‘Do the different colours of the scarves mean anything?’ an Australian voice enquires. The guide gives a genial smile and removes his headscarf to better demonstrate his answer. Emboldened by this, another voice pipes up: its owner is male, dressed in traditional Arabic garb and has a gruff American accent. ‘How many times a day do you have to pray?’ it enquires. Again, the guide smiles and gestures towards a honeycomb-shaped clock on the wall depicting six separate times arranged around two dates (the Gregorian and Islamic calendars).
The audience is predominantly Western and spans several decades. Many are dressed in traditional clothes and abayas; not through duty, but, rather, under the umbrella of understanding. This is what the mosque tour is all about. Once the tour ends and the visitors filter away, the guide remains to field a few off-the-cuff queries from stragglers. He is happy to relate his philosophy: ‘Any question they have they can just shoot, whether it’s about Islam, the structure of the building or UAE traditions, like clothing, the way we live and what we do. Basically, it’s the only place where they [the visitors] might have an interaction with a UAE national face to face.’ The result is that each tour culminates in a kind of meet-the-neighbours free-for-all – a cultural exchange conducted in a cacophony of international accents.
But what of the building itself? The Sheikh Zayed Mosque was built between the two main arteries of the city, the Maqta and Mussafah bridges. It is one of the first sights that you see as you enter Abu Dhabi and something of a calling card to visitors. In early 2008, it was decided that the mosque be opened up to visitors and the result has been a steady flow of curious onlookers.
The stats are impressive: the mosque holds an estimated 40,000 worshippers (30,000 in the large courtyard; 10,000 in the three indoor prayer halls). It is the third largest in the world according to the Turkish Islamic Committee and contains 1,096 jewel-encrusted pillars made of 20,000 marble pieces. Of course, you need a fair few pillars in order to support the 82 gold-topped domes, each of which are inscribed with verses from the Qu’ran, written in the five different Arabic writing styles. Around the outside, pools cool the air, and in the evening, lights shine down on them to create a shimmering display. Everywhere
It is a sound that catches our attention next. It emanates from the mausoleum – a modest, domed building located next to the mosque – which houses former President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s grave. We are told that it is the only area where photography is forbidden. A curious child perks up and asks ‘why?’ The guide gives his benevolent smile and explains: the sound is the result of 10 men recruited to read verses from the Holy Book 24 hours a day (in half-hour shifts) over the grave. It brings an earthly reality to the often exotic beauty that surrounds the mosque.
We travel downstairs to the lush, green sanctum of the Turkish tiled wash area where our guide demonstrates the act of cleaning the hands, mouth, nose, face and feet (three times like the Prophet Muhammad PBUH) before prayer. Kids are encouraged to give it a go and, before long, hands, noses and faces are dripping water all over the tiled floors.
The next stop is the prayer halls. We are guided – stopping only to shed our shoes – through the ladies’ prayer area (women and men cannot worship together), where a blank TV screen sits on the wall, ready to relay the image of the Imam to the main hall, where our tour ends.
Above our heads hang chandeliers constructed out of two million Swarovski crystals; under our feet is 5,627 sq m of carpet. Kids gasp, in the way that only children can at enormous statistics. Our guide points to the columns holding up the central dome: they are of Roman design, he says, made with Greek marble, crafted in China and inlaid with mother of pearl from New Zealand. The carpet is Iranian, the flowers on the walls Singaporean, even the ceiling design is Moroccan. The children look disinterested, gazing up at the chandeliers, but this is actually the best way of understanding the mosque and its tours: as a shrine not only to religion, but to multi-culturalism. By opening up Sheikh Zayed Mosque to non-Muslim families and children and allowing them to try on traditional dress, ask (often impertinent) questions about Islamic religion and Arab culture, and even take pictures to show others, it is performing an important role in promoting understanding. That is the gift of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
Tours 9am, 10am and 11am Thu-Sat. During Ramadan, 10am only. Call 800 555 for more information.