Almost everything in this country that’s wildly ambitious, larger than life, miraculously transformed or just demands a string of superlatives generally has something to do with the late, great Sheikh Zayed.
Turning a backward sandpit into the economic powerhouse of the UAE is, of course, to his credit. The creation of a lush, green safari park where giraffes, ostriches and cheetahs roam from a barren desert island on Sir Bani Yas was due to his vision and determination. Hundreds of other projects, from universities to museums bear his name, whether because he commissioned, funded or inspired them. Which brings us to the most magnificent sight in Abu Dhabi – the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. We’ve delved into the background, design and symbolism of the mosque this week so we can share with you everything you need to know about the capital’s most iconic feature.
Plans for the mosque were first dreamt up by Sheikh Zayed in the late 1980s because he wanted to build a timeless structure that would represent both the traditions and modernity of the fast-developing Emirates. And unsurprisingly, the result ended up being a spectacular success – standing at the edge of the city now is the iconic mosque, which draws thousands of worshippers and visitors each week. Construction on the mosque began on November 5th, 1996, and took 11 years to complete using more than 3,000 workers and 38 contracting companies. The epic project, which continued under the guidance of Sheikh Zayed's sons when he passed away in 2004, included building 82 domes, four minarets, three prayer halls and the marble courtyard, as well as bringing in the record-breaking chandeliers and carpets – more of which later on.
Architecturally, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque borrows from all sorts of traditions, particularly Mughal, Moorish and traditional Islamic architecture. The Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca and, of course, India’s infamous Taj Mahal were all influential in the design. The imposing white domes are Moroccan in style, while the four minarets (the towers at each corner of the courtyard, standing at an imposing 107m tall) are derived from traditional Islamic architecture. In mosques of earlier times these would have been used for the call to prayer but the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque’s are more for decorative purposes. One of the most distinctive features of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the floral pattern that decorates the marble floors and the columns throughout the building, which you are based on real flowers, and are widely spaced out.
This is a modern twist on traditional Islamic patterns, which tend to use denser designs with symbolic flowers instead. Sheikh Zayed himself was particularly fond of gardens and greenery, which also can be understood to represent heaven. And as for that dramatic lighting you’ll notice if you ever drive by at night, that’s the work of lighting specialists Jonathan Speirs and Major. Traditionally mosques in Abu Dhabi are illuminated in green, but the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has a lighting system that changes with the different phases of the moon, dark blue when the moon is a crescent and white when there’s a full moon.
Here’s where it gets really impressive. Natural materials have been used almost entirely throughout the mosque, including marble, stone, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics. The columns in the outer areas are made of 20,000 marble panels inlaid with semi-precious stones, including lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone shell and mother of pearl, which form the colourful flowers and vines that wind their way up the marble. The columns inside the main prayer hall are also inlaid with mother of pearl. As for the rest of it, approximately 30 different types of marble have been used throughout the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and include Sivec from Greece and Macedonia used on the external cladding, Lasa from Italy used in the internal elevations, Makrana from India used in the annexes and offices, Aqua Bianca and Bianca from Italy and East White and Ming Green from China.
Record breaking features
When you enter the main prayer hall and your bare feet feel the comforting softness of the carpet in contrast to the cool marble outside, spare a thought for the 1,300 Iranian carpet weavers who hand-crafted the 2,268,000 knots that make it the biggest carpet in the world. It’s so large that, of course, it couldn’t be transported in one piece, so weavers were brought from the small Iranian village of Mashhadin where it had been started, to finish the job onsite at the mosque. The floral design of the carpet is very traditional, in contrast to the more modern floral design of the marble, and the whole thing weighs a staggering 35 tons. The main prayer hall also features the third largest chandelier in the world, weighing in at 10 tons. It hangs under the central dome and has a geometric Moroccan design, composed of thousands of Swarovski crystals from Austria and glasswork from Italy.
Sheikh Zayed’s tomb
In contrast to the splendour of the rest of the mosque, the tomb of Sheikh Zayed, which lies in the grounds, is a much more sombre affair. Prayers are sung over the plain tomb 24 hours a day, and photos are not allowed there.
If you haven’t been on one of the terrific guided tours yet, put it on your list, pronto. They take place in the mornings and afternoons and are welcoming, informative and entertaining. Taking about 45 minutes, you’ll be taken around the mosque while the guide fills your head with factlets and explains all the various features of the building. After winding up the tour in the main prayer hall you’ll be invited to ask any questions you like about the mosque and Islam. We’ve always been amazed at how open and candid the guides are, fully prepared to answer any queries regardless of how stupid you might feel they are. Got a burning question about why Muslims line up to pray, or why the male and female prayer halls are separate? The tour guides will be only too happy to answer. Gents should dress conservatively for the tour and ladies will be asked to don an abaya. These are provided for free on site, and the staff will even help you wrap your headscarf if you ask.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in numbers
As you stroll through the walkways, keep an eye on for the Iznik panels which decorate the walls. These are intricately ornate tiles popular in in Istanbul’s imperial and religious buildings in the 16th century. There are 80 in total and were hand-crafted, using the Thuloth style of calligraphy.
The 99 names of Allah are inscribed on the Qibla wall in the main prayer hall in traditional Kufi calligraphy, which was designed by a well-known UAE calligrapher Mohammed Mandi. Three separate calligraphy styles are used in various places throughout the mosque.
The pools that surround the mosque total 7,874 square meters. These create a sense of calm and serenity for worshippers, and reflect the magnificent architecture.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque’s capacity is 41,000. It’s very rarely full, except on special occasions and religious holidays such as Eid, when worshippers travel from across the country to pray here, sometimes even spilling out onto the grounds beyond the mosque itself.
Yes, it’s the number you’ve all been waiting for – Swarovski crystals, imported marble and innovative lighting schemes don’t come cheap. The cost of the mosque added up to two billion dirhams.
Did you know?
Every time you hear the call to prayer in Abu Dhabi, it’s coming live from the Sheikh Zayed mosque. Each of the other mosques in the city are linked by satellite to the microphone at the main prayer hall.