If Walt Disney had built a house of worship, it would look like the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque was completed in December 2007 after 11 years of construction, on a $545 million budget. More than 3,000 skilled craftsmen from around the world spent thousands of hours painstakingly installing imported marble, painting florals and weaving the world’s largest handmade Persian carpet. That’s a lot of work and a lot of money to go into something so mediocre. Yes, I said it.
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque may have been voted the second best tourist attraction in Abu Dhabi, but that’s not saying much. Right now, Abu Dhabi is kind of like Mars – there’s a lot of potential, but zero life. So anything labeled “the best” in this deserted…desert, should be taken with a grain of salt. Don’t get me wrong – in about 5-10 years Abu Dhabi is going to be amazing, but right now visiting the city feels like stepping inside a snow globe.
The mosque is essentially an Instagram celebrity – and like all Instagram celebrities, its beauty can be largely attributed to good lighting. At night, a deep blue hue overtakes the building, making it look straight out of Disney’s Aladdin. During the day, the bright sunlight bounces off the white marble for a jarring effect. It photographs incredibly well, but in person it’s kind of underwhelming.
The building is short on both style and substance. It’s basically a glorified banquet hall: A series of decorated hallways leading nowhere, limited prayer space and “art” that’s amateur at best. Despite the opulence, the marble floors were haphazardly installed and not sealed, leading to large gaps in between. I can’t imagine this place aging well. Not like Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
I’m not here to rag (entirely) on how mediocre this ridiculously expensive building is. My main criticism of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is that it is a waste of space. And I don’t mean it as a criticism of its religious function but rather its lack thereof. It offers very little by way of services for worshippers, or tourists for that matter.
I visited the Sheikh Zayed Mosque twice during my two-night stay in Abu Dhabi over a year ago. The mosque is a 10-minute drive from the Hyatt Capital Gate Abu Dhabi and the city’s main tourist attraction. On my first visit, I arrived at night, right before evening prayer. My dad, brother, cousin and I were dropped off in front of the security building right as the call to prayer began. We passed security, which was a painless process that involved walking through a metal detector. Men and women are required to cover their arms and legs to enter the mosque and the security guards have robes available for those who are not properly dressed. We didn’t have that problem, so we rushed through and began searching for the prayer hall.
There were zero signs indicating where it was. Strike one. If you’re going to build a massive place of worship (75% of which consists of hallways btw), you might want to put signs up, showing where people can, you know…pray. We got to an area where both men and women were putting their shoes into cubbies. We followed the crowd only to be led into this room:
It was a large space with a huge Swarovski Crystal chandelier. Followed by another room with more chandeliers. Cool. I like things that sparkle. But this isn’t Claire’s and I’m not here to buy earrings. A security guard directed me to the prayer hall, which we had to walk outside to get to. We began to walk towards a group of men and it occurred to me that there didn’t seem to be a ladies entrance. A security guard informed us that the ladies prayer hall was next door. We eventually found it. There was no sign of any kind and for all I knew, I could have been walking into the bathroom (which, by the way, is in the basement level – totally impractical and a long walk from the prayer space).
Eventually we made it into the ladies prayer hall, which was beautiful enough, if not a bit underwhelming. The carpets were colorful and the chandeliers grand. There was gorgeous stained glass in the direction of the Kaaba. The AC must have been on the Global Warming setting because it was downright arctic in that room.
After prayer, we walked out and looked at the massive courtyard. It was then that I realized…this was it: Two small prayer halls, a room dedicated to showcasing chandeliers, and a series of open hallways serving no purpose other than to provide a place for tourists to take selfies and hear about how much money was spent building this attraction. But then again, what else can we expect from a “house of worship” built by one of the wealthiest men in the Middle East, who is not only buried on the premises but actually named the place after himself?!
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is clearly a popular attraction for tourists and Instagram aficionados alike. The officials who built it could have put a bit more thought into function over form. The prayer rooms should have been built closer to the entrance and the washrooms more conveniently located. There are also vast areas of wasted space (does the courtyard really need to be 180,000 sqft? Do they really need countless hallways leading nowhere but around empty premises?). More importantly, the entire project is a wasted opportunity to educate millions of visitors from around the world about a group that is often misunderstood and vilified.
It could have been a chance to break barriers and provide actual value beyond Instagram likes. Instead, they chose to focus on superficial opulence, turning a religious gathering place into a photo prop. But then again, that’s pretty much the UAE’s M.O. these days.
Have you visited the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi? Am I the only one who thinks its completely overrated?