Two Hours at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE

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.

Some of the 82 domes of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE

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.

Abayas and sheilas at the Sheik Zayed Mosque in the UAE

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.

Women in Abayas and men in Dishdashas ready to go on a tour of the SZM in Abu Dhabi

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.

Columns and minaret on exterior or SZ Mosque, UAE

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.

Many shoes outside of the mosque

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.

Interior of Sheikh Zayed 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.

Huge chandelier in main prayer hall of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi

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.

Many domes and columns on exterior of Sheikh Zayed Mosque

28 Comments Post a Comment
  1. A fascinating visit you’ve taken us on! Excellently illustrated, too.

  2. Sabina Lohr says:

    Why thank you, Andrew!

  3. RyukyuMike says:

    Awesome post, Sabina ! I loved the photos and your description. Made me feel just as if I’d been there myself.

  4. Daniel N. says:

    Ha! Great post!

    Told you you’d like it ;)

  5. Sabina Lohr says:

    Thanks a lot, Mike. If you’re ever in the vicinity, this should not be missed.

  6. Sabina Lohr says:

    You were right, Daniel. It is a marvel, as you said :)

  7. Claire says:

    Love the pictures. I wonder what it would be like to wear the abaya for a full day or more? I share your opinion of the chandelier. It doesn’t even match the decor or mood of such a place!

  8. Sabina Lohr says:

    Hi, Claire. I know. I actually thought that chandelier was gaudy. Not a very good choice for the centerpiece of an otherwise magnificent room. And I could have accidentally walked out of the mosque and started making my way back to Abu Dhabi before I would realize that I was still wearing the abaya, it was so lightweight and comfortable.

  9. jamzari says:

    I will be leaving for Dubai this 2nd December and hope to visit the Mosque and pray in it. Did you travel to the neighbouring countries to UAE like Oman or Iran?

  10. Truly gorgeous shots….wow! Thank you for taking us on this tour of the mosque…was nice to take an in-depth look at it.
    If I ever travel to Abu Dhabi, I’m going to check it out…

  11. Andrea says:

    Gorgeous photos! It just looks so pristine…we’re hoping to head to the Middle East in 2012 for an expat stint and I can’t wait to experience places like this. Thank you for sharing

  12. Gray says:

    Wow, that place is beautiful. How did they make those stone flowers and vines? That’s got to take some time. Great photos. I’m not even going to say what that chandelier looks like.

  13. Sabina Lohr says:

    Hahaha! You don’t like the chandelier either, huh? If I’d stuck around for the remainder of the tour, I might be able to tell you how they made and then embedded the stone flowers and vines in the marble. But I can’t…

  14. Sabina Lohr says:

    I’m sure you will love it. I’ve been to Oman, but not Iran.

  15. Sabina Lohr says:

    Thanks, Lisa. You should definitely travel to Abu Dhabi.

  16. Sabina Lohr says:

    It was very pristine. And far more beautiful in person than my photos show, of course. Where in the Middle East are you planning on settling down for a while?

  17. Greta says:

    This place is on my list. When I find some friends with a car, and the time, we’re totally going!! :P

    Lately I’ve been considering buying my own abaya, just to see how it feels and also to see if people treat me differently with my face covered. Would make for a very interesting blog post I would think…

    You can buy them in Carrefour, if you ever want to. Not all of them are black either, there’s some really pretty ones with trims, especially around Ramadan/Eid :)

  18. cool post, i love the photos. the mosque looks like a really bright place. i honestly didnt know women are allowed in mosques thanks for the post

  19. Sabina Lohr says:

    That would definitely be really interesting. I see lots of really beautiful abayas for sale around here with gorgeous trim. No one seems to wear them, though.

  20. Sabina Lohr says:

    Hi, Zablon – Everyone can go in, but women usually worship in a room separate from the men. If they worship in the same room, men stay in one area and women in another. Actually, often the people who aren’t allowed in mosques are non-Muslims.

  21. Lola says:

    Absolutely gorgeous photos! Would love to go to the UAE soon.

  22. Sabina Lohr says:

    Thank you, Lola. You should be sure to visit the mosque when you come.

  23. Greta says:

    In Dubai, non-Muslims can visit the Jumeirah Mosque (one of the biggest) it’s very pretty and there is also the Sheikh Zayed Centre for Cultural Understanding, you can go there and listen to talks and they answer questions about the culture and religion.

    When I went (as part of a company induction) they were very open with us and quite open-minded with the questions they allowed us to ask. During Ramadan you can also book a place to share Iftar evening meal with locals. Wanted to do that but there were no spots left, apparently it’s very popular!

    If you Google it, they have a web site with all the details. Other mosques are usually not open to non-Muslims.

  24. Sabina Lohr says:

    That is interesting. It would have been great to have a Ramadan meal with people. Thanks for the info.

  25. sohle says:

    hi
    its beautiful
    i love the mosque
    and marble cooling refresh

  26. Aminul Huq says:

    So beautiful mosque i am speechless.

  27. Al shareef Mahmood says:

    Very nice photos, really stunning.thanks for ur kindness. just want to say that in islam mosques for worshiping allaah , beauty is in the faith and that what count in islam . inside spirit beauty . thanks a gain and sorry for my poor english

  28. Sabina says:

    Thanks for commenting, Mahmood! Your English is good :)

Leave a Reply