A Taj for the Gulf

Sun Herald, January 2009

The most awesome place in Abu Dhabi is surely the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, named after the country’s former ruler and the site of his tomb. Completed in late 2006 and colloquially simply called the Grand Mosque, it’s a construction of such scale and magnificence that it may well become the Taj Mahal of the Arabian Gulf.

Sheik Zayed, who died in 2004 aged 86, was the architect of the United Arab Emirates federation and its president for 30 years. The “father of the nation” is held in such high esteem that the Islamic prohibition on idolatry was “massaged” to allow a statue in his image – the only such monument in the country – which now graces the desert oasis city of Al Ain, the cultural heart of the Emirate. Meanwhile, the sheik’s larger-than-life portrait gazes down on traffic at various intersections in the UAE capital.

Sheik Zayed’s legacy is duly celebrated in a magnificent creation devoted to worship and which, in keeping with his policy of promoting international co-operation and understanding, actively encourages non-Muslim visitors by offering free guided tours. This open door invitation, the Al Ain statue and billboard portraits reflect Abu Dhabi’s generally relaxed and broad-focus approach to religious matters.

Clad in Indian Makrana marble, which also was used on the Taj Mahal, the Grand Mosque instantly became a glorious city landmark.

My first sight of it is in early light, with each ethereal dome and slender minaret perfectly reflected in the water flowing past my hotel at Qaryat Al Beri, located between the two bridges that connect Abu Dhabi city with the airport. Entranced by the view I linger over the Shangri La’s magnificent breakfast buffet while waiting for my room to be ready.

Later, I find the mosque is even more extraordinary up close. I am mesmerized by the vision of five and half acres of blinding white concrete and marble coruscating under a blazing Arabian sun.

A unifying landmark

My excellent guide, Ali Alsaloom, reveals and explains the many intricacies in the mosque’s design. He says it’s seen as a unifying landmark, involving designers, features, materials and suppliers from many different countries.

The bald facts are staggering: the mosque cost $500 million and its 80 white domes and four lofty white minarets have a footprint covering half a million square meters. Each minaret soars 115 metres, while the main dome rises 85 metres.

The outdoor prayer court measures 17,000 square metres and is paved with marble and mosaic inlays. Workmen continue to chip and file the stones. This court is enclosed by elegant white marble colonnades, more than 1000 columns in total, each one inlaid with intricate mosaic flower patterns. All this glorious architecture is mirrored in the dark blue pools that lap the building’s borders.

Wall niches feature small fountains backed by elaborate designs in mosaic tiles, sometimes inlaid with semi-precious stones. Ali tells me that much of this intricate work was done by Moroccan craftsmen. The mosque also has 80 elaborate ceramic panels bearing verses from the Koran, fashioned on 16th Century art works from Isnik in Turkey.

Before we enter the mosque, Ali respectfully asks that I refrain from gasping out loud. It’s a common reaction, he explains.

Bejewelled glory

Inside the cavernous main prayer hall, directly beneath the soaring main dome, I walk barefoot across the world’s largest Persian carpet, 7,110 square meters of the softest silk and wool created by Iranian artist Ali Khalili and hand-woven by 1200 women in the northern Iranian town of Mashhad.

High above my head are twinkling gold-plated chandeliers, the largest of them made using more than a million Swarovski crystals from Austria. Beneath these glittering orbs sits a group of foreigners, relaxing on the plush carpet and gazing around in awe while listening to their guide.

The 96 columns supporting the main prayer hall have marble panels encrusted with amethyst, lapis lazuli, red agate, mother of pearl and abalone shell. The Qibla wall has verses from the Koran crafted in gold and marble and a mihrab in 24-carat gold, gold leaf and gold glass mosaic.

Such a scintillating environment seems rather at odds with the simplicity that I believed Islam ascribed to prayer, even if all this adornment is purely intended as praise to the glory of God.

Ali is unfazed by my spoken astonishment over such opulence. “Not all mosques are like this,” he replies, before adding rather superfluously, “but this one is rather special.”

    Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque is open to visitors from 8.30am to 11:30am Sunday to Thursday, during which time you can enter without a guide. It is closed on Fridays for worship. On Saturdays it is open to individuals but there are no guided tours. Visitors should dress appropriately, ie: no shorts for men. Correct attire (headscarf) is available at the mosque for women.

Complementary guided tours of the Grand Mosque are available through the Abu Dhabi Tourist Authority. Photography is allowed. Register your interest at: zayedmosquetour@adta.ae

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