The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is truly a sight to behold. I was awestruck when I toured it – impressed by its massive size, sheer beauty, architectural grace, intricate flowering mosaic marble designs, and a most welcoming atmosphere.
I had come to the UAE to visit my 28yo nephew Ryan for three days on my way to Africa. He was on a 2-year work assignment in Dubai, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit. Who can say no to an offer of free lodging and a local tour guide in a cool new destination?
The best-known cities/emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are bustling Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital city. I had flown to Dubai from Los Angeles on Emirates Air to take advantage of their free stopover program before flying on to Nairobi.
One day, Ryan and I took the short drive to nearby Abu Dhabi to tour the Grand Mosque. I fell in love with the beautiful mosque and the whole tour experience so I wanted to share it with you. I hope that you may have the chance to visit this Grand Mosque one day.
Here are 10 compelling reasons why a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque should be on your travel list:
1) An Easy Visit from Either UAE’s Dubai or Abu Dhabi
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is relatively easy to visit when a UAE traveler is staying in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Both Emirates Air (based out of Dubai) and Etihad Airways (based out of Abu Dhabi) offer stopover programs so you can add a few days in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi on your way to or from your international destination.
Once in the UAE, you can easily make arrangements to visit the Grand Mosque. Of course, I had my own driver! From Dubai, it was approximately a 1 1/4 hour drive to Abu Dhabi. I enjoyed the drive through vast open desert sands. It showed what Dubai and the UAE must have looked like 50 years ago – before oil was discovered in 1966.
2) The Chance to Tour One of the World’s Largest Mosques
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the world’s largest mosques. One source ranked it at #15. The mosque can accommodate more than 40,000 worshippers, making it the UAE’s largest mosque. The main prayer hall can hold over 7,000 people while the two smaller prayer halls (for separate genders) each hold 1,500.
Around 30,000 can be accommodated in the mosque’s exterior areas, including 22,000 people in the beautiful inner courtyard. The Grand Mosque’s full capacity is needed for two days each year – the first day of Eid Al Fitr (marking the end of Ramadan) & the Eid Al Adha (“Feast of Sacrifice”) holiday. On those special days, the mosque is filled with worshippers and closed to visitors.
3) The Opportunity to Dress Like an Arab Gulf Woman
We arrived at Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque a half hour before the 11am tour time. Because it was mid-June and the UAE summer heat was a blistering 105° F (40° C), I was wearing a below-the-knee skirt and a short sleeve blouse. As we entered the grounds of the mosque from the parking lot, our first stop was the “clothing check” building.
Perusing the “Mosque Manners” sign with dress code pictures, it was clear I needed more covering. Not to worry! I was loaned a long black robe (abaya) to go over my regular clothing and a black head scarf (hijab). I was now happily in compliance with the modest dress required for Islamic women and mosque visitors.
My nephew Ryan was fine since he was wearing long pants and a short sleeve shirt. Regarding shoes: You can wear your shoes in the exterior areas and mosque courtyard, but shoes must come off once you enter inside the mosque proper. We were given plastic bags to carry our footwear during the tour. It now appears they have installed wooden shoe racks since our visit several years ago.
4) Get Answers to the Question: Who was Sheikh Zayed & Why This Grand Mosque?
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918-2004) is often called the father of the United Arab Emirates. As the ruler of Abu Dhabi, he initially signed an agreement to establish a federation between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Shortly afterwards a federation of seven Emirates was established. In 1971, Sheikh Zayed was elected as the UAE’s first President.
In this new role, Sheikh Zayed worked hard to push the UAE into the modern world, often caught in the conflict between modernity and tradition throughout his almost four-decade reign. Sheikh Zayed was a progressive Arab leader and devout Muslim who adopted a tolerant version of pure Islamic faith far from fanaticism or extremism.
Sheikh Zayed had the dream of building an historical mosque to embody the Islamic message of peace, love, tolerance and diversity. He wanted to create a harmonious blend of the different Islamic architectural styles. When you visit, I think you’ll agree that he greatly succeeded!
