The Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque

While driving along the airport highway,  a massive, magnificent, multi-domed edifice springs up, seemingly out of nowhere from the stark desert environs . We are on  the outskirts of  Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates and gazing in wondrous disbelief at what is arguably the most beautiful building this side of the Arabian Sea, the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayyan Grand Mosque. It is purportedly the third largest mosque in the world, after the great mosques at Makkah and Madina.

The majestic Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The Emaratis, as the citizens of the Emirates are called, love superlatives. They are keen that everything they build is the largest, the biggest, the highest and so on. And it helps to have one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

The main entrance lobby. The arches are of Moorish origin

For starters, have a look at these mind-boggling figures:
• The mosque can accommodate more than 40,000 worshippers
• The 180,000 square foot courtyard provides praying space for 22,000 people.
• The main dome is 33 metres in diameter and 85 metres high – the largest mosque dome in the world
• The floor of the main prayer hall is covered by a 47 ton carpet, the largest of its kind
• Suspended from the main dome is the world’s largest chandelier
• The Mosque has approximately 1,000 columns in its outer areas which are clad with more than 20,000 marble panels inlaid with semi-precious stones.

The main dome as viewed from the main entrance

As a rule, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the precincts of a mosque, but, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a glorious exception to the rule. The late Sheikh Zayed, the visionary founding father of the UAE after whom the mosque is named, wanted to showcase the true spirit of Islam to the world at large when he ordered the construction of this mosque.

Admission is open to all and entrance is free of charge; there are no restrictions on photography except at the tomb of Shaikh Zayed. All that is required is that people dress and behave in a decent manner and do not touch articles such as the Holy Quran. Guided tours are conducted daily at fixed timings. For more information, please visit the official website.

A colonnaded walkway

There are four 107 metre high minarets at the four corners of the mosque

Built at a staggering cost of Dirhams 2.5 billion (approximately Rs.4,500 crores at the current exchange rate), the architecture is a fusion of various Islamic schools like Mughal, Arab, Turkish and Moroccan. Architects and artisans were drawn from all over the world. Construction began in 1996 and it was inaugurated on the occasion of Eid Al Adha in 2007. Unfortunately, Sheikh Zayed did not live to see this day as he passed away in 2004. However, in accordance with his wishes, he was buried in a simple grave in a quiet corner of the campus. It is an open air crypt fenced in by latticed screens. As a mark of respect, photography is not allowed at his tomb.

The mosque is surrounded by colonnaded walkways which are characterised by a profusion of Moorish arches supported on marble clad hexagonal columns topped by gilded fronds. The columns are embellished by floral designs embedded into the marble cladding by a technique developed in the Mughal period known as “parchin kari” and is reminiscent of the inlay work seen in the Taj Mahal. Semi-precious gemstones like lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone shell and mother of pearl were used for the inlay work.

Shallow rectangular pools of water have been constructed along all the periphery which, in addition to providing a cool ambience to the environs, enhance the visual splendour of the mosque with shimmering reflections. Though the ambient temperature was about 48 degrees Celsius, the moment we entered the walkway, it felt like stepping into an airconditioned chamber.

A close-up of the parchin kari or inlay work on the columns, remniscent of the Taj Mahal

The open courtyard is called the Sahan. It has an area of 1,80,000 sft, making it the largest of its kind

In addition to columns and arches, there are also 82 domes, which look distinctly Moghul, of varying sizes. The domes are clad in snow white Sivec marble from Macedonia. On the inside, they are covered with fibreglass. The ceilings too are  ornamented with exquisite floral designs.

A close up of the inside of a smaller dome. The ceiling is covered by exquisite floral designs in bas relief.

Prior to entering the mosque proper, we are handed out plastic bags into which we place our footwear. We carry them along with us during the tour. The entrance lobby is dazzling. The walls and floor are a dazzling white and are festooned with colourful inlay work. While it looks as if the designers have gone overboard, the end result is, surprisingly, aesthetically pleasing.

These massive Murano glass doors are 7 metres high and 12 metres wide. Beyond lies the main prayer hall.

