Mosques in the Middle East vary in size from as small as a house built for one to as large as a town of 100. One of the largest and most architecturally magnificent is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. I traveled there a couple of weeks ago and found that this mosque made the 180-mile round trip from Sharjah worthwhile.
The all-white exterior breaks into the desert skyline as you approach, a needed relief from endless brown. Named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1971 until he died in 2004, the mosque is the size of five football fields at 22,412 square meters and can hold precisely 40,960 worshippers. It is the largest mosque in the UAE and one of the ten largest in the world. In short, it is gigantic.
I didn’t get far inside the entrance before I ran into a woman who told me I would have to wear an abaya, or black robe, and sheila, a black scarf to hide the hair, before walking deeper onto the grounds. Where to find an abaya and sheila at a mosque in the middle of the desert? The abaya and sheila bins, of course.
I’ve never before worn anything but a scarf to cover my head while in a mosque. I found that both of these temporary articles of clothing were, happily, extremely lightweight, far more so than they appear to me when I see them in my everyday life. I hardly noticed I was wearing them. Many of the men had put on dishdashas, the long white robe Muslim men in the Middle East wear. I think those who were wearing them must have been dressed too immodestly and were told to cover up. Seriously. I noticed them when I joined a group just about to take a free tour of the mosque. I’d seen many men in dishdashas and hadn’t looked closely enough to see that some of them were Western. Now, standing in a gob of tourists, it became obvious.
The summer sun in the UAE either melts or sets ablaze everything in its path. Not really. But its intensity does slam into you with great force the moment you step outside. The architects of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque took into account the discomfort, or pain, people would feel when they touched their foreheads to the ground while worshipping, and used special white marble that deflects the heat to cover the majority of the ground outside the mosque, laying only a little bit of colored marble which absorbs the heat. I realize the following photo depicts not a lot of ground, but it does show some and is more picturesque than a purely ground photo.
Before we entered the interior of the mosque, we had to take off our shoes, of course, and the coolness of the white marble next to the heat of the colors became very obvious.
As my gazing overtook me, I lost interest in the tour group and wandered alone. I’d rather see as much as I can for as long as possible while I’m somewhere that really interests me, then come home later and read all about it on the internet. Since I did wander off, though, I unfortunately did not learn the name of or purpose for this incredibly beautiful room which leads to the main prayer hall. The colorful vines of stone that wind their way through the white marble that runs from floor to ceiling on all four walls make this my favorite place in all the mosque.
The rest of the interior was likewise stunning. Although I didn’t exactly like this chandelier in the men’s prayer hall, I think most people find it attractive.
I much preferred the exterior, with its four minarets, 82 domes and 1,000 columns. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is a must-see if you travel to the UAE.