By PANDITHA BANDARA
I HAD a rare opportunity to visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Ahu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This picturesque elegant mosque is the largest in the country and the third largest in the world after the ones in Mecca and Madina in Saudi Arabia.
This article, based on information and facts provided by the tour guide and other secondary sources, is to share my experience with readers of The National to appreciate wonderful things in other countries and cultures.
The mosque is located in the heart of the new Abu Dhabhi between Musaffah Bridge and Maqta Bridge. It is named after the founder and first President of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan AI Nahyan. His desire was to establish a structure that would unite the cultural diversity of the Islamic World with historical and modern values and art.
Those who visit the mosque would realise that his desire has been fulfilled. The project began in late 1996 and was initially opened to the public and for prayers on Dec 20, 2007. The construction cost amounted to $245 million (K808 million). This gigantic building complex measures approximately 290m (960 ft) by 420m (1,380 ft) covering an area of more than 12 hectares (30 acres) excluding exterior landscaping and vehicle parking.
Artisans and materials came from many countries including China, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Morocco, New Zeeland, Turkey, the UK and the UAE itself. More than 3,000 artisans from 38 global construction companies participated to complete the building.
The Grand Mosque has set three Guinness World Records; for largest hand-woven carpet, biggest chandelier, as well as the largest dome its kind in the world. The mosque has the capacity of accommodating 40,000 worshipers. It is the most visited building in the UAE, attracting 1.2 million visitors annually.
According to sources, the design of the Sheik Zayed Mosque has been inspired by Persian, Mughal and the Alexandrian Mosques in Egypt, and also Indo-Islamic mosque architecture. The dome layout and floor plan were inspired by the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan. The main features of this mosque include arcades, courtyards, domes, minarets, prayer halls, water pools and mausoleum of the founder.
The mosque has four minarets (meaning lighthouse), each approximately 106 meters tall. Each minaret is comprised of three different geometric shapes. The first is a square that forms the minaret’s base. The second section has an octagonal shape and third section is cylindrical in shape. All these shapes are visible from the distance. There is a crowing lantern on the top of each covered with gold-glass mosaic.
The courtyard covers 17,000 square meters and the entire surface of the courtyard is covered in mosaics. It is considered the largest marble mosaic in the world. The white marble tiles which are in fact made up of up of tiny pieces no bigger than four square centimeters each. There are colourful botanical designs on these white marbles. And there is the allure of its eclecticism.
Travel advisors advise the visitors to wear sunglasses when marvelling at the outside as the sun reflects on the marble surface of the courtyard. There are 1,148 date palm styled columns in the courtyard. These columns are decorated with inlaid marble panels and millions of Swarovski crystals. The main courtyard is used by worshipers during significant Islamic prayers and large gatherings such as the holy month of Ramadan. It can accommodate 31 000 worshipers.
There are 82 domes of various sizes and the largest (32.8 m in diameter and 85m high) is located in the centre of the main prayer hall. The inside of each dome features traditional Moroccan artwork. The design elements include pure white marble cladding, onion shaped ‘crowns’ and crescent shaped finials decorated with gold-glass mosaic.
The elongated windows allow natural light to enter the prayer halls. The other domes are found on the grand gated entrance and other entrances. There are also 14 green glass domes incorporated into the roof of the underground made and female ablution facilities.
The Grand Mosque is surrounded by rectangular pools tiled in different shades of blue, which extend over 7,874 square meters. These water pools reflect the mosque’s magnificent arcades and columns and become even more spectacular by the lighting at night. They also provide cool autmuspire to the visitors.
There are three prayer halls in the Grand Mosque. The main prayer hall is for men and the other two are for women. The main prayer hall can hold 7,000 worshipers and the other two have a capacity for 1,500 each. The prayer area has many features to admire. The main prayer hall lies beneath the mosque’s three huge signature domes. Each dome is supported by a 32-column octagon which together makes internal space. This prayer area is home to 96 pillars, each of which is inlaid with mother of pearl. This work was carried out by Chinese craftsmen by hand. The 99 names of God (Allah) are featured on the Qibla wall (wall which faces Mecca) by a respectable calligrapher.
Another unique feature in the prayer hall is the gigantic carpet laid to cover the entire prayer area. It is the world’s largest hand-knitted carpet. The single-piece carpet is 5,700 square meters and has hand-crafted by approximately 1,300 weavers from Iran using 38 tonnes of cotton and wool from New Zeeland. The total project took two years, including eight months for the design and 12 months for the knitting consisting of 2.2 billion knots. The gigantic carpet weighs 38 tonnes.
A crystal chandelier which is considered as one of the world’s largest in a mosque and weighing approximately 12 tonnes can be found in the prayer hall. The mosque features seven German designed crystal chandeliers. The others are situated inside the halls and foyers. All chandeliers are made from glided stainless steel and glided brass (about 40kg of 24 carat galvanized gold was used). Glass panels studded with Swarovski crystals were installed in all of them.
The arcades of the Grand Mosque are flanked by thousands of columns, which are of white marble panels, inlaid with precious and semi- precious stones. The overall design of columns reflects the date palm treetop. The mosque has 1,096 columns around the arcade. Each piece was hand-carved and inlaid by craftsmen on site. In addition to those columns there are 96 columns stand in groups of four which contribute to the structural support for the three domes mentioned above.
No description about Grant Mosque is complete without mentioning the lighting system. A unique lighting system was designed to reflect the phases of the moon. The entire mosque changes as the moon waxes and wanes. According to the phases of the moon the mosque by night can appear either bright white or deep blue.
Each day appears a little different from the next as the lighting cycle commences with darker clouds when the month is in early stages and the moon is a small crescent. There are 22 light towers consisting of a number of light projectors to achieve this creative effect.
Ramadan is a time of reflection and communion for estimated 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide. This year’s Holly Month began on May 6 and lasted until June 4.
The Grand Mosque becomes a focal point of prayer and congregation for residents of the Emirates during this important time in the Islamic calendar. During this period they break fasting in the evening and take the meal. It is called Iftar meal. Every evening during the Ramadan month the Grand Mosque provides meals for 35,000 worshipers daily.
About 1,000 people work daily produces the free Iftar meal. The team consists of 350 chefs, 160 stewards and 450 service staff. At the kitchen, 12 tonnes of chicken and six tonnes of lamb are used each day in addition to other products and ingredients such as rice, vegetables, tomatoes and onions amounting to 35 tonnes being used.
The mosque is free to visit and opens daily between 9am to 10pm. except Friday mornings. Modest dress is a must for all visitors. Women should cover their legs, arms and heads and men are required to wear long trousers, however the mosque does provide free traditional dress prior to entry.
Visitors included celebrities, the world richest people and members of royal families, etc. However, all of them, irrespective of their status, must obey the rules of the mosque while they are inside the premises.
Rihanna was asked to leave after posing for a series of pictures that staff said did not conform to conditions of entry.
- The writer is a senior lecturer at University of Papua New Guinea, School of Business and Public Policy.