Grand Mosque Sheikh Zayed Mohammed
Sheikh Zayed was the founding father of everything that we know the UAE to be – modern, cosmopolitan, towers, malls and exuberance. He took the country forward when the British ended their rule here and he came with a vision that began to take shape in the early 1970’s.
Aside from turning the desert Bedouin lifestyle into a millionaire’s mansion, he also had one of the grandest Mosques in the world built – comparable with the Taj Mahal so I’m told, and apparently one of the top 25 places to visit in the World according to one well known travel website. Building started in 1996 and took 11 years to complete.
Hopefully you know me well enough to know that shopping mall’s are not for me – I don’t mind taking bubbles there, actually I quite like it. But I never go to them, unless for work.
But this,.. this sounds interesting.
I do a bit of research and decide to join in with the 11am tour. I fill up on water before I go to stave off the dehydration of being outside during Ramadan. Typically I later discover, my taxi overcharges me telling me he forgot to start his meter. I bet that happens en route to the Taj Mahal too.
At 11 am, the heat is in it’s normal oppressive state – this is the only place I’ve been where you can take a bottle of water from the fridge to the outside and drinking it 5 minutes later you find the centre is still cold, but the water around it going into your mouth is hot.
Getting to the entrance is a mission. But wohhh… I immediately know I’ve arrived somewhere special. It’s so white! I want to wash in it!
How they keep it such a colour is beyond me. The huge vast construction has been entirely built out of enormous slabs of marble and radiates a sense of peace and purity from every square inch. 82 Moghul domes of varying sizes, all capped with a gold spear, reminiscent of Neptune’s moons.
The building itself is surrounded by water, and beyond the pools, a large open colonnade: you can lose yourself simply gazing between the multitude of stunningly elegant mosaic columns, photogenically ending in a single arch, far far away. They are decorated lightly with the most serene mosaics – stems and flowers made of Lapis Lazuli, Amethyst, Mother of Pearl, and Jade wind up towards the inside of the domes. It’s almost Art Noveau, and their lofty interiors are patterned in off-white spirals, circumnavigated with golden Qu’ran quotes.
What makes this place so stunning is the immediate sense of space. It’s minimalist, and the shadows appear and disappear as though gliding through the waiting rooms of paradise.
Our guide Amina, walks us through the wonderful courtyard that fits 20,000 worshippers come night time. She tells us it’s ok for us to drink water outside of the main building, contradicting all that I’ve been told about consuming anything outside in the daytime during Ramadan.
Into the main entrance, we remove our shoes and place them in gold painted shoe racks, careful not to step on the darker marble slabs as the heat of these is truly intense and will literally burn the soles of your feet. Inside we are immediately met with a chandelier of epic proportions – inhabited by beautiful light blue and green glass and a thousand Swarovski crystals. They hang down like the point of the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind…
Into the main prayer room, we are greeted this time by a somewhat more busy chandelier, just as impressive, though slightly more… Las Vegas. Gilded fantastic almost celtic designs make up the majority, with a centre piece of green and red lit balls hanging from it’s centre. Somehow I think of Christmas. Amina explains to me that the centre-piece actually drops about 1 meter to reveal a small staircase to aid cleaning!
The carpet is the single largest carpet in the world covering 5700 square meters, and took 1200 Iranians to make. It’s so beautiful, I feel as if my body could meld with it’s colours.
She also explains how the devotees pray towards Mecca and enlightens me to a curious plaque I’d noticed on the ceiling of both my hotel rooms. I had assumed it hid some kind of fuse box, or pointed to how to get out of the hotel in case of a fire, but no. It’s the direction of Mecca, so that Muslims know which direction to pray in.
They pray 5 times each day. Each prayer has a name, and the mosque houses a strange looking digital clock that points out the exact times. I’m curious about why 5, when most other religions pray just once, or even once a week, and she tells me that God initially asked Prophet Mohammed to request they pray 50 times a day, but he haggled him down to 5. Well… she didn’t say ‘haggled’ but you get the point. It’s kind of extreme right? And many things here seem that way. Why for example do they fast for 30 days, when most other religions might be just 1. Not just religion either,.. what makes them so extreme? It makes my Agnostic brain wonder, what event could have caused this to become part of their national identity?
The clock also points out the Moslem calendar date which is 12.09.1434 – theirs is a lunar calendar like the Chinese and their years are 10-11 days shorter than ours, which explains why the dates of Ramadan change each year.
She goes on to tell me how the Mosque is frequented almost entirely by Men. There is a Ladies Prayer room (they worship separately from one another – apparently the women normally worship at home, but if they do come to the Mosque, they don’t want to be seen prostrating).
After the tour, I decide to explore a bit and soon find myself in the library. Amongst the many Arabic texts and huge old books on Arabian textiles, I find a beautiful book of International children’s illustrators and their drawings of the mosque. It far outstrips the photographic equivalent. How often I find that the world of a child’s perspective holds so much more life than that of the adult world.
I drift through the columns, not knowing where I’m going and find myself in one of the corners of the colonnade, met by an escalator going down to the “South Ablutions.” A security guard tells me that it’s the Men’s toilet.
I don’t need to ‘go,’ but curiosity gets the better of me andI figure it might be worth a look, and I have to say, it takes the biscuit! If there was ever a book entitled “The World’s most Spectacular Toilets” this would be surely in the top 3 at least!
At the bottom of the escalators, I remove my shoes. The marble continues and I find myself in an octagonal room facing a drinking fountain, once again wrapped in the most wonderous blue/green mosaic arch. It’s light source is another spiralled dome, this time made from glass, which drops a spider web of light onto the ground at my feet. I wonder how bubbles would look in this light? Reflecting the spirals twice onto their surface, I dream.
2 open arches lead into the most unbelievable wash-room: The Centrepiece is a gentle fountain of alabaster that trickles into moon pools reminiscent of Turkey’s Pammukale, and below that sit scores of taps side by side, extending out from vertical green marble slabs. I sit at a stone stool in front, and copy the locals, washing my hands, arms and feet in these glorious bowls. The light inside comes from above. It seems to be made of honey and milk and a sense of peace and serenity engulfs me.
How must it be to come and wash before prayer here? 1000’s of worshippers coming together in joint devotion,…community….communion.
As I take the escalator back up to the exquisite columns and domes at ground level, I feel as if I’m being transported to heaven, like David Niven in “A Matter of Life and Death.” (highly recommended!). A place of worship designed to such inspiration, it’s hardly surprising it’s such a place of spiritualism. A few birds sing and flutter in the rooftops and I feel for a moment as though I am in heaven.