A mosque that 'united the world'

On December 20, 2007, Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque opened to the public. Ten years on, the passion project of the UAE's Founding Father has become a place of worship, an architectural marvel, a global tourist attraction and a powerful beacon of tolerance

December 20, 2007. The newest mosque in Abu Dhabi opens to the public following Eid Al Adha prayers led by The President, Sheikh Khalifa.

It was a symbolic moment. Three years earlier, his father, the late President Sheikh Zayed, had been buried there. It was Sheikh Zayed's vision to build the mosque - one that would act as a beacon for Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates. One that would showcase the tolerance of Islam and send a message of peace regardless of religion, culture or identity.

Not only is Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque a place of worship and the burial place of Sheikh Zayed - it has also become a landmark. No one ever forgets the first time they saw the mosque. For me, it was when I arrived in the city for the first time in 2012, from a taxi on Sheikh Zayed Bridge: it was bathed in blue light and stood apart from everything else.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is now also a place visited by people hungry to learn more about the UAE. And they are arriving in their millions. Ten years on from the opening date, more than two million people annually visit the mosque to see how the vision of Sheikh Zayed has been realised.


Photos courtesy Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Centre

The year 1996 was a busy one for the UAE. The country joined the World Trade Organisation, in March former US president George Bush visited the country, and in June, Emirates airline took delivery of its first Boeing 777.

But 1996 was noteworthy for another major reason: construction started on Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

The site was also symbolic, close to the Maqta Bridge, the location of the first crossing between Abu Dhabi Island and the mainland. The mosque was built on a slight incline, and it dominates its surroundings – anyone entering or leaving the city cannot help but to be struck by its beauty.

“It took 11 years to construct this magnificent building,” says Ishaq Mohammed Almushairi, senior specialist of cultural guidance at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

“The idea was that this could be a place to spread a vision of tolerance, co-existence and peace. For that reason, they wanted the mosque to be built in a white colour.”

While ideas for the mosque had been circulating since the 1980s, construction finally started on November 5, 1996.
The original architect was Yusef Abdelki from Syria, but during the 11-year journey it would involve other engineers, architects, designers, artists, construction companies and contractors.

About 33,000 tonnes of steel were used in the construction, and it sits on 6,500 foundation piles.

The first phase to be completed was the concrete body. The building process was complex – take the main dome, for example. It was built over what would become the main prayer hall and has a diameter of 32.6 metres. It is composed of dozens of pre-cast concrete segments.

Once these were put in place, the dome was capped with another piece of concrete. This piece of concrete was reinforced with steel to allow for the huge chandelier that would eventually hang from its underside. This chandelier is the mosque’s principal one, and weighs 10 tonnes. The dome and its two smaller ones on either side are free-standing to prevent damage in the case of an earthquake.

A look inside Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Video by Willy Lowry / The National

The building’s exterior was finished within a few years of construction starting. Then, thoughts turned to phase two. It was in this phase that the exterior and elements such as the white marble cladding, chandeliers, carpet and lighting would be completed to give the mosque its identity.

At some point between 2003 and 2004, work started to complete the interior and exterior - work which would continue until its opening in 2007. Keith Bradshaw, principal at lighting company Speirs and Major, remembers the discussions.

“In 2003 a number of interior designers were asked to come up with how it would be finished,” he says.

“At the same time – they started talking to lighting designers about what they could do on the outside. The conversation was that this was a national symbol – a symbol of religion and the state working together.”

A battalion of 3,000 workers built the mosque, with 38 contractors involved at various stages. Artisans, craftsmen and materials from around the world were employed, including from Italy, Germany, Morocco, Macedonia, India, Turkey, China, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Greece and the UAE. Natural materials were chosen, including marble, stone, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics. According to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Centre, its design and construction "united the world".

Architecture and design

Photos by Antonie Robertson / The National

“Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is built in three styles: Mughal, Moorish and Ottoman,” says Mr Almushairi.

Ottoman architecture is known for its domes, ceramics and sense of weightlessness; Mughal for its uniformed appearance; and Moorish for its arches and gardens.

“Many mosques are built in one style. This is what makes it unique.”

The mosque has 82 domes. The insides of the domes are inscribed with verses from the Quran. There are 1,192 columns - 1,096 columns around the arcade and 96 columns for the three main domes. Designed in the shape of palm trees with golden fronds, they are clad in marble and inlaid with floral designs and semi-precious stones using an Italian technique from the 16th century known as pietra dura.

