As you saw in my previous post, Dubai has built itself into a modern, best of the best city, but I think a lot of people forget that despite only being 47 years old, the area is overflowing with history and culture.
The short version is, due to this prime location on the Arabian peninsula the holding of the land was passed around from Portugal, the Netherlands and Great Britain. In 1971 the area gained independence and six of the seven sheikhdoms came together and formed the United Arab Emirates, with the seventh joining a year later to complete what is today’s UAE.
The first President of the UAE was Sheikh Zayed, Sheikh of Abu Dhabi. “The Father of the Nation” promoted moderation, religious tolerance and equality (including women!) and is still honored today.
So, the morning after my arrival in Dubai we took a little road trip to visit Sheikh Zayed’s Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Per usual, the UAE doesn’t do anything small, so this modern mosque was designed with architectural features mirroring the Taj Mahal and contains the world’s largest single piece, hand knotted carpet as well as the world’s largest mosaic in the courtyard. Go figure.
Having never been to a Muslim country before, I was eager to slip into an abaya and hijab and tour the mosque, learning more about the religion, culture and history behind this particular one.
Hop back to Sheikh Zayed, he had this mosque built during his time as President, beginning construction in 1996 and completed in 2007. Unfortunately the final touches happened three years after Sheikh Zayed passed away, not allowing him to see the finished product brought to fruition. Though he did not witness it, his burial site sits beside the mosque and has one of 24 different reciters reading the Quran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The Mosque provides abayas/hijab combos in all sizes for women and offers free tours (in English) every hour, making it accessible to visitors from all over the world.
The mihrab (pictured below) is positioned to signal the direction of Mecca and was purposely decorated in white and gold to resemble the abundant rivers of honey and milk in the Paradise, promised to the righteous in the Quran. Written in different dialects around the mihrab are 99 different names for Allah, the highest one remaining blank because there is not name higher or holier than his.
Another quick architecture lesson, the recognizable structure of a mosque is defined by its pillar and dome features– minarets are for calling the prayers and the domes serve to create echos for it back– when there weren’t electronic sound systems.
The Grand Mosque was absolutely elegant and breathtaking, and while it was the first mosque I ever visited, it definitely made a memorable impression on me. I will admit I was unsure on how to act and dress in a Muslim country, let alone a mosque, but being kept on my toes left me in a better position to soak up the culture, I think. As beautiful as a Catholic cathedral is, I already know the protocol regarding what is and isn’t appropriate, so a place such as Norte Dame in Paris didn’t impact me in the way the Grand Mosque did. Comfort zones are made to be stepped out of, not to say I was uncomfortable, but overall I was definitely more aware of my actions in the UAE than any other place I’ve visited.