A Visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center, Abu Dhabi
While we were in Abu Dhabi, one of our favorite experiences was visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center. Because it’s a little complicated to visit, and because we saw several people learn the hard way about photo restrictions there, we wanted to share some tips and offer some suggestions for future visitors.
The mosque is located between the airport and city itself. (It’s thirteen miles from the airport, and about eight miles from the city center.) The mosque is lit up at night, and makes for an impressive sight as you travel from the airport into the city. When we arrived in Abu Dhabi, we learned that our hotel offered a shuttle to the mosque for 20 AED, or about $5.50 US per person, round trip. (Easily less than the cost of two people taking a taxi.) (If you’re headed to Abu Dhabi, you might want to check with your hotel before booking a tour on your own or planning to take a taxi – we saw several other hotel vehicles at the mosque, so the Hilton doesn’t seem to be alone in offering this service.) The public bus, tourist buses, and taxis are also all options.
The mosque itself was free to visit, and is incredibly impressive. Unlike most of the mosques we’ve visited around the world, this one is much newer, was designed from the outset with welcoming visitors in mind, and no expense was spared in its construction. It’s also one of the few mosques in the UAE that is open to visitors.
If you’ve been to other mosques, you may wonder why you should visit this one in particular. Having visited many mosques including Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, the Grand Mosque has a very different feel. First, the mosque is huge. It can host 50,000 people at one time, has 82 domes, more than 1,000 columns, and the world’s largest hand knotted carpet covering the main prayer hall. (That last one may not sound so exciting, but it is really impressive in person. The carpet required about 1200 workers to spend a year making it and is about 5,700 square meters.) It also has seven huge, beautiful chandeliers that were made in Munich, including a 12 ton chandelier over the center of the main prayer hall. Outside the mosque are blue tiled reflecting pools that help to cool the mosque, which has a system that cools the marble floors. As guests need to remove their shoes, the system keeps your feet cool in the hot desert heat.
The mosque is also beautiful and decorated differently than other mosques I’ve visited before, with white Sivec marble from Macedonia everywhere you look. (The fact that building materials and the workers who built it came from all of the world is one of the things stressed at the mosque and in materials about it.) The 1,000 plus columns along the mosque’s arcades are accented with climbing flowers and other designs, created by using the same 500 year old Italian technique as was used at the Taj Mahal. The arcade columns are inlaid with stones like amethyst, abalone shell, and red agate. (The columns in the prayer hall have vines as well but the vines are made of white rather than colored stones.) As your eyes go up the columns in the long arcades, you realize they are capped by golden colored tops that look like the tops of palm trees.
Third, besides being enormous and beautiful, the mosque is one of the few in the United Arab Emirates that is open to visitors. Be sure to confirm the opening hours, but generally (other than Ramadan), it is open 9 am-10 pm on days other than Fridays, when it opens later in the day. In fact, the mosque was set up not just to allow visitors but to welcome them. Extended golf carts take visitors from one end of the grounds to another (very helpful when the temperature is well past 100 degrees and you’re dressed to meet the dress code!), there is a gift shop and a (not cheap) café, nice information booklets are distributed to all guests, and free tours are offered throughout the day.
The mosque is named for Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first President of the United Arab Emirates, and he is buried next to the mosque. It was his vision to build the mosque, but he passed away in 2004, three years before the mosque was officially opened.
We read a lot of conflicting advice on the dress code, and were confused even after looking at the helpful graphic provided on the mosque’s website. Based on what I had read, I set off in a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, with a scarf for my head.
The Hilton bus deposited us relatively close to the entrance building that everyone is funneled through. As you enter the building, your attire is reviewed and loaner clothing is handed out. As we went through that building, staff observed our appearance and indicated which women needed to wear an abaya. It turned out that my sleeves were not long enough, so I needed to wear a loaner abaya on top of my clothes. Given that the temperature was over 100 degrees, I regretted wearing long pants and long sleeves – I probably would have been cooler just wearing short sleeves and shorts and planning to borrow an abaya from the get-go.
Others in our group who also thought they were meeting the dress code had a similar experience. One person was told she needed to wear an abaya because her head scarf was too translucent and her hair showed through, and another was told she needed to wear one because her scarf didn’t fully cover her hair. (It was more of a handkerchief.) I appreciated that everything was handled very matter-of-factly – if the staff felt your attire didn’t meet the requirements, they directed you to a separate room where women could put on abayas, and men could borrow a thobe (an ankle length, long-sleeved white robe). You walk back through the same building on the way out, so returning borrowed clothing wasn’t complicated.
Visitors must also remove their shoes once they’re inside the mosque.
Although photos are welcome throughout the mosque, there are a few restrictions. For example, taking photos of worshippers or sitting on the floor of the main prayer hall to facilitate photos are not permitted. In addition, public displays of affection are not permitted, meaning that photos of visitors kissing, for example, are not allowed. We also watched more than one person who was approached by the security guards and told to delete photos they had taken that were considered inappropriate.
In one case, two young women were clearly (and loudly) trying to get “perfect” photos for Instagram on one of the arcades leaving the main prayer hall. One of the shots they were trying to take was the ubiquitous shot of two people holding hands, one leading the other. I was very curious as to how this would be handled, so I watched the guard approach them, explain they couldn’t take photos like that, and tell them to delete them. When they argued, he was respectful, but did not back down, and made them delete the photos while he waited – both the ones he had seen them take and others they had taken that he deemed inappropriate.
I would love to go back later in the day when the lighting wasn’t as harsh, and to do a guided tour (the bus timing from the Hilton didn’t allow it). But even if you just have time for a short visit and can’t join a tour, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is well worth the trip.
If you can’t get to the mosque, you can check out a virtual tour here.
Have you been to the Grand Mosque? Do you have any tips to add?