A trip to Sheikh Zayed Mosque can be akin to rifling through the pages of a Guinness World Records book at times. But at what point do the Koran and the record books merge? Michael Edwards finds out.
“What’s that? A new prayer hall?”
I posed the question to my taxi driver as we veered off the Texas-style freeway, past a building site, into the entrance of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
“No, it’s a shopping mall. There’s nowhere to shop after you’ve prayed,” my taxi driver explained to the ignorant infidel who failed to understand Abu Dhabi’s need for retail therapy.
I should have known better. Shopping isn’t just the United Arab Emirates’ national sport, it’s a spectator sport too. Sit in the mall, at your Starbucks of choice, and watch the dirham haemorrhage away.
Looking out across a skyline of cranes and towering corporate headquarters it is hard to imagine that just over 60 years ago, this was Lawrence of Arabia desert, albeit heavy on the scrub and light on the rolling sand dunes.
Somewhere near what is now the site of the Ritz Carlton Hotel’s car park the explorer Wilfred Thesinger met his caravan of Bedouin guides and camels before fording the historic Al Maqta waterway. Now it’s a jet-ski run which separates Abu Dhabi Island from the mainland.
Speeding through airport-style security the first thing I saw was an advert for the mosque’s coffee-shop. Air-conditioned. Free wi-fi. But no mention of the stratospheric prices.
After that blast of commercialism, I had time to appreciate the Mosque: A blindingly white island of domes and minarets surrounded by lawns and topiary. This designers’ vision of a heavenly garden paradise, a serenely tranquil oasis with numerous fountains, is born out of centuries of harsh, thirsty, survival in the desert. The deafening roar of an A380, skimming across the minarets to land at neighbouring Abu Dhabi airport, broke my contemplation. It must be hard to pray with that din overhead.
If I’m something of a Mosque-junkie, fascinated by a religion where a serene people pray five times a day, then my wife is not.
“I’m not going to boil-in-the bag in one of those black abayas,” my wife complained, virtually clinging to her poolside lounger, as I headed off on my pilgrimage alone.
“Who’s taken the tour before?” my pocket-sized battle-axe of a guide asked. For legal immunity let’s call her Asafa: she who organises. Of the multinational crowd of fifty-odd, taking the free tour, I was the only one on a repeat visit, the only one gifted the semblance of a smile from Asafa, before she chided those struggling to get their earpiece in place.
Yet this is a customer service-oriented Mosque. A natty lightweight, purple and grey abaya was in vogue – black was evidently so-last-year – provided that lady visitors could hand over their ID as security.
If you’ve done the Taj Mahal, usually Number One on those tourist listicles, then the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, frequently slotting in at Number 2, is the 21st century, £1 billion equivalent with air conditioning. That and the craftsmen did not have their thumbs amputated so that they would never again create such perfection this time.
This is devotion gone digital. LEDs highlight internal architectural features and a spectacular evening light show replicates moonlight on the minarets. Of course the phases of the moon are programmed into the display. And at the Mausoleum for Sheikh Zayed, the Father of the United Arab Emirates – think George Washington crossed with Mother Theresa and blessed with Donald Trump’s penchant for building – the Koran will play until the end of time. If you want your own copy, the gift shop is flogging the world’s smallest nano-version.
Meanwhile Asafa was well into her litany of superlatives, “Biggest carpet in the world weighing 357 tons, second biggest chandelier, it houses a chamber big enough for a man to stand in and clean.” So many Swarski crystals that’s it like breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea at Tiffany’s. But is there a point where this display of soft-power goes O.T.T. and verges on the tacky?
“Now take pictures. You have one minute,” Asafa commanded. With the exception of the Mausoleum, photography is encouraged. Even glorified. The Mosque runs an annual photography competition. If you’re going to snap then visiting at the magical time of soft twilight will boost your chances of winning.
Pretending to frame some photos I remembered my last-guide, the laid-back Mohamed, with affection.
“Why are the leaf decorations on the columns these colours?”
When there was no answer he provided the punchline.
“To match the carpet of course.”
I thought I’d try one of the questions I’d asked Mohamed on Asafa.
“Do you really get a capacity crowd of 41,000 for prayers?”
“There are too many to count,” Asafa replied without really answering.
Mohamed, having lived in Wolverhampton for a year, had been more real world.
“People are busy. They have to make a living. It’s rare that the Mosque is anywhere near full.”
Staring at a clock showing the five times of prayer for that day, the first beginning before sunrise, I could understand why the Mosque rarely reached capacity.
Reunited with my flip-flops it was time to head back to the hotel. Perhaps the key tip for Mosque visits is to remember where you left your footwear.
“Traders Hotel, please,” I said, through the window of a taxi, as the driver accelerated away.
“Traders Hotel, please,” repeat performance. Though this time the taxi driver grunted, “Too close, not enough money.”
“50 dirham. Your tip for taking me to Traders Hotel,” I successfully changed my opening gambit for the next driver. Already the spirit of the Land of Mammon had encroached onto the sacred ground of the Mosque.