Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque

While in Abu Dhabi, we took some time to visit the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi’s grand mosque. This was the first mosque I had been to, and quite an extravagant one for me to make my introduction with. (This mosque is worlds away from the seemingly ancient mosques we visited in Istanbul the following week.) As I mentioned earlier this week, Sheikh Zayed was the president of the Emirates and the beloved leader who was responsible for the oil lease arrangement that ensured the wealth of their country and its natives. This enormous structure is a striking symbol of both that extreme wealth and of their dedication to the Muslim religion.

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This mosque is the source of the daily prayer for the entire city. Unlike the centuries-old mosques of Istanbul, which seemed to almost compete for your attention, in Abu Dhabi the call to prayer is broadcast out to all of the surrounding mosques in one unified declaration.

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The outside of the mosque features pools of water meant to shows the mosque’s own reflection when lit up at night.

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The floors and columns throughout are climbing with vines of inlaid stone floral designs. An incredible variety of stones  were used for these designs, and they are the most colorful ornamentation on the grounds.

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Gold leaf is also used in detailing and on columns, highlighting the opulence of all the materials used.

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When you first walk into the lobby area, before entering the courtyard, you immediately begin to get a sense of the scale of this enormous place, with high ceilings and the even higher inset undersides of the domes. Each dome is ornamented like lace, and each seems to be of a different design than the last.

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A little bit of a precursor to our trip to Istanbul, there were also a couple walls of Iznik tile designs. We would be seeing lots and lots of this in Turkey!

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Even the ablution room (where worshipers go to wash their hands and feet before prayer) is an incredible place, built almost entirely of green marble.

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The entire structure is constructed of white marble. Between the marble and the bright, hot sun, when you enter into the courtyard you feel like you might be in a glowing white dream world.

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There is an incredible amount of detail carved into the marble, again in the form of these beautiful, lace-like vines.

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Each dome is topped with a crescent moon, an important symbol for Islam.

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The lobby at the entrance to the prayer room boasted a different kind of design. Almost a combination of the inlaid stones and the carved white marble, these flowery vines used the same tremendous variety of stones but were embossed rather than inlaid.

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The chandeliers throughout use Swarovski crystals, including this one in the lobby, and were surrounded by even more elaborate ornamentation.

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You are greeted by more gilt gold as you enter the prayer room.

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The grand mosque’s prayer room is large enough to house 40,000 worshipers at a time.

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Upon entering the room, the first thing you will notice is the giant Swarovski crystal chandelier, estimated to be the third largest chandelier in the world. It’s also surrounded by a tremendous amount of beautiful ornamentation, some carved and some inlaid.

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It seems that little goes untouched by ornamentation here. Inlaid mother of pearl, carved marble, and gilt gold details can be seen throughout.

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Not even the wood elements, like the carts that hold copies of the Quran for worshipers or the wood panels that line the room, are free of this incredible detail and craftsmanship.

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The wall opposite of the entrance is not only peppered with the names of the profits (written in Arabic), but the detail around them glows from daylight being subtly let in from the outside through the vine-like designs.

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The carpet that lines the floor in the prayer room is the world’s largest carpet, handmade by more than a thousand people. It is one piece that covers the entire floor, and is even made to perfectly fit around the flower-petal column bases.

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The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is otherworldly, a sight I am so glad we took time to experience while we were there. A product of architects and designers from around the world, the craftsmanship is impeccable and the use of materials and ornamentation seems to be of another era altogether. It’s hard to imagine this was just recently built (in 2004). It’s such an integral part of the Abu Dhabi horizon, it seems that it should have been there forever.

What are your thoughts on the ornamentation and inlay?

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The Real Abu Dhabi

Admittedly, I did not know much about ABu Dhabi before we visited there a couple weeks ago. I knew it was a city with a lot of money, oil money, and I think I thought it was like a less developed Dubai. (Not that I knew a whole lot about Dubai either, for that matter.) But what I found was a city much more diverse. There are a huge number of ex-pats and immigrants living and working there. A majority of the immigrants come from India and Pakistan. And while the class structure there keeps an extremely wide divide between these immigrants and the native Emirates, there is an epic amount of construction happening at all times as the area grows, as well as tons of service jobs in any of the numerous upscale resorts and restaurants in the area. Not unlike the immigrant communities in the US, many of the UAE’s immigrants are sending money home to their families, working tirelessly toward a better future for their children.

Visiting a faraway country when you know someone who lives there offers a huge advantage in that you are able to see how people really live. To be fair, that also means mostly you see how your friend lives, and in this case we had the most exposure to the lives of ex-pats like them. But we were able to experience a much wider view of Abu Dhabi, and learn a bit about the history of Abu Dhabi and its social and political structure. We also were able to simply enjoy the refreshing beauty that it has to offer while we were on vacation. This is just a taste of Abu Dhabi, meant to give you a broad sense of my impression of the place.

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people lounging under the shade of public umbrellas at Saadiyat Beach

Abu Dhabi is essentially an island in the Persian Gulf. Interestingly, the beautiful beaches you see all around were man-made using sand shipped in from Japan.

