Monday, November 21, 2011

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The basis of the design of the Grand Mosque
is Moroccan, but other elements have been added. 
As I watch from our apartment, I can see the setting sun turn the globes of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque pinkish-purple, then dusky blue.

Sunday morning after Mark left for work I realized that I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to go there. I called Deb on Skype; she was up for it. We thought about taking a cab to be sure we found our way to the entrance, but the website recommended against it so we drove. After the usual missed exits, unintentional bridge crossings, and several blocked entrances we finally found our way into a parking lot.
There weren’t very many cars, but there were dozens of buses. Still, the buses were dwarfed by the sheer enormity of this massive, magnificent mosque. It took our breath away as we approached.
No matter how you approach it, this place is amazing.
The marble floors are inlaid
with flower motifs.
Everything is at a grand scale.

Design and construction of the mosque was initiated by the beloved HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, considered the father of the UAE, as a place to “unite the world” and “reflect the spirit of Islam, a religion of peace, education and tolerance.” Conceptual planning began in the late 1980’s, and the cornerstone was laid in the late 1990’s. Artisans and materials were brought in from countries around the world including China, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Morocco, and Turkey as well as the UAE. More than 3,000 workers and 38 companies worked on the mosque but it was still incomplete at the time of Zayed’s death in 2004.

It’s hard to describe how intricately and ornately decorated this place is, yet how simple the beauty of it feels. Even though there were busloads of people, it wasn’t crowded. The mosque is the size of five football fields, and can hold a total of 40,960 worshippers among its three prayer halls, their entrance halls, and the huge courtyard.

We had dressed carefully, observing the dress code on the website:
Dress and Behaviour Code

We kindly ask all visitors to respect our religion and place of prayer by following these simple requests: Visitors must be dressed appropriately on arrival; if not, entry will be denied.

- Modest, conservative, loose fitting clothing; long sleeves, long skirts and trousers
- No transparent (see-through) clothing
- No shorts for men
- No shorts and skirts must be ankle length
- No tight clothing, no swimwear and no beachwear.
- Shoes will be removed before entering the mosque, so we recommend slip off shoes
- Headscarf for ladies is essential (these can be provided when you arrive)

Pretty in Black
But when we got there, we were herded to an area behind a screen. All the non-Muslim women were required to wear abayas and head scarves, which they were grabbing out of a bin. I picked an abaya that looked ample, because I figured there’s nothing worse than an abaya that’s too tight. Deb’s first one was too long and she was worried about tripping on it, but she found one that worked. Both of our abayas had gold printed designs on the sleeves, which were pretty but nothing like the elaborate decorations on some of the ones we’ve seen.

In fact, I even saw one woman wearing an abaya in a mall that said “Pretty in Black” on the back, in sparkles.

It was 11:00 a.m. and the minute we put on the abayas, we started to get hot. Realizing that we needed to remove our shoes before entering the mosque, we added them to the hundreds that were lined up on the marble floor. Ahh! Cool marble on the feet felt great.

Elaborate chandeliers are the norm here but
the ones at the Grand Mosque are something else again
We decided to go inside the main prayer hall, where guides were speaking to small groups that you could drop into and out of. When we got inside the entrance hall and I looked up at the chandelier and around at the marble work, I realized that I was having this emotional feeling. It was the same feeling I had when I saw the statue of David in Florence – wonder and awe at having the privilege to be able to see, in person, something so amazing. It felt like people should be speaking in hushed tones, but they weren’t. And, for once, everyone was snapping photos with reckless abandon, including me. There are so many places in the UAE where you can’t take photos, but they don’t mind it here.
The carpet felt luxurious.

We went into the main prayer hall, walking with our bare feet on the famous carpet – one of the world’s largest. 1,200 artisans from small villages in Iran hand knotted the pieces, and then were flown to fit together the carpet. There are what look like seams but we learned that these mark the rows that worshippers assemble along.

We didn’t want to see too much this first time here, because we wanted to save some of the wonder for when we return with Mark and Dana. So we left the main hall and walked around the perimeter of the courtyard, where we could stay in the shade most of the time. As we got most of the way around we realized that the place was emptying out. The noon call to prayer was sounding – a melodic singing which is broadcast from the Grand Mosque as well as to all the smaller mosques, which are always a short walk away no matter where you are. We were told that we needed to leave.
As we hurried to collect our shoes Deb commented that she felt uncomfortably hot in her abaya, but for me it didn’t seem that bad. I’ve felt more uncomfortable in my foul weather gear sailing downwind.
But I wouldn’t want to have to live, full time, in my foulies or in an abaya.
A familiar scene anywhere on Earth.
Women are constantly adjusting their head scarves;
it's just like flipping their hair.
Deb looked hot in her abaya ... and she was.

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