A total of 38 construction companies and 3,500 workers were involved in the building of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, writes Fauziah Ismail


THE white imposing building never fails to catch my eye every time I am on the highway being driven from Yas island (where I am staying) to downtown Abu Dhabi. I try to capture a photograph from the moving vehicle but it is not quite enough.

I tell myself that I have to see it up close before the end of my three-day stay in the United Arab Emirates.

Standing at the front lawn of the Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi Hotel where we had lunch earlier and seeing the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in its full grandeur, I told my hosts, “we have to go there.”

It is simply majestic.

“Ah, but first we will go to Wahat al Karama. You can take good photos of the mosque from there,” they said.

The Wahat al Karama, which is sited next to the hotel, is a permanent tribute and war memorial to honour UAE’s martyred soldiers and other Emiratis who sacrificed their lives for the service of the nation.

My hosts tell me that they have indeed booked a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, said to be the world’s third largest mosque, after the Masjidil al Haram in Makkah and the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Madinah. it can take up to 41,000 worshippers at one time, with some 8,000 people in its main prayer hall alone.

With the sun in my eyes, I take not one but many silhouette photos of the grand mosque. We drive out of the Wahat al Karama and cross the highway that separates the grand mosque and the Wahat al Karama.


AN INFLUENTIAL FEAT

The mosque is named after the founder and first president of the UAE Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayan. He, however, never got to see the completion of the mosque as he passed away in 2004, three years before the completion of the mosque.

It took 12 years for the mosque to be completed, rising 11 metres above sea level and 9.5 metres above the street level, thus the reason why I can see it from the highway.

In fact, the man-made elevation made the mosque clearly visible from all directions.

Sheikh Zayed not only chose the location — on a piece of land between the Musaffah Bridge and Maqta Bridge in the heart of the new Abu Dhabi — but also had substantial influence on the architecture and the design of the mosque. It is also his last resting place, as his body is buried there.

The nearer I get to the mosque, the more excited I am to see the mosque in all its opulence. The tour guide gives me a quick glance. I am wearing a pair of jeans long enough to cover my ankle, a long-sleeved shirt and the tudung. I meet the dress code for women entering the mosque.

We go through a full-body security scanner to enter the compounds of the mosque.

Those not properly covered up can borrow the hooded abayas (for women) and Kandura (ankle length white shirt worn by male Emiratis) from the security control room.

We must all be appropriately dressed before entering the compound of the mosque. I enter the compound of the mosque from the north side. Turning left, I see this small structure separated from the main building.

“That is the mausoleum of the late Sheikh Zayed. No photography is allowed of the mausoleum,” she says. And no one is allowed in the mausoleum except sitting presidents. I hear Quranic verses being read.

“Yes, we have people reciting the Quran live daily,” she adds. The Quranic verses are recited in one-hour shift 24 hours daily.


A MONUMENTAL TASK

I gather that it was a monumental task to build the mosque. Cost of the project was reported to be AED2.5 billion (RM2.8 billion). A total of 38 construction companies and 3,500 workers were involved in the project.

Sheikh Zayed wanted the mosque to capture unique interactions between Islam and world cultures. As such, he incorporated architectural styles from different Muslim civilisations.


Beautiful details.

The mosque’s architects were British, Italian and Emirati, and design inspiration was borrowed from Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, and Egypt among other Islamic countries. The guide rattles some facts and figures for the mosque as she takes me into the main prayer hall.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque covers an area of 22,412 square metres. A total of 33,000 tonnes of steel and 250,000 cubic metres of concrete were used in its construction.

A total of 6,500 foundation piles were laid. The mosque complex alone covers an area of more than 12 hectares, excluding exterior landscaping and parking area.

There are 82 domes, with the main dome at 85 metres high and a diameter of 32.8metres, making it the largest mosque dome in the world.

My jaw literally drops as I listen to the guide’s briefing on the finishings in the mosque. It does seem that money is no object when it comes to decorating the interior of the mosque.

Natural materials were chosen for much of its design and construction due to their long-lasting qualities, including marble stone, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics.


Inside the praying hall.

Artisans and materials came from many countries including India, Italy, Germany, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran, China, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Republic of Macedonia and United Arab Emirates.


