During my recent trip to Abu Dhabi I had an opportunity to visit the site of one of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) preeminent cultural treasures, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late President of the UAE, is interred on the grounds of the enormous mosque that bears his name. He conceived of the glowing marble structure as an open forum for the Emirati people and the broader Muslim community to worship and exchange ideas with people of differing faiths. To this end, the mosque is open to the public in an effort to demystify Islam and to bridge cultural divides.
The impressive monolith is the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates and the eighth largest mosque in the world. During islamic holidays like Eid al-Adha, which I was present for, the mosque fills to its capacity of 40,000 worshipers [video]. Worshipers and visitors passing through the mosque’s interior are surrounded by visual splendors as they walk beneath any of the seven, giant, Swarovski crystal chandeliers hanging in the hall, including the world’s third largest at 33 ft wide by 49 ft tall. Beneath their bare feet is the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet (60,570 sq ft), which took 1,300 workers two years to complete. It’s no wonder the mosque staff asks visitors to remove their shoes before entering.
Despite the opulent excess that defines the structure, the Grand Mosque succeeds, at least in my opinion, in accomplishing its progenitor’s goal of breaking down barriers between people of differing faiths. It’s hard not to feel more understanding about another culture when they welcome you so warmly into their home. During my visit at the beginning of the Eid holiday, I encountered travelers from at least a dozen different countries, each of whom were greeted by mosque staff and given essentially free rein to roam around the grounds. In a country struggling to find it’s post-oil identity, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque stands as a shining beacon of the Emirati people’s desire to engage in open and honest dialogue with the international community. This is a can’t miss destination for anyone visiting the UAE.
Check out rest of the shots from my trip to the United Arab Emirates in my set on Flickr!