A view of the the floral inlay work adorning the floor of the entrance lobby

The main prayer hall can accommodate more than 7,000 worshippers. The Qibla wall, which all worshippers face, is 23 metres high and 50 metres wide, and is beautifully backlit using optic fibre technology. 99 attributes of Allah are inscribed on this wall in Kufic calligraphy. The 24 carat gold plated niche in the centre is the Mehrab, which indicates the direction of the Holy City of Makkah, which is the focal point of all prayers. On the right of the Mehrab is the Minbar, a raised wooden pulpit from where sermons are delivered by the presiding Imam.

The Qibla wall. The niche in the centre is called the Mehrab, The Minbar is to the right.

Above this prayer hall is the massive main dome from which is suspended a magnificent 9 ton chandelier, the largest in the world. It is 10 metres wide and 15 metres high. 24 carat gold and thousands of Swarovski crystals have gone into the making of this 8 million dollar objet d’art.

The world’s largest chandelier hovers above the main prayer hall

A view of the magnificent chandelier from below

There are a total of seven chandeliers and below is another chandelier, smaller, but no less beautiful. It is located in the entrance lobby.

A smaller chandelier in the entrance lobby. Even the ceilings sport exquisite patterns.

The floor is covered by the world’s largest carpet. It is trapezoid shaped and covers an area of about 60,000 sft and weighs a whopping 47 tons. Made in Iran with the finest grades of wool, silk and cotton, it took 1,200 artisans 20 months to complete it.

A close=up of the world’s largest carpet

There are several niches in the walls which are embellished with handpainted Iznik ceramic panels, which are very popular in Turkey. Only floral designs are used as depiction of images of humans and animals is strictly forbidden in Islam.

An intricately patterned Iznik panel adorns a niche

At night, the mosque is beautifully illuminated by a sophisticated lighting system based on the lunar cycle. On full moon nights, it is bathed in white and wispy white clouds drift across it. As the moon wanes, the colour subtly shifts to blue and it is at its bluest on the 14th night. Unfortunately, I could not stay till dark as I had a flight to catch.

A last glimpse of the splendid edifice

The memory of its sublime, and at times overwhelming, beauty lingers on in the mind long after I left it. It felt like I had travelled back in time to the 17th century, when the Taj Mahal was still new and yet to be ravaged by man and time.

23 Comments

  • Surinder Sharma says:

    DL nice description, I have muslim friends but at prayer time I just go outside as I am not familer with their prayers . Thanks a lot.

  • DL jee

    One of the most beautiful buildings in the world as rightly described in the end, feeling like visiting Taj Mahal in 17 century.
    Wonderful pictures and great description. I had seen a full episode of one hour in discovery channel about this mosque and that too twice. In that episode things were described more minutely for e.g. how that largest carpet was made . And your narration is so good that while watching the post my memories got refreshed.
    One more wonderful post from your side .
    Thanks DL . Keep Travelling and Keep Sharing.

  • DHANESH SHARMA says:

    DEAR DL,VERY NICE PHOTOS,WONDERFUL DESCRIPTION.VERY VERY THANKS .KEEP ON WRITING SUCH POSTS.

  • Manish khamesra says:

    I have not yet the read the story, however the splendid pictures forced me to write. Splendid mosque, stunning pictures, beautiful angles, everything looks so clean and smooth. This post is a treat for eyes.

  • Subodh says:

    Great write up with superb pictures. Thanks a lot DL sir for taking us to this beautiful place. I can observe in the pictures that the place is not crowded any specific reason or it is normal because in India all holy places are full with Devotees. Or may be is this related to the population :) .

  • Mukesh Bhalse says:

    DL,
    Superb photographs and great narration with interesting facts about this grand mosque.

    Thanks.

  • voyage da la monde says:

    Wonderfull post with beautiful pics..loved it.
    Recently i’ve been to Dubai but missed this amazing place to visit..bt its there in my list :)
    Thanks!!

  • Nandan Jha says:

    DL – This got published outside of the schedule. Probably a fall out of testing the boot-camp process. :-). Never mind.

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      First, I need to apologise for jumping the queue. It was an inadvertent error, but a major goof-up nevertheless.
      @ Surinder, Vishal, Dhanesh, Subodh, Manish, Mukesh and “Voyage de la Monde” – Thank you very much for the appreciation. The fact is that the building is so beautiful that even an average photographer like me can come up with fairly good visuals.
      @ Subodh: I visited the mosque on a hot summer afternoon on a Saturday. That explains the lack of a crowd. In the evenings and on Sundays, there are lots of visitors. In India, however, it is crowded everywhere, period :-)
      @ Nandan & Vibha: Thanks for being so graciously lenient and helpful.

