Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Set on a hill, above terraced gardens, and surrounded by fountains, reflecting pools, and palm trees, the Grand Mosque is a stunning white marble structure, with 82 24-karat-gold-tipped domes which shine in the sun. The building boasts more than 1,000 columns, which are covered in white marble, inlaid with colored marble, lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone, and mother of pearl. The white marble flooring of the cloisters and courtyard features floral mosaic designs created using coloured marble (the mosque uses 30 different types of marble).

The building is enormous: at just over 22,000 square metres (over 236,800 square feet), the mosque is about the size of five football fields and can accommodate almost 41,000 worshippers.

Once one enters the building from the grounds, appropriate dress is required. Women who are not already wearing an abaya and scarf, or long, loose clothes and scarf, must don an abaya and scarf, which may be borrowed from the attendants. Similarly, men who are not wearing a thobe, or long pants and a t-shirt or shirt, must put on a thobe, which also may be borrowed. Most people remove their shoes as they enter the courtyard, but officially shoes do not have to be removed until one sets foot into the main prayer hall. If you take off your shoes in the courtyard, here is a word of advice: beware the dark marble! It will toast your toes.

Seven huge chandeliers light the main prayer hall, and under the largest dome is the largest of these seven, which we were told it weighs 9.5 tons. When installed, the main dome's chandelier was the largest in the world, but since 2010 it has been the second-largest. Nonetheless, each chandelier, from largest to smallest is a sight to see, as they are made up of thousands of pieces of multicoloured Swarovski crystals and Italian glasswork.

But still a record-breaker is the main prayer hall's carpet, which is the largest hand-knotted carpet in the world. It measures more than 5,600 square meters (more than 60,500 square feet), took 1,300 Iranian artisans nearly two years to create, and according to the mosque's website, comprises 5,000,000,000 knots. It is wonderfully soft on the feet, and its green base colour, and intricate flowers, combine with the marble floral designs on the columns and walls to bring the natural world into the hall. It also contains a feature so subtle, you could miss it: As our guide explained, the artisans hand-cut the wool a bit higher in carefully spaced narrow bands to form near-invisible lines to allow worshippers to easily form straight lines for prayer.

The Qibla wall (i.e., the wall which faces Mecca) features, in elegant Kufi-style calligraphy, the 99 names (characteristics/qualities) of God (Allah).

But perhaps what is even more astonishing is how little time, relatively, it took to build this spectacular structure. The idea was conceived in 1986 by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is considered to be the Father of the UAE. But construction of the mosque began only in 1996, and it was completed in 2007.

The mosque also includes a library and large washroom/ablution rooms for men and women. And the Sheikh, the driving force behind the creation of this magnificent work of art, who died in 2004 before the project could be completed, is buried in a mausoleum on the grounds. (People can visit the mausoleum, but cannot photograph it.)

When we asked our guide how much the beautiful, majestic Grand Mosque cost, she smiled and said that they didn't know, because it was a gift from the Sheikh, and it's impolite to ask the cost of a gift.

Watch a video taken during our tour.

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