A day at Sheikh Zayed Mosque
Abu Dhabi's most iconic mosque
It is easy to visit the UAE and feel as though you haven't really left the Western world. Most visitors spend their days hitting the shops in malls full of familiar brands, hang out on private beaches attached to gated resorts or even ski and play golf in the desert. But if you would like to have a more authentic Emirati experience then take a trip to the capital, Abu Dhabi, and seize on a rare chance to glimpse inside one of the region's most important religious sites.
Shimmering white and in stark contrast to the ubiquitous skyscrapers, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a spectacular example of modern Islamic architecture at its most impressive. Over 80 gleaming white marble domes sit atop more than 1000 pillars, circling a courtyard inlaid with a colourful floral design considered to be the largest marble mosaic in the world. White and gold columns inlaid with intricate floral designs line the open arcades surrounding the courtyard. Reflection pools of blue water have been built alongside, creating an almost mirror like image of the columns themselves. The arcades are shaded and breezy and give a welcome respite from the baking sun. The sight of female visitors adorned in black abayas drifting amongst the gleaming white marble makes for some excellent photo opportunities.
The heart of the mosque is the main prayer hall which, to give an idea of its size, can accommodate over 7,000 worshippers. Leaving your shoes at the door, wander inside and look up to view the beautiful chandeliers inlaid with Swarovski crystal and 24 carat gold. Your feet will also be treated to a walk on the world's largest carpet which covers the hall, measuring 60,570 square feet. Designed by an Iranian artist and made by over 1,000 female carpet knotters, the colourful floral design includes discreet lines showing worshippers where they should line up during prayer. An impressive Qibla wall, or direction wall, displays the 99 names of God all in ornate Kufic calligraphy.
The mosque is equally as spectacular at night when a lighting system designed to reflect the phases of the moon projects blue grey clouds on to the white marble surfaces of the domes and facade. Each night is slightly different with darker clouds projected at the beginning of the lunar cycle, gradually becoming brighter along with the moon itself. Stand on any of the three bridges linking Abu Dhabi island with the mainland to get a view.
Completed in 2007 and commissioned by the first ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, part of the founding decree of the mosque is to 'Support social, religious and cultural initiatives aiming to promote mutual respect and understanding between different religions'. Sheikh Zayed was known for his tolerance and inclusiveness and intended the mosque to be somewhere people of all faiths and gender could visit and enjoy. His mausoleum is located on the grounds and visitors are welcome.
Once you've taken in the mosque itself, wander around the beautiful gardens that make up the rest of the site or cool off in the pleasant cafe. A visit here is to gain a rare insight into Arab-Islamic culture that most visitors do not allow themselves to experience. Leave your sun lounger for a day and immerse yourself in this beautiful place.
Location: It's an easy and very cheap 1.5hr bus journey from Dubai to Abu Dhabi central bus station where taxis will be waiting for the 15 minute trip to the mosque.
Need to know: Entry is free. Open daily except Friday morning which is for worshippers only. Opening hours are 9am-10pm – Saturday to Thursday and 4.30pm to 10pm on Fridays. Excellent guided tours run Sunday-Thursday throughout the day and 5pm and 7pm on Fridays.
Mosque manners: Both men and women must dress appropriately. Women should wear a head scarf, loose, long sleeved non-transparent clothing and ensure ankles are covered. Men cannot wear shorts or sleeveless tops. If you are dressed inappropriately, simply borrow an abaya (for women) or khandorah (for men), both traditional robes, for free on site. Refrain from eating and drinking and any affection such as kissing or holding hands is also prohibited.
Fun fact: Rhianna was asked to leave after taking some rather sultry pictures of herself here.