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Saadiyat Beach

The water is beautiful, bright blue, almost tropical looking, and the beaches are so perfect it feels surreal.

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a view of one skyline from the Corniche

The buildings there make you feel like you might be in a sci-fi thriller. The city is very new, only around 45 years old, so each new building uses the very latest in design and technology, and almost seems to try to out-do its predecessors.

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a walk on the Corniche

The city seems to make a real effort to create spaces for people to gather, walk, ride bicycles, etc. Since we went at the beginning of summer it was already getting very hot during the days, but in the evenings around sunset you could see all kinds of people taking their evening jog or pushing baby carriages for a stroll as the air began to cool down. Corniche is the word the locals use to describe this boardwalk-like walkway, which stretches pretty far through the city. It’s also the name of this beach area. It seemed like any public space we visited while we were there had workers on standby to clean up any little piece of trash that might fall, so every park and walkway was spotless.

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the fruit market in Abu Dhabi

Away from the resorts and sky rises, we visited the markets where plenty of locals go for fresh local fruits and vegetables. There were dozens of stands cascading with tempting produce. So many sellers to chose from, most with the same items for sale as the next guy, so it was tough to chose who to buy from. They try persistently to sell you on their own so you don’t wander off to someone else’s.

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sellers at the fruit market in Abu Dhabi

We went toward the end of the day, so it wasn’t very crowded. People mostly seemed to be waiting for the next customer to pop by.

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piles of dates covered in plastic to ward off flies

In the same industrial port complex you could find dozens of date salesmen as well. This particular one is a favorite of our friends we were visiting.

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We like to call this a sheik date.

These were the best of the dates, housed indoors. Posted above them was a poster featuring Sheik Zayed and his two sons. Sheik Zayed was the much loved leader of Abu Dhabi (the capital of the Emirates) who is responsible for the arrangement regarding oil between the British and the Emirates that lead to the widespread wealth that is so apparent in the city today. No longer living, his older son is the current leader of Abu Dhabi. Photos of Sheik Zayed seem to pepper the city, sometimes in the most unexpected places.

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the fish market in Abu Dhabi

My husband, the master chef of our house, was in heaven in the fish market. You’ve never seen such beautiful fresh fish.

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colorful fresh fish

The fish in the market were so colorful, and almost seemed to still be swimming.

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taking a rest after a long day

Once you pick out the fish you want to take home, you can have it cleaned out at a station like this, although this guy seemed to be done for the day.

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delicious prawns, fresh from ocean to oven

Then, you can take that fish to any of the cooks in the market if you’d like. You could walk out of the market eating one of the freshest meals you’ve ever had.

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a fisherman takes a rest on his boat after a long day

Just outside of the market, there are probably 100 of these boats docked, ready to go out fishing the next morning.

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rusty old fishing boats out of service

And in the parking lot next to the fish market you will find these boats, clearly not fit for use, just resting sleepily. We saw lots of feral kittens living around these, probably waiting for the next little piece of fish to drop.

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the infinite pool at the Shangri-La Resort

In contrast, we got a taste of resort living in Abu Dhabi as well. We had a morning of swimming and lounging at the pool, where the service was incredibly luxurious. The service people there make sure you have plenty of water and walk around with cold towels, fruit to munch on, and even clean your sunglasses for you if you’d like.

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A view of the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque

The Shangri-La also had this incredible view of the Grand Mosque. It is such an enormous structure, dominating the skyline. After seeing it like this I couldn’t wait to go there and see it up close.  (Come back Thursday for more on this spectacular place.)

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sunset at the St. Regis

Later that same night we went to the St. Regis for some outdoor yoga at sunset, and the view from my mat was magical.

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getting into the first pose of the evening

Our friend we were visiting was the yoga instructor for the class, and I was so pleased to finally be able to take one of her classes! We were incredibly relaxed at the end.

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a Muslim couple in traditional dress walk along the beach after dark

I loved catching this little glimpse into another way of life, actually not all that different from my own. Plus the skyline across the water was so bright. Abu Dhabi at night could almost be a completely different city than Abu Dhabi during the day.

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one of many stray cats by the beach

Even though I mentioned earlier that the public parks were all spotless, that doesn’t make them immune to cats. We encountered tons of stray cats, surprisingly affectionate but infected with fleas. They all seem to be pretty well fed though.

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a view of Emirates Palace from the 58th floor next door

One of the most opulent places we saw while we were there was Emirates Palace. It’s mainly a hotel and houses a variety of wonderful upscale restaurants and cafes. And yes, it is as huge as it looks. We barely scratched the surface when we went there for dinner on our last night in Abu Dhabi.

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top left: the most expensive scotch in the world

Emirates Palace is home to a scotch and cigar bar that sells the most expensive scotch in the world, a 57 year old Macallan that sells for over $4,000 per shot. No, we did not try it, but wouldn’t that be a story to tell!

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Gold To Go

And yes, the rumors are true, you can indeed buy gold from a vending machine there.

Are you intrigued? What would you most like to see in Abu Dhabi?