“The arcade is very inspirational,” says Mr Almushairi. “We have a strong relationship to the palm tree, which is the source of food and shelter. It gives us inspirational stories to tell and keeps the visitors thinking and imagining. And the Moorish garden too. That’s why I believe it’s the pathway to heaven.”

Ishaq Mohammed Almushairi, senior specialist of cultural guidance, walks us through the arcade of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Video by Willy Lowry / The National

Four 106-metre minarets rise above the 17,400 square metre sahan, or courtyard, which features beautiful floral designs completed by British artist Kevin Dean. He was recommended by a colleague in the Royal College of Art and met Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed, then Deputy Prime Minister, who was in charge of the project.

“Sheikh Sultan had done sketches on the back of an envelope of lots of flowers and I could recognise that. It was just a matter of putting together the right flowers for the site,” says Mr Dean.

“He was quite interested in moving away from traditional geometrics and doing something different. And I think he was interested in surprising people in a way.”

Dean chose flowers that would be recognisable for people all over the world but also would grow in the Arabian Peninsula, such as iris, tulip, jasmine, roses and passiflora.

Kevin Dean talks about the project in 2015

The designs were first done the old-school way, on paper, and then transferred to computer. Dean was able to select from about 37 different colours of natural marble from countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Italy. The marble was then cut by water jet into small and large coloured pieces – pieces of a jigsaw that were put together back at the mosque site in Abu Dhabi. Italian marble fabricators Fantini Mosaici built these courtyard designs.

Other designs by Mr Dean can be found around the north and south entrances and the prayer hall.

“Any design has its flaws and you can see how you might have done things differently. But in the main I’m really proud of it. I get emails every week or so from someone who has been there and admired it. Lovely, kind words,” he says.

Rectangular reflecting pools around the mosque cool the air and give the atmosphere of an oasis. Inside the main prayer hall is the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet. Designed by master carpet maker Ali Khaliqi of Iran, it spans 5,700 square metres, was made by about 1,200 artisans, and is made of 70 per cent wool and 30 per cent cotton.

There are seven crystal chandeliers with flower designs in the mosque, and they were made by Faustig of Munich. The company was also behind the chandeliers in Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Oman, Al Shohada Mosque in Sanaa, and several projects in Saudi Arabia.

Dr Thomas Faustig, owner and chief executive, recalls being involved with the project in the early 1990s. “At this time the interior decoration was a different one, a traditional one. About 10 years later, the project changed,” he says.

Between five and 10 companies were asked to put forward their ideas again, and Dr Faustig’s design won.

The largest chandelier hangs in the main prayer hall. It is made of stainless steel, gilded brass and glass panels that are studded with crystals.

About 16,000 LEDs lights and 10,650,000 crystals were used in the principal chandelier.

“To make such a chandelier is not easy because everything is bent. We all like to think in square dimensions, but this was quite complicated because it was a three-dimensional design.”

“It’s made for eternity. All we have to do from time to time is exchange the LEDs, or electronic components, but the chandeliers should last for the next 500 years,” says Dr Faustig.

At the time, the principal chandelier was the world's largest.

“They are fantastic, extremely stunning and unique. We have never again done such a type of chandelier. The crystals were specifically made for this chandelier – it was special, special, special. And it was a new world record. I’m extremely happy with the outcome, and it is extremely beautiful.”

Lunar lighting

The Moon rises over the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque on November 13, 2016. Photo by Christopher Pike/The National

Every evening, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque takes on a new life. From bright white to blue, the mosque is illuminated in light that reflects the phases of the Moon as it waxes and wanes. This was the brainchild of UK lighting experts Speirs and Major. The UK company was also responsible for the main lighting on the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, and for an additional layer of celebratory lighting on the Burj Khalifa.
But the mosque project stands apart.

“It couldn’t have been a simple floodlighting scheme. It wouldn’t have looked right,” says Keith Bradshaw, of Speirs and Major.

What the lighting company devised was to link the lunar calendar and the Islamic religious calendar.

“But how to do this without projecting pictures of moon craters on to the building? It could have looked too Disney-fied,” Bradshaw says.

What they did was project white light on to the mosque for the full moon and dark blue as the Moon wanes, with 14 shades of blue and white in between.

