The Grand Mosque dedicated to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan – it is known as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – is a tribute to the man who founded the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1971 to 2004, and so it is only fitting that its underlying theme is unity. The original design is Moroccan, by Syrian architect Yousef Abdelky, but the building incorporates characteristics typical of other locations, such as traditional Turkish features which can be seen in the external walls. Both the 3,000 craftsmen who worked on the project and the materials that they used came from many locations, amongst which Italy, Germany, India, China, Greece, Morocco, Turkey, Iran and of course the UAE. The building has a capacity for over 40,000 worshippers, comparable to a medium-sized football stadium, and in fact the overall area of the complex is approximately equal to five soccer pitches.
Interestingly, in a city famous for its avant-garde architecture, the mosque was built primarily using natural materials. These were chose for their intrinsic beauty and for their long duration. Mosques are traditionally based on a series of domes, and the Grand Mosque Sheikh Zayed has 82, all in Moroccan style, finished in sparkling white Italian marble. The largest dome has an external diameter of almost 33 metres, and inside, its apex is 70 metres from the floor. It is the largest dome of its type in the world, while the Grand Mosque itself is the third largest – beaten by the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
The world records established by this building continue with the chandelier under the main dome. In 24-carat gold and with one million Swarowski crystals, it is ten metres in diameter, 15 metres high, and weights nine tons. The carpet in the main prayer hall is the largest ever made at 7,119 square metres, with 2,268,000 knots, weighing 45 tonnes. It was designed by Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi and made by 1,200 Iranian craftsmen.
Above all, the Mosque was designed for prayer, and so some of its features were deliberately toned down to be relatively unobtrusive. This applies, for example, to the Qibla, a wall that is fifty metres long and 23 metres high, with the 99 names of Allah in Kufi calligraphic script, backlit by optic fibre.
The Grand Mosque attracts many visitors: a hundred thousand during the 2010 five-day Eid Al Adha break alone! It is unusual in that it is one of only two mosques in the United Arab Emirates open to non-Muslims, and it is in fact open to visitors of all nationalities, for unguided visits from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day except Friday mornings, when it is open for worship only. The best way to reach the Mosque, which is about 12 km from Abu Dhabi City, between the Al Maqtaa and Al Mussafah bridges, is by car or taxi, and in the latter case, you could ask the taxi driver to wait, because it is difficult to find taxis for the return trip. To enter, appropriate dress is required, and therefore long sleeves, long skirts and trousers are necessary: no shorts, tight clothing, transparent garments, beachwear etc. You must remove your shoes before entering the Mosque. Women must have a headscarf. Don't hold hands or kiss; don't touch the Holy Koran or architectural elements inside the main prayer hall. Photography is permitted, except near the Sheikh's tomb.
Apart from the huge scale of the building, the visit is above all a cultural experience, reflecting the Abu Dhabi government's decision to become a cultural hub (unlike Dubai, which has focused on leisure and tourism). The design of the Mosque is connected to the ideal of preserving the culture of the Emirates and enabling both residents and visitors to learn more about local traditions and history. It's difficult not to ask the obvious question: how much did it cost? Estimates stand at over two billion dirhams, $545 million.
Luxos City Guide to Abu Dhabi