On my last visit to Abu Dhabi in January 2009, I missed out on a chance to visit the inside of the Grand Mosque, although I did wander around it and take a few snaps in the mid-afternoon heat. This time 'round I was lucky enough to make one of the daily tours of the building, accompanied by my parents (on holiday from Australia).
In many respects, entering the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is quite a privilege because, as far as I am aware, no other mosque in the world allows non-Muslims inside for a 'look-see'. But the sheikh who commissioned this magnificent building wanted to use it as an opportunity to increase understanding about the Islamic faith -- or, as my dad so aptly pointed out, he probably just wanted everyone to see how much bloody money he'd spent on the thing.
Yes, this is a hugely expensive building using hugely expensive materials and craftmanship, but it's all done in a rather understated, almost delicate, style. The attention to detail -- mother-of-pearl inlays, marble "flowers" climbing up gleaming white-washed walls, 1,000 white columns topped with golden palm fronds -- is incredible.
I won't bombard you with facts and figures, because you'll find them online. Let's just say the place is impressive, and what's inside it -- the world's biggest chandelier, the world's biggest hand-knotted carpet -- even more so.
Of course, visiting a mosque means you have to abide by a few rules. If you're a woman it means donning an abaya and making sure your hair is covered up at all times. If you're a bloke wearing shorts you need to don a dishdash. Both items of clothing are available on loan for no charge. (In fact, the entire tour is free and there's no-one trying to make a dhiram or two flogging tacky souvenirs, aka the Church of England.)
I'm not religious in the slightest, but I came away from the entire experience having a newfound respect, not only for Islam, but for those poor women who wear abayas every day: they are heavy and hot. I can only begin to imagine how uncomfortable they must be to wear in the height of a UAE summer.
I took loads of photographs (and that's something else British churches could learn from: banning photography is pointless in this day and age). Here's a few of my favourites.