Wednesday morning began with a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is open to non-Muslim visitors in the morning from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. Gleaming white and dominating its surroundings, it’s meant, I think, to evoke both the grand mosques of the world and the Taj Mahal : in addition to being a house of worship that will be able to accommodate 10,000 people for prayers, it is also the burial place of the revered Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyam, the man who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1966 until his death in 2004 and who was the first president of the United Arab Emirates.
Visiting the mosque filled me with a sense of nostalgia, bringing me back to my visit to the Middle East twenty-five years ago, and memories of a visit to the Dome of the Rock, followed by my first visit to Istanbul. I expected then that I would return to the Middle East before very long, particularly since one of my best friends from college moved to Tel Aviv. But it hasn’t happened, though I did make it back to Istanbul i 1989. But that’s 20 years ago now!
Compared to the grand mosques in Jerusalem and Istanbul, the Sheikh Zayed mosque feels “new” but not “modern,” and I think it’s a find translation of the ancient traditional grand mosque into a contemporary idiom. The materials used in its construction are exquisite, and the interior of the mosque–which boasts the largest hand-made “Oriental” carpet in the world–is stunning. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi presented NYU’s president John Sexton with a (much, much smaller) reproduction of the carpet as a memento of the agreement between Abu Dhabi and NYU, and it now adorns Sexton’s office.
The mosque isn’t quite done: work was still being done on the area in front of the mosque (both landscaping and a little construction), and visitors enter from the side. Women visiting the mosque who are wearing western clothes are given black abayas and head scarves to wear when entering the interior courtyard of the mosque, and as in any mosque, you remove your shoes shoes before entering the interior. As a result, you can feel just how luxurious that carpet is!