Construction of the Grand Mosque began in 1996 and took ten years to complete, at a cost of $545 million. The mosque opened its doors to the public in 2007. Unfortunately, Sheikh Zayed did not live to see that day. He died three years earlier (in 2004) and was buried on the grounds of his beloved mosque.
5) Revel in the Mosque’s Grand Architecture & Blend of Islamic Influences
The Grand Mosque’s beautiful design was inspired by the architecture of Persian, Mughal and Moorish mosques – in particular, the Badshahi Mosque (Lahore, Pakistan) and the Hassan II Mosque (Casablanca, Morocco).
As you approach the mosque, your eyes are naturally drawn to the four magnificent towering minarets and the many beautiful domes (a total of 82!). The Arab-styled classic minarets – located at the four corners of the courtyard – rise about 107 meters (351 ft.) high. The elegant, graceful archways surrounding the courtyard are typically Moorish.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is well-known for its shimmering snow white marble-covered exterior. The Sheikh was fond of the color white, as it was a symbol of purity and piety. The white Sivec marble comes from the Republic of Macedonia.
More than 3,000 workers and 38 contracting companies took part in the mosque’s construction. In fact, the design and construction “united the world,” with the use of artisans and materials from many countries. These include India, Italy, Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, China, and the United Kingdom, among others mentioned in this post.
6) Marvel at the World’s Largest Marble Mosaic & Gorgeous Inlaid Floral Designs
The flooring of the marble courtyard – with its beautiful multi-colored inlaid floral design – is considered to be the largest example of marble mosaic in the world. Take a leisurely walk around the courtyard and enjoy the artistry.
The mosque is surrounded by large colonnaded walkways, supported by an army of marble-clad hexagonal columns topped by gilded fronds. More beautiful floral designs, inlaid with semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli, red agate, amethyst, abalone shell and mother of pearl, embellish the columns.
The beautiful foyer / entrance lobby for the prayer hall also has wonderful floral marble inlay work on floors and walls (below). Lastly, the mosque’s vast main prayer hall has 96 marble-clad columns, again inlaid with semi-precious stones in floral designs. The beautiful marble inlay work seen throughout the Grand Mosque is similar to that seen in India’s Taj Mahal, built during the Mughal empire.
7) The Mosque Provides Excellent Free Educational Tours
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center (SZGMC) provides education through its visitor programs, including daily guided tours by dedicated tourist guides. Their friendly, helpful guides take members of the public around the mosque and explain various elements of the architecture and Islamic culture. Tours are free of charge and last approximately 45-60 minutes.
Ryan & I joined the large number of visitors waiting for the 11am tour. It was a sea of black, with us women dressed in our black robes and scarves. Just before the tour began, we were divided into smaller groups and introduced to our guides. My group numbered ten and included people from Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Korea – not counting my American ex-pat nephew from Dubai!
The Grand Mosque offers these excellent “walk-in” Cultural Tours each day – between 2-5 tours, depending on the day of the week. (see Visitor Info reference section at the bottom). You can also do a “self-visit” and walk around the mosque on your own without a guided tour. However, I believe a visitor would really miss out by not taking the fun and informative tour. Perhaps, the best plan is to first take the tour and then allow time for additional exploration (and more photo taking) afterwards.
8) Make a New Friend & Gain Cultural Insights Into Islam
Our guide was wonderful! Sadly, I can’t remember her name. She was originally from Yemen, but has been living in Abu Dhabi for years. Her English was excellent, because she grew up with English spoken in the home. She was very knowledgeable and proud of her beautiful mosque and her Muslim religion – and shared lots of interesting information with us.
Inside the beautiful and huge main prayer hall (photo above), she finished up the tour with a short culture lesson and answered common questions about Islam and the Arab Gulf traditions. For example, we learned that Muslim women always cover their hair and full body when out in public. However, in private, women can wear their regular clothes (without the robe) around other women, their husbands and other male relatives.
Gulf women have historically worn black because the material was easily available and light weight for their hot climate. In contrast, Emirati men (those from the UAE) and other Arabian Gulf men wear long white robes – which I saw a lot while touring Dubai with Ryan.
