Splendor in the Desert in Abu Dhabi

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is one of the most photographed mosques in the world – and it is easy to see why.  It has also been TripAdvisor’s second favorite landmark in the world for several years running (behind only Angkor Wat, Cambodia – the Taj Mahal is #4, which might help you envision the grand scale of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque).  Stunningly beautiful and calming in its abundance of white marble, as beautiful as pictures look they just cannot do justice to the real thing.  It is the very top of the list of things to do in Abu Dhabi in my view – something that you absolutely cannot miss.  Open every day except Friday (holy day) and free, it is transformative and timeless even though it is new structure, finished just ten years ago.

We arrived relatively early one morning and drove right up to park near the entrance.  The Mosque opens at 10am every day but Friday and if you get there early you can get views and pictures relatively clear of the crowds of tourists.  There are entrances on both sides of the mosque and plenty of parking.  A note on what to wear: although I had worn long pants and brought a wrap around scarf, I was directed to the women’s dressing room and given an abaya to wear over my clothing.  Mosque etiquette is that women’s arms, legs, and head must be covered.  So if you go and do not want to wear a borrowed abaya over your clothes (adding to the heat) make sure you have these areas covered.  I had a short sleeve shirt and thought my wrap around scarf covering arms would be sufficient – but it is not.  For men, short sleeves are fine and pants must cover the knees.

The astonishment begins long before you are actually at the Mosque.  We drove into Abu Dhabi from Dubai on the Sheikh Zayed Road, which unsurprisingly leads to the Sheikh Zayed bridge, a marvel in itself designed by one of my favorite architects, Zaha Hadid.  Although it appears simple in form, it is said to be the most intricate bridge ever constructed and its curves are designed to emulate sand dunes in the desert and the waves of the ocean, since Abu Dhabi marries desert and sea.  Although Sheikh Zayed Mosque is actually off a different bridge, you cannot miss the Mosque as you drive into Abu Dhabi as it dominates the skyline.

The bridge designed by Hadid is one of three leading to Abu Dhabi, and the farthest from the mosque.  We had difficulty getting from the bridge TO the Mosque even though you can clearly see the Mosque from the road.  It may well be that we just missed the signs – but I suggest that you be sure you have directions before you go.  Once at the Mosque, be sure you walk completely around the exterior, and around one side of the Mosque you will find Sheik Zayed’s mausoleum, which is a beautiful structure with soft prayer music continually playing.  No photographs are allowed of this perfect little building, and you have to look for it.  Back at the mosque, you are welcome inside (except, again, on Friday or at prayer time).  The interior is quite ornate and while we were not allowed into the main prayer hall (we were there during Zuhr, or noontime prayers) it was striking to see the play of light on the interior elements and the sheer magnificence (and extravagance) of the interior.

Definitely a case where pictures cannot adequately convey scope and impact.  The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is a splendor in the desert you simply must see for yourself.

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