Visiting the United Arab Emirates was a bit of an eye-opener, one just doesn’t automatically think of the Middle East as a place where you can kayak in the mangroves or hang out at a super chi-chi beach club in your bikini – most probably you’ll think of visiting its mosques, and if there is just one mosque you have to check out, make it the gleaming white Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, 3rd largest mosque in the world.
The idea of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was conceived in 1986, though work only started 10 years later and was finally completed in 2007, utilizing over 3,000 workers and materials from all over the globe. At any one time, the mosque can accommodate up to 40,000 worshippers in its indoor and outdoor courts, imagine that.
While you can visit it on your own time, I highly recommend taking one of the free English tours because not only do you get a very thorough explanation and background of the mosque, you get special access to walk beyond the barriers of where the normal tourists are directed.
The English tours are at 10am, 11am and 4pm (no pre-booking required unless you have a particularly large group) – our tour started quite promptly. It’s a pretty informal set-up where the guides welcome you at the entrance and then split the groups up among the guides. Each guide takes his group to a different area and explains its background and history in detail. A lot of intricate craftsmanship when into building this mosque, and I can’t imagine how much work is needed to keep it this white. Because we were on tour, we got to cut across the courtyard, while other visitors were directed to keep within the marked pathways.
THE GLEAMING WHITE EXTERIOR
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is really impressive from the outside – all that white expanse, and as you get closer to the walls you see how much detail has been carved into its surface, it’s really stunning.
The exterior also has all these beautiful pillars that are meant to mimic palm trees which are very important in Abu Dhabi. In true Emirati style, it’s all gleaming gold and beautiful.
You simultaneously you had wide angle vision and a macro lens at the same time. The scale of the mosque is massive and really does make you feel small and humbled, perhaps the intention, but you can see just how much work went into making every single artistic detail.
ENTERING THE MOSQUE
The inside of the mosque is no less impressive than the outside – it’s hard to decide what to gawk at first, there are these huge, glittering chandeliers, intricate shiny wall designs, and what is apparently the world’s largest carpet that covers the interior floor of the mosque.
I definitely recommend anyone visiting Abu Dhabi to pop by the mosque for a visit – it’s an architectural feat but it’s also a great way to learn about the Muslim and Islamic culture. The guide was really great and was happy to answer just about any question you could ask.
HOW TO DRESS IN A MOSQUE
Modesty is the way to go – covered shoulders and upper arms, long pants or skirts, and something to cover your head with for the ladies. If in doubt, err on the side of modesty. But in the event you forget, they do provide free Abayas at the entrance that you can pull on (the black coverall hooded dress that the local women wear) and Thobes (the white tunic men wear), which might be an experience in itself. You’ll need to take off your shoes when entering the mosque.
Pro tip: I visited in the day time, but you might also want to consider coming back in the evening when it starts to get dark – there have a pretty funky lighting system which is supposed to follow the phases of the moon and looks awesome. More on the Mosque’s website.
Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque
Tel: +971 2 4416444
Email: [email protected]
Opening Hours: The mosque is generally open from Sat – Thurs from 9am – 10pm, but is closed during prayer time and on Friday till 4.30pm, so keep an eye out here for more details on opening hours and tour timings before you visit.