Around the exterior of the mosque are 600 individual lights – some as big as refrigerators. “The bigger ones on the roof are enormous. They are big, air-conditioned super units. What we wanted to do was achievable with theatrical lighting – but nobody had been crazy enough to put it into an air-conditioned, Abu Dhabi-proof, enclosure before. It’s extreme. That never happened before.”

With temperatures reaching more than 40C in August, that means every lighting fixture has to be able to withstand temperatures of 60C. One light was placed on top of a Las Vegas building and run for nine months because there is comparable air temperature. “Another was put in the far north of Denmark for cold. One was submerged for a week to see how it performed with the light on under water. Testing to see what they could withstand, extreme stuff that Abu Dhabi demanded of it.”

Speirs and Major also came up with another lighting idea to project clouds drifting across the building, as if across the Moon. They drift from the prayer wall on the west side across to the east, as if the clouds are moving across the building from Makkah.

“We obviously did not want to project a white fluffy cloud. When a cloud moves it’s not linear, it evolves and develops and dissolves and is almost rotating back on itself as it’s going forward. To create that in light is actually quite tricky, to make that believable. If you did it now, you’d probably use huge-scale video projectors where you literally project an image of a cloud on it.

"Not only did we not have that technology, it’s almost too literal, so we projected light through a rotating lens but it then goes through another lens in the opposite direction so the light is being distorted and reverse distorted. As it’s moving, it feels like it’s falling back on itself.”

Three on-site trials were conducted, while large scale projections were done on an enormous wall in Edinburgh. The company also enlisted lighting experts and roadies with a rock and roll stadium background, people who were involved in shows by bands such as Pink Floyd and U2.

“It’s not a conventional stage set,” says Mr Bradshaw of the mosque. “What looks great from looking at the prayer wall, may not look so great from courtyard. So we had these guys from a rock and roll band constantly making sure – as if it was a big stadium show – making sure it looked great.”

Jonathan Speirs passed away in 2012 and for Bradshaw, the mosque project stands apart in scale and importance.

“We [Jonathan and I] had some great moments celebrating its success. It was hard work. It was once in a lifetime kind of job. Really incredible.

“Nothing was as ambitious as that and extraordinary. We were right on the edge of lighting innovation at that time.”

Place of worship

Photo by Antonie Robertson / The National

I meet Mr Almushairi in the library of the north-east minaret: outside the sun is about to set and the call to prayer can be faintly heard through the windows.

About five million people come to the mosque every year – and 2.2 million of these are here to pray.

More than one muezzin recites the call to prayer, and it’s always live. The prayer is broadcast to many of the other mosques in the capital.

There are two main imams at the mosque, Idris Abkar and Yahya Ishan. “Across the whole city from each mosque you will hear the same voice,” says Mr Almushairi.

For Friday prayers, the mosque is closed off to tourists until 4.30pm. The main prayer hall is opened; it can accommodate 8,000 worshippers. “Every Friday it is usually full,” says Mr Almushairi, but on a daily basis it is less than that.

Friday is a very important day for Muslims and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Thousands of men and women visit to listen to the sermon and pray. The imam delivers the sermon from the minbar, or pulpit – which is made of carved cedar and inlaid with mother of pearl, white gold and glass mosaics.

It sits next to the mihrab, which faces Makkah and is where the imam leads worshippers in prayer. The sermon usually relates to social and religious themes and they can even be downloaded from the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) website in Arabic, English or Urdu.

The UAE decided to unify the Friday sermon about seven years ago, meaning that no matter what mosque worshippers attend across the country, they will hear the same sermon.

“There is one topic and there is a committee of scholars and imams that pick the lectures from research in the Quran,” says Mr Almushairi. “Then they send the lecture to each mosque. This helps to have one message of unity and it avoids extremism. Every Emirati thanks the Government for that because they are not afraid to send their children to any mosque as the message is one and clear.”

Ramadan is also a very special time. Multiple iftar tents are built where people can break their fast, while teams at the mosque provide water and dates for worshippers. An ambulance and medical clinic is provided for worshippers, while large air-conditioning units are pushed into the main courtyard. This is especially welcome over the past few years as Ramadan fell during the searing heat of summer.

A cannon signals the end of that day’s fast and about 35,000 iftar meals are provided for people who break their fast at the mosque. During this year’s Ramadan, cooking for this Herculean feat was done at the adjacent Armed Forces and Officers Club, where 350 chefs and staff worked around the clock to provide the meals.

