ARCHI TIMES - ISSN No. 2073-9001, A+i - ISSN No. 2073 - 901X

Sheikh Zayed Mosque
WHITE PEARL OF THE ARABIAN GULF

A blend of Traditional Islamic Design and modern architecture

By Zain Mankani

The brilliant white Sheikh Zayed Mosque sits gracefully on a pool of water at the heart of Abu Dhabi like a precious pearl rising out of the sea. A string of domes crowns the building, culminating with the largest dome of its kind in the world over the central prayer hall. A vast courtyard, spreading out before the main hall, is anchored by four tall minarets piercing into the sky.

The architectural composition creates a striking effect, with the towering positive mass of the prayer hall balanced by the huge implied volume captured within the minarets. It is a fitting tribute to a man who left such a deep impression on the lives of so many people and bequeathed a legacy of economic and social development to his nation.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyah, to whom the Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi is dedicated, was fondly referred to as the father of the United Arab Emirates because of his role in unifying the Emirates into one nation. He was president of the UAE for over 30 years, from 1971 to 2004. On 3rd November 2004, Sheikh Zayed passed away and was buried at the Grand Mosque.

The strategic location of the mosque, between Mussafah Bridge and Maqta Bridge, allows it to be viewed by those entering the city and was selected for the mosque by the Sheikh himself. The project was conceived in the late 80's and construction work began on initial designs in the late 90's. It was finally completed last Ramadan at a cost of 2.167 billion AED.
The Key Players
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a project of the Abu Dhabi Public Works Department and was designed by Syrian architect Youssef Abdelki.

Construction work was carried out in two phases. Initially, the contract was awarded to a Joint Venture between two Italian firms, Impreglio and Rizzani de Eccher, with Tractebel Al Khaleej of Belgium as the Consulting Engineers.

Impreglio has undertaken several infrastructure projects like railways, dams and motorways around the world from Italy to Iceland to Venezuela. It has also engineered a couple of desalination plants in the UAE. Rizzani de Eccher has over 30 years of experience in the contracting business. It has worked on a variety of projects from commercial buildings to residential and office blocks, hotels, stadiums, institutional and religious buildings. It also has previous contracting experience in the UAE. Tractebel Engineering specializes in the design and construction of hospitals, but has also built large administrative blocks and commercial and industrial complexes.

Construction began to stagnate after the initial work, and in October of 2001, the British group Halcrow took over as Consulting Engineers. Halcrow specializes in the planning, design and management services for infrastructure development and has 70 offices (30 in the UK and 40 worldwide) and commissions in 70 different countries. It has over a century of experience, particularly in the transportation and maritime sectors.
The construction contract for the second phase, worth $450 Million, was awarded to a Joint Venture between Six Construct Company and Arabian Construction Company (ACC). Six Construct is a subsidiary of the Belgian firm BESIX, which has several projects in the region, including construction of the 426m long New Maqta Bridge, close to the site, that links Abu Dhabi to the mainland. Its scope of services included managing and coordinating nominated subcontractors and trades and providing them with plant/scaffolding and infrastructural facilities.

The ACC has been operating in the Middle East since 1967, and has a prestigious list of projects under its belt from power plants to factories, hotels and hospitals. They were the main contractors for the Abu Dhabi National Theatre - one of the largest and most modern theatres in the region.

Master Plan and Landscape Concept Plan of the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque Abu Dhabi

Mosque Anatomy

A mosque is primarily a place for performing the daily obligatory prayers or salat, although other religious practices, like recitation of the Quran and prophetic traditions, also take place within a mosque.

Abu Dhabi currently has 2289 mosques and there are approximately 5000 mosques in the UAE.

The basic requirement for a mosque is a covered Prayer Hall where believers can congregate and pray during salat times. The prayer times are in accordance with the position of the sun starting with Al Fajr (pre-dawn), Al Dhuhr (between noon and mid-afternoon), Al Asr (between mid-afternoon and sunset), Al Maghrib (between sunset and darkness) and Al Isha (evening).

Besides these obligatory prayers, Muslims can perform personal prayers at any occasion and they are also encouraged to perform Friday prayers and Eid prayers.