A HUGE WORK OF ART

The entire mosque is finished with Greek and Italian white marble, said to be among the purest of the world. Designers also used mosaic to cover the entire courtyard of 17,000 sq metres, making it the largest open spaces in mosques worldwide.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has 1,096 columns around the arcades of the mosque. These columns are made of white marble panels, inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone shell and nacre.

The overall design has been inspired from the date palm tree. The top of the columns is in the shape of a palm treetop.

“See here. It is inlaid with mother of pearl,” she says, pointing to the heart of the flower on the column. The work is completely made by hand in China.

Meanwhile, there are 96 columns stand in groups of four inside the mosque.

Structurally, these columns support the three main domes of the mosque. These columns in the main prayer hall are clad with white pure marble in laid with mother of pearl vines.

Verses from the Holy Quran are written throughout the mosque in three types of Arabic calligraphy. I find the most luxurious fixture in the mosque to be the seven gold plated chandeliers in the main prayer hall.


These columns are made of white marble panels, inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, redagate, amethyst, abalone shell and nacre.

These chandeliers, which come in various sizes, are made from gilded stainless steel and gilded brass. About 40kg of 24 carat galvanized gold was also used. The glass panels on the chandeliers incorporate millions of Swarovski crystals.

I stand in awe under the largest chandelier, which is the second largest known chandelier inside a mosque and the third largest in the world at 10 metres in diameter and 15 metres in height.

And another record-breaking feat in the main prayer hall is the 5,625 sqm carpet. It was hand-knotted by 1,200 Iranian craftsmen out of 35 tonnes of wool and 12 tonnes of cotton. The 2,268 million knots in the carpet makes it the largest carpet in the world.

“The carpet had to be cut to be transported to Abu Dhabi,” says the guide. She points to the indent in the carpet, which is not visible from a distance but only to the worshippers.

“This is where the worshippers will stand in a line during prayer times,” she adds. It took the knotters approximately two years to complete the carpet; the first year to complete the knotting work and the remaining year to transport, trim and weave the pieces together. But the one element that takes my breath away is Qibla wall, with the 99 names (qualities or attributes) of God in traditional Kufic calligraphy, designed by the prominent UAE calligrapher, Mohammed Mandi Al Tamimi. The Qibla wall also features subtle fibre-optic lighting, which is integrated as part of the organic design.


A LEARNING AND DISCOVERY CENTRE

The sounds of the azan reverberate throughout the mosque. It is time for the evening prayer. I am at the female prayer hall. I have not taken the ablution yet. The guide points me to the female ablution area.

It is at the men’s side of the prayer hall, across the huge courtyard. No photographs are allowed in the ablution area. This is understandable as the women would be taking off their hijab to cleanse themselves for prayers.

Now, if you are at the mosque, do not give these underground washrooms a miss.

Right smack in the middle of the washroom is a huge marble fountain bedecked with semi-precious stones.


Intricate marble work adorn the wall at the drinking water station.

Worshippers sit around the fountain. Water flows out through pipes all around the fountain. It may be quite a distance to walk to and from the female prayer hall but I can tell you it is worth the trip.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Centre manages the day-to-day operations and serves as a centre of learning and discovery through its educational cultural activities and visitor programmes.

There is also a library that keeps classic books and publications addressing a range of Islamic subjects: sciences, civilisation, calligraphy, the arts, and coins, including some rare publications dating back more than 200 years.


At 10min diameter and 15m in height, this is the second largest known chandelier inside a mosque and the third largest in the world.

The collection comprises material in a broad range of languages, including Arabic, English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Korean. For two years running, it was voted the world’s second favourite landmark by TripAdvisor.


FAST FACTS

SHEIKH ZAYED GRAND MOSQUE

WHERE Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed St Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

HOURS Open to the public from 9am to 10pm Saturday to Thursday (last entrance at 9.30pm) On Friday mornings, the mosque is open to worshippers only, with general admission commencing at 4.30pm. During Ramadan, the mosque is open from 9am to 1pm (closed Fridays).

DRESS CODE Long, loose fitting, ankle length trousers or skirts for women and men. Women must wear a headscarf.

TOURS Complimentary one hour guided tours offered at 10am, 11am and 5pm Sunday to Thursday; 5pm and 7pm on Friday; and 10am, 11am, 2pm, 5pm and 7pm on Saturday.

HOW TO GET THERE Etihad Airways operates daily scheduled services from Abu Dhabi to Kuala Lumpur.

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