About 30,000 meals are made every day. A report from The National during this year’s Ramadan revealed more than 12 tonnes of chicken and six tonnes of lamb were used every day, along with 7,000 kilograms of rice, 1,600kg of mixed vegetables, 600kg of tomatoes and 400kg of onions.

“It’s good teamwork and staff divided into shifts around the clock. We feel proud to work hard to deliver on time for such a grand iftar,” said Karsten Gottschalk, executive chef at the Armed Forces Officers Club and Hotel in Abu Dhabi.
“Five years ago only 10,000 to 14,000 iftar meals were cooked and now that’s jumped up to 35,000 meals on weekends.”

The mosque is built to accommodate more than 40,000 worshippers but can reach a remarkable 55,000 on the 27th day of Ramadan, when it is believed that the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Prophet Mohammed.

For the 10th anniversary, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has delivered a special exhibition. Hajj: Memories of a Journey traces the spiritual paths taken to Makkah by Muslim pilgrims through the ages. The exhibition explores the history of Makkah, the rituals of Hajj – one of the five pillars of Islam – and the experiences of Emirati pilgrims.

Some of the pieces are being shown for the first time, including friezes and panels excavated from a seventh-century Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island. The exhibition also includes rare footage of the Hajj made by Sheikh Zayed in 1979.

Tourist attraction

Photos by Antonie Robertson / The National

“Astonishing,” writes one. “Amazing,” says another. “The most beautiful building in the world, and “grand is an understatement”, go a few more.

These are a sample of TripAdvisor reviews from people who have visited Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. About 2.8 million people come every year.

It came, therefore, as little surprise when Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was voted by travellers as the world’s second-favourite landmark in this year's TripAdvisor’s “Top 25 Landmarks — World Category”. Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, took the top spot and it was the second year in a row that the mosque came second.

“Achieving second place, two years in a row, as one of most significant architectural monuments in the world, culminates the tremendous efforts and exceptional services the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque offers to visitors from all walks of life,” said Ahmed Al Za’abi, deputy minister for presidential affairs and chairman of the board of trustees of the mosque.

It is the burial place of the late President Sheikh Zayed. His tomb is situated on the right hand-side as you enter the mosque grounds. Visitors are welcome to pay their respects but photography is not allowed. Prayers are recited 24 hours a day by the tomb.

The mosque was attracting visitors even before it opened to the public. In 2007, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall toured the site in February that year. In 2010, Queen Elizabeth visited and she paid her respects at the tomb of Sheikh Zayed. In 2016, Prince Charles would visit again to see the now-completed building.

Down through the 10 years it has been open, the mosque has also been visited by its share of celebrities. Selena Gomez, Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner visited in 2014, Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton wore a kandura for his visit in 2015, while a controversial visit by the singer Rihanna in 2013 resulted in her being asked to leave for taking inappropriate pictures.

But aside from these, millions of people from around the world have visited the mosque and cannot help but be awestruck by the building and sanctity of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

To keep the building in such pristine condition, there is a regimented cleaning programme for each part of the building. The marble is cleaned daily, the carpets four times a year where they are washed and hoovered, while every two months the main domes are cleaned manually by a person who hangs from the top.

“It’s not some inward-looking building that isn’t welcoming. It’s a huge tourist attraction that’s been very strong for Abu Dhabi,” says Mr Bradshaw of Speirs and Major.

“All these other attractions were popping up in Dubai, but Abu Dhabi chose to do it with a mosque and I think it was hugely inclusive that they did that.”

Mr Almushairi is one of the many tour guides at the mosque. He tells me he originally wanted to be a TV presenter, but when he came to the mosque, something changed. “I touched something different. It was now about how I can be a part of the nation, delivering information about Islamic art, architecture and our traditions.”

Ten years on, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a place where people curious to know more about the country can interact with Emiratis and learn about the culture and traditions of the country. A visitor's centre is under construction, while a coffee and souvenir shop at the north entrance are already open for tourists.

“I’m always wondering why we receive so many visitors, although no entertainment is offered,” says Mr Almushairi.

“We get questions such as ‘why are your kanduras so white’ so I believe that people visiting the UAE are thirsty to know more about this fast-growing country and maybe this is the right place to know. To take this role, it makes me happy. I’m an ambassador for my country.”


Words: John Dennehy
Graphics: Ramon Penas
Photography: Antonie Robertson
Videos: Willy Lowry
Editors: Mo Gannon, Nic Ridley, Phil Trotter
Photo Editor: Robert Gurdebeke
Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2017