The prayer hall is usually wide and shallow to accommodate maximum number of people in the initial rows, close to the prayer leader or Imam. The hall is normally covered with a large Dome. Earlier, the dome was the preferred structural system for spanning large uninterrupted spaces, but today it is largely a symbolic element, associated with mosques, though it has some acoustical properties as well. There is also a separate prayer space for women. Since all worshippers must face the Qibla (the Holy Ka'aba in Mecca) while praying, the direction of the Ka'aba is indicated by a Mehrab, or prayer niche, on the Qibla Wall. The mehrab is where the Imam stands and prays. The Mimbar (pulpit) is always to the right of the mehrab and is the place from where the Imam delivers the sermon on Friday.

Most mosques have a large Open Courtyard in front of the prayer hall, to accommodate larger congregations on Fridays and Eid days. Minarets are also regular features in mosques. These were initially used by the Muezzin as an elevated point from which to give the distinct call for prayer, known as Adhan, five times a day. Today they are fitted with loudspeakers.

Since worshippers need to be in a state of ritual purity before they begin to pray, the architectural design of mosques have to incorporate an Ablution Facility for ritual cleansing, or Wudhu.
To perform wudhu, a Muslim will wash the hands up to the wrist three times, rinse the mouth three times, clean the nostrils three times, wash the face from forehead to chin and from ear to ear, wash the forearms up to the elbows and pass a wet hand over the head and wash (or wipe) the feet.


The main prayer hall has sparking crystal chandeliers (the world's largest) that illuminate the intricately carved ceiling domes. Its walls are clad textured white Italian marble. The hall's columns are made of seamless circular white marble uniquely inlaid with exquisite floral patterns of semi-precious
stones and mother of pearl.

Architecture of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque covers an area of 22,412 square meters and can accommodate about 40,000 worshippers. According to Halcrow, it is the sixth largest mosque in the world.

More than 3000 workers were involved in the construction, which employed 33,000 tons of steel, 210,000 cubic meters of concrete and 7,000 foundation piles.

The mosque has three public entrances and one exclusive to VIP guests. The main entrance reveals text from the Holy Quran, as well as designs carved into the white marble of the arches leading to the Sahan (outdoor prayer area).

There are a total of 82 domes, in the Moroccan style, and the main dome is the largest of its kind in the world at 85 meters high with a diameter of 32.8 meters. The four minarets are 107 meters high. The dimensions of the central prayer hall are 50 x 55 m on plan with 33 m clear height to the ceiling. The only intrusion into this vast space is the towering arched structure supporting the base of the main dome 45 m above the floor. Long clear spans and heavy load conditions meant that concrete sections of considerable depth were required. Beams of up to 2.5 m depth are a common feature of the structure, with the main ring beam supporting the central dome being 5 m deep.
The arcades of the mosque are supported on 1096 columns, whereas the main prayer hall has 96 columns. Over 20,000 hand made panels embedded with semi-precious stones including lapis lazuli, amethyst, onyx, and aventurine are used to decorate these columns, which are crowned with golden capitals.

The external cladding is in Sivec marble, from Macedonia in Greece, and was selected for its ultra white color and consistency. Other marbles from Italy, India and China have been used in the interiors and ancillary spaces.

Iznik panels, composed of ceramic tiles from Iznik, Turkey are also used as a decorative feature in the mosque. There are 80 such panels in two different designs: one is the traditional blue and white calligraphy panel, and the other is a more colorful floral design.
Calligraphy also appears alongside floral designs, skillfully etched into stone, over the main arches.

The entire length of the Qibla wall is covered with passages from the Holy Quran in calligraphic panels, 21 meters high, which are backlit using fiber optics to give a gold shimmering effect.
Seven copper and gold chandeliers from Germany also hang in the mosque, with the largest suspended under the main mosque. With a 10-meter diameter and 15-meter height, it is the biggest chandelier in the world.

Another record-breaking feature is the AED 30 million carpet gracing the floor of the prayer hall. This 5,627 square meter Iranian carpet is the largest in the world. Some 1,200 weavers, 20 technicians and 30 workers took part in making this hand-made masterpiece. It weighs 47 tons - 35 tons of wool and 12 tons of cotton - and has a total of 2,268,000 knots. The pieces of the carpet were made in Iran and then the artisans were flown over to hand sew the pieces together for the final fitting.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is thus an extraordinary amalgam of global art and culture, combining Moroccan and Syrian architectural influences with the decorative culture of several nations in addition to the UAE like Turkey, Iran and Germany and finishes from Greece, Italy, China and other countries.

Main Sources:

1. Halcrow website and video.
2. Khaleej Times Online.
3. Arabian Construction Company website.
4. Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.

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