Some 15km from central Abu Dhabi, the mighty Sheikh Zayed Mosque dominates all landward approaches to the city, its snowy-white mass of domes and minarets visible for miles around and providing a spectacular symbol of Islamic pride at the entrance to the capital of the UAE.
Completed in 2007, the mosque was commissioned by and named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, who lies buried in a modest white marble mausoleum close to the entrance. The mosque is one of the world’s biggest – roughly the eighth largest, depending on how you measure it – and certainly the most expensive, having taken twelve years to build at a cost of around US$500 million. It’s also unusual in being one of only two mosques in the UAE (along with the Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai) open to non-Muslims. If visiting, you’ll be expected to dress conservatively; female visitors not suitably attired will be offered a black abbeya robe to wear.
The huge exterior is classically plain, framed by four 107m-high minarets and topped with some eighty domes. Entrance to the mosque is through a vast courtyard – capable of accommodating some 40,000 worshippers – surrounded by long lines of rather Moorish-looking arches, the columns picked out with pietra dura floral designs and topped with unusual gold capitals resembling bits of palm tree. Flanking one side of the courtyard, the vast prayer hall is a spectacular piece of contemporary Islamic design. The hall is home to the world’s largest carpet (made in Iran by around twelve hundred artisans, measuring over 5000 square metres, containing some 2.2 million knots and weighing 47 tonnes) and the world’s largest chandelier (made in Germany, measuring 10m in diameter, 15m tall and containing a million Swarowski crystals). It’s not the world records which impress, however, so much as the extraordinary muted opulence of the design, with every surface richly carved and decorated, and the prayer hall’s three massive chandeliers dangling overhead like enormous pieces of very expensive jewellery. Look out, too, for the hand-crafted panels made from Turkish Iznik tiles which decorate the corridors outside, and for the qibla wall itself, inscribed with the 99 names (qualities) of Allah in traditional Kufic calligraphy, subtly illuminated using fibre-optic lighting.