Day 24: Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
ABOARD OCEANIA’S NAUTICA — Perhaps we should call it the battle of the mosques, no disrespect intended. We thought we had seen the ultimate mosque in Muscat where we toured the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Yesterday we toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, and now we don’t know what to think. Both mosques are modern — completed this century — and both were constructed by the rulers of the respective countries using their personal fortunes.
Abu Dhabi’s mosque is the largest, claiming to accommodate 40,000 faithful at prayer, easily twice the number of Oman’s mosque. Frankly, both of these numbers seem hard to believe until you consider that exterior courtyard space can also be used for prayer, and that, if necessary, worshipers can be packed tightly.
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque’s namesake and financier is considered the father of the UAE, as well as its first president, serving more than 30 years. The building is not merely huge, it is also opulent.
Clad in white marble from the tops of its four minarets and 82 domes, to its expansive courtyard, it is adorned with inlaid stone designs, colored and etched glass windows, mosaics, and enormous crystal chandeliers. And it has its own vast, hand-knotted carpet in the men’s prayer room. Some visitors even commented that the shape of the domes and the beauty of the stone reminded them of the Taj Mahal. While admiring all of these qualities, the perhaps somewhat more restrained style of Sultan Qaboos’ Mosque may be more to our personal taste.
Janet had the special pleasure of experiencing Sheikh Zayed’s Mosque from inside an abaya. It seems the dress-code advisory issued by the ship neglected to mention that women were required to cover their ankles to be permitted entry into the mosque, though they had been explicit in that regard in Muscat. It gave us perhaps an unexpected photo-op, but it seemed to mildly annoy our tour guide Salaf who was obliged to walk some distance to retrieve several of the garments for female members of our group, and leave his guide’s license as security against their return. We can say unequivocally, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque will be our most memorable experience in Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi is the largest of seven Emirates that make up the federation of the UAE, comprising over 80 percent of the country’s land area, and with about three-quarters of UAE oil production, it is certainly the wealthiest. For these reasons, plus the importance of Sheikh Zeyad in the founding of the country, the city of Abu Dhabi is UAE’s capital, and the emir of Abu Dhabi, now Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, serves as the federation’s president.
A surprising light rain began to dampen the ground, and obscure our views after we left the mosque, although we got a glance at the new Presidential Palace, under construction nearby, as well as the huge, lavishly appointed (and aptly-named) Emirates Palace Hotel.
Saadiyat (happiness) Island, our final tour stop is planned as a global cultural center with its own Louvre and Guggenheim Museums, the latter, designed by architect Frank Gehry, will be the world’s largest upon completion, scheduled for 2017.
So, our second impression of Abu Dhabi is of a forest of dramatic, modern high-rise buildings, and dramatic plans for future development that suggest Abu Dhabi may be gaining on its more glamorous neighbor, Dubai, where we head next.