This is a post in my new ‘shorts’ series – a few hundred words on a place I’ve been or activity I’ve done.
The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is the third largest mosque in the world, and I think may be the first mosque I’ve ever been inside. Which is funny (and a bit embarrassing) considering how many times I’ve been to the Middle East. But many mosques are not open to non-Muslims.
I’ve been to Abu Dhabi a handful of times but never quite got round to it – the closest I got was staying at the incredible Ritz-Carlton which looks out onto it, but that was the trip when I got horribly sick with strep throat and spent every moment not working lying down in a darkened room.
This trip I was in Abu Dhabi over a weekend (Friday/Saturday in the UAE), and was determined to do a little bit of sight-seeing as well as chilling out in the 5 star Intercontinental where I was staying (see my instagram for a few nice pics). I uber-ed my way over there mid morning, but took the advice not to go on Friday morning as that’s when the mosque is being used for prayer.
I’d thought I’d catch a tour, but messed up because I’d assumed they’re every hour, and they’re not. Check the website to find out when they are before you go. I had got my dress right though, having checked the ‘Mosque Manners‘ on the attraction’s website before I came. I had long, loose trousers, a long-sleeved top, and a scarf to wear around my hair when I arrived. This was deemed fine, but it was a surprise to me how many tourist came entirely inappropriately dressed, with vest tops, short shorts, a lot of cleavage, etc. You simply won’t be allowed in dressed in this way.
You’ll be security scanned before you go in, and will walk through the beautiful gardens which are highly cultivated – as you’ll imagine, it can be hard to grow anything green in the desert, but the grounds are truly glorious if you can cope with the heat, as there’s not too much shade. The Mosque is huge, and because you’re only allowed as a visitor in some areas, it can be hard to get a true sense of scale – to help you, here are some facts:
- The capacity is about 41,000 worshippers
- It’s held up by over 1000 pillars
- There are more than 80 domes
- The largest of the chandeliers weighs approximately 12 tons, is covered in Swarovski crystals and 24-carat galvanised gold.
- The prayer halls has the world’s largest loomed carpet, which has nearly 2.3 BILLION knots!
- Over 100,000 tons of white Greek and Macedonian marble were used in its construction
- Construction took about 10 years and 3,500 workers were involved
- It’s held up by over 1000 pillars
- The site also contains a library with over 7000 books and many other resources on Islamic civilisation through the ages
- The night lighting system is designed to reflect the phases of the moon and changes a little each night.
(If you’re interested in the construction, this is a great piece with before and after photos of the Mosque as it was decorated.)
I strolled around inside for maybe an hour. There are many intricate details in the architecture that are easy to miss, for example, verses from the Quran written in three types of Arabic calligraphy, so it’s worth taking your time, rather than rushing through as some of those around me did. Some of the details are somewhat bling for me, but others are delicate and beautiful. Either way, it’s fascinating to see Arabic design and how it might differ from the culture I grew up in in the UK, or where I am now in SE Asia.
- Talking of cultures, I was a bit taken aback by some of the Asian tourists, who in addition to not tending to come in the appropriate clothes, took the kind of expressive selfies with victory signs and balancing poses that felt super inappropriate for a religious site. I’d seen the sign to the left early on, and couldn’t work out what the top-left picture meant, but then realised that the it’s likely saying don’t do those poses – and several times attendants in the mosque would tell those tourists not to pose in that way. I guess that religious sites and the required etiquette are probably quite alien if you grew up in China.
If you’re visiting Abu Dhabi, I would say this is definitely not to be missed, but I would have loved to have taken the tour too (which is in English and Arabic), so try and attend that if you can.
One other comment – I have a handful of Arabic words, and I both greeted and said thank you in my terrible accent to many of the staff I encountered, and the level of excitement when I did was definitely disproportionate to the effort on my part. I’d really encourage you, if you visit a country with another language, to learn those two phrases, as it really makes a positive impact on the locals (even if their English is better than yours!).
What do you think of the architecture of the Mosque (if you’ve been there, or from the pictures)? What’s your experience of Arabic architecture, and how does it differ from your culture? Where else should I go next time I visit Abu Dhabi? Let me know this and anything else in the comments below!
- Don’t go on Thursday afternoon/Friday morning
- Tours aren’t every hour – make sure one is happening and get there at least 15 minutes before it starts (apparently there is a 5pm ‘sunset tour’ which is worth checking out)
- Go at a relaxed pace and enjoy the detail. Unless you do the tour you likely won’t need more than a couple of hours.
- Make sure you are appropriately dressed. You can borrow an abaya (women) or dishdasha (men), but it’s better to come with what you need.
- All that white marble and limited shade (and the fact you will be covered up) means you are likely to be very hot. You can’t eat or drink in most of the inside areas, so drink plenty before you come and afterwards.