After the glitter of Dubai and the imposing structures of Abu Dhabi’s government buildings, the Sheik Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque in Abu Dhabi is the pinnacle of everything the United Arab Emirates has to offer. Located on a hill, it rises into the sky in majestic splendor. Four 351 foot high minarets and 82 domes of white Italian marble glisten in the summer heat. Looking up at the imposing white apparition against the blue sky, I felt humbled before I even neared the steps to the colonnade leading to the main entrance. What grander splendor would follow such an awe-inspiring exterior?
It is the only mosque that encourages visitors of all religions to visit. Initiated by the United Arab Emirates’ first ruler, it was not completed until after his death. In 2009, all the fountains, reflecting pools, and tiled areas were finished. The Grand Mosque, as locals call it, is the third largest mosque after Mecca and Medina.
The mosque covers an area of 237,000 feet. The floor of the exterior hall and courtyard is paved with beautiful floral tiles from Turkey. 1096 slim columns made of white marble and decorated with inlaid vines and flowers, each a replica of the other, lead to the interior. The splendid sameness of the columns enveloped the senses. People were walking quietly, respectfully, in local or Western dress. I had entered another, more beautiful world.
At the entrance to the prayer hall a group of women in black abaias, veils, and headscarves asked visitors to deposit their shoes in lockers that no one locked. They handed us abaias and head scarves to wear. Suddenly our little group of seven was transformed into something ephemeral. The feeling was strange in the unfamiliar environment, the long cool robes caressing us gently. Barefoot we continued.
A gasp emanated from seven throats. Our breath just seemed to stop. Nowhere, ever, not even in the grandest cathedrals of Europe, had I seen such incredible splendor. 96 large columns inlaid with blue designs and thousands of rare and semi-precious stones support the domes, the tallest rising 246 feet into the air. 42 karat gold is used lavishly. The qiblah wall that directs the faithful towards Mecca, 75 feet high and 165 feet wide, is decorated with the 99 names or qualities of Allah and back-illuminated with fiber-optic lighting. Suspended from the central dome is the world’s largest chandelier. Made in Germany, it is almost 33 feet tall and equally as wide, and weighs nine tons. In reds, greens and clear crystal it looks like a giant flower just opening up.
We were standing on the largest Persian carpet in the world. Sized at over 65 thousand square feet it had been weaved by 1200 Iranian women over two years to. Very soft, very lush, in greens, browns and reddish hues it covers the large expanse of the prayer hall. Forty thousand people can pray at the same time. Standing there I felt incredibly overpowered.
We walked around, awestruck. Suddenly, from the minaret came the call to prayer. We were asked to leave.