and kandouras can be borrowed for free.
Sheikh Zayed's mausoleum is on the approach to the mosque entrance, though only sitting presidents are allowed to enter. Prayers are continually recited by attendants here in one-hour shifts 24/7 (the cycles takes 1½ to two days to complete). While photographs of the mausoleum are not permitted, visitors are free to photograph all other parts of the mosque, but sensitivity should be shown towards those in prayer. There is a new coffee house and Etihad Modern Art Gallery shop at the north entrance and a much larger visitors centre (unfortunately with retail) was under construction at time of research.