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 one of only a handful of mosques in the UAE 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 forty thousand 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 Swarovski 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 fibreoptic lighting.
In matters of historical precedence, Abu Dhabi has had the clear advantage over Dubai. The town was established much earlier as an independent settlement and commercial centre, and also struck oil many years before (and in much greater quantities than) Dubai. The city has, however, always lagged behind its neighbour in terms of development. Much of the blame for this can be laid at the door of the insular, old-fashioned and often downright eccentric Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan al Nahyan (ruled 1926–1966). Despite the sudden wealth of oil revenues, Sheikh Shakhbut signally declined to make any notable improvements to his city, preferring to keep oil revenues locked up in a wooden chest under his bed.
Increasing frustration at the glacial pace of change (particularly when compared to events in burgeoning Dubai) led to Sheikh Shakhbut‘s overthrow in a peaceful coup in 1966, and his replacement by his younger brother, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan (ruled 1966–2004), who had previously served as governor of Al Ain, proving a resourceful and charismatic leader. On becoming ruler he immediately set about transforming Abu Dhabi. Electricity and telephones were rapidly installed, followed by a new port and airport, schools and a university. Sheikh Zayed also initiated a vast public handout of accumulated oil money to cash-strapped locals and other impoverished families across the neighbouring emirates – an act of fabulous generosity which did much to establish his reputation, and paved the way for his role as leader of the UAE following independence in 1971, when he became the new country’s first president.