In Islam, men and women do their prayers in separate areas. The Grand Mosque’s main prayer hall (which can hold over 7,000 people) is only for men. Women have their own smaller prayer hall, which accommodates 1500 worshippers. Our guide explained that most women prefer to do their prayers at home while the men are more expected to go to mosque to pray.
On the tour, we also visited the women’s prayer hall but I was unable to take photos because women were praying inside. To the right is one of my favorite photos – a fond memory of my lovely guide and new friend. She was a real sweetheart! Meeting and talking with her was very special.
9) Walk in Bare Feet on the World’s Largest Carpet
The Grand Mosque’s main prayer hall contains the world’s largest carpet, covering over 60,000 sq. feet (5,700 sq. meters). This beautiful hand-knotted carpet with an intricate Islamic medallion design was made in Iran by 1,200 woman artisans. The design took around 8 months and the carpet creation (knotting) took a full year. It has over 2 billion knots!
Although the carpet was made in one single piece, it had to be cut into nine pieces for shipping and installation (trimming and weaving the carpet back together) inside the hall. They also had to “shave” down the carpet to create “ridge lines” so that lines of worshippers would know where to stand.
In total, the carpet process took two years. The carpet is approximately 70% wool (originating from Iran and New Zealand) and 30% cotton. It weighs 35 tons! However, enough mind-staggering statistics. It’s time to enjoy the bragging rights of saying you walked on the world’s largest carpet in your bare feet!
10) Stand Under One of the World’s Largest Chandeliers
The seven crystal chandeliers inside the mosque’s prayer halls and foyers are equally impressive. The biggest chandelier is one of the world’s largest, weighing in at approximately 12 tons. It measures 49 feet high (15 meters) and 33 feet (10 meters) in diameter and is located inside the main prayer hall.
Two smaller versions of the same chandelier design are also in the main prayer hall. They weigh a “paltry” 8 tons! However, it’s not just the massive size that excites. These gold-plated chandeliers are adorned with millions of Swarovski crystals in a dazzling array of colors. They were made by the Faustig company in Munich, Germany.
The four other chandeliers – located in the foyer entrances surrounding the Grand Mosque – are blue-colored and of a similar beautiful design. The largest one, in the main foyer, weighs around 2 tons. Hmm…maybe standing under a multi-ton chandelier isn’t such a good idea? But hey, I lived to tell the tale. And, now I can encourage others to visit this wonderful Grand Mosque.
VISITOR RESOURCE INFORMATION / HELPFUL HINTS (updated 04/2022)
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center:
Information on Hours for “Walk-in” Guided Tours or Self-Visit
Normal visiting hours are from Saturday to Thursday, 9am to 10pm. On Fridays, the mosque is open from 9am to 12:00pm, then closed for worship, and reopens from 3pm. to 10pm. The mosque is closed to visitors only two days each year – the first day of Eid Al Fitr (the end of Ramadan) & the Eid Al Adha (“Feast of Sacrifice”) holiday. Plus there are some visiting hour changes during the Holy Month of Ramadan. Always check the website.
Guided Tours (from the website): The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center’s complimentary (ie, free!) live guided Cultural Tours are enlightening, professional, and interactive, making them one of the UAE’s most loved cultural activities for all ages! Your guide will lead you around the mosque interpreting various elements of the arts, culture and Islamic architecture.
If you are an individual or part of a small group below eight (8) persons, you do not need to pre-book a tour. Simply arrive approximately 15 minutes before the tour time to join one of the “walk-in” tours. SZGMC “Visitor Experience” coordinators greet all visitors and assist them in joining a tour. The standard tour duration is approximately 45 minutes and is led by one of the official SZGMC Tourist Guides in either English or Arabic languages.
Self-Visit Option: You may walk through the mosque on your own without a guided tour and take photographs, as long as your group size is less than eight people. You can also visit the Center’s library to gain a greater understanding about Islamic architecture by browsing the many publications available.
COMMENTS: Have you visited Dubai or Abu Dhabi? Did you visit and take a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque? What did you think? If not, is the UAE and the Grand Mosque on your travel list?