  • SilentSoul says:

    DL tks for introducing this grande piece of architecture, the text is full of information, which is a trademark of DL.

    The pictures are great, specially the last one depicts the whole story.

    I was waiting for your post of chasing the waterfalls… what happened to that ?

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Thanks, SS.

      I have shelved the Waterfalls story as I visited it at the wrong time when the waterfalls were practically dry. The pictures have not done justice to them. I am planning to visit again after the monsoon rains.

  • Naveena Israni says:

    Fantastic description with superb pics! And the place looks spotlessly clean too. Really mind-blowing!

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Thanks Naveena, for your appreaciation. The place is spotlessly clean. There is an army of workers, mainly of South Asian origin, who keep it that way 24/7.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Wallah. If that is the right way to celebrate this post.

    I am guessing that you would have done a lot of reading to finely articulate the architecture and design of this marvel. Is it correct ? . It is such a massive structure, it would have costed a fortune. Apart from religious gatherings, is the place used for something else.

    I tried finding more of ‘Panchin Kari’ but could not find much on net. Would you know whether it is still practiced in India ? . Sorry DL for too many questions.

    The photos are sublime , just the way you felt.

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Nandan, the right way is Masha’allah or God be praised. Muslims do not praise the individual directly due to fear of casting the “evil eye” so they praise God instead. It is also a tacit acknowledgement that God is the source of all individual achievement. Wallah, by the way, can be translated as ‘By God!’ or an expression of wonder. So wallah too is appropriate.

      Yes, it cost about 2.5 billion Dirhams (1 dirham is about Rs.15) to build. Apart from functioning as a masjid or a place to offer prayers (the word masjid has its roots in sajda), it also has a well stocked library in several languges, including Korean, probably the only masjid to have a library. The masjid was built also for the purpose of promoting inter-faith dialogue and mutual understanding. Conferences, workshops and other such events are conduced here regularly.

      As far as Parchin Kari is concerned, it is also known as Pietra Dure. We are told that this is a technique developed by the Italians in the renaissance period and that it has come to us through Persia during Shah Jahan’s reign. I do not think that it is correct since India has a much older tradition of craftsmanship and our ancient artisans were second to none. In fact, a Hindu by the name of Charanji Lal is credited with the inlay work in the Taj in the official records. It is still practiced in India and Agra is a good place to acquire such bric-a-brac. Regarding the Sheikh Zayed mosque, I think that all the inlay work was done by machines for the simple fact that there are over 20,000 panels with inlay work for the external columns alone and given the shortage of skilled personnel and the need to keep costs down and complete the job as fast as possible.

      I welcome questions, Nandan. In fact, I have written less than 30 percent of the information I have garnered on this topic, in the interest of brevity and making the post more interesting.

  • mahesh semwal says:

    I am confused , should I praise your writing or your pictures. both are wonderful. Agreed with Prof sab , your post is treat to the eyes.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks Mahesh for your kind words. However, the credit must go to all the people who visualised, designed and built this beautiful monument to God Almighty.

  • Sorry DL, I could got the chance to read this post today only. The post is full of knowledge and information supported by beautiful pictures. The mosque is very grand and its nice to know that its so newly built. Thanks for this brilliant piece of article.

  • Oh My God ! Your photographs are definitely a feast to the eyes! Right now I have only scanned through it but it must be read in detail, savoured and visited again and again.

    There is Rashidia Masjid in Deoband which is comparable to some extent with this great mosque. I have been there but just for half an hour only. I must go there again and look at it more closely. You have definitely motivated me to spring into action. Thanks DL.

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Thanks for going through the post, Sushant, and for the effusive praise. When a building is so beautiful, capturing decent images is not a difficult job. Regarding the Rashidia Mosque, I will not be surprised if there are a lot of similarities since the Zayed Mosque has been heavily influenced by Indo-Saracenic architecture and hundreds of artisans from the subcontinent have been involved in its construction. Looking forward to your post on the Deoband mosque.

  • Nirdesh says:

    Hi DL,

    Breathtakingly WOW!

    Nirdesh

  • Ali Sina fan says:

    What a sheer waste of money ! All those millions of Dirhams could have been used to feed and house the 4 million Arab refugees in the Middle-East as a result of the Civil War in Syria (funded partly by UAE)

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