ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — It's 7,307 miles one-way or the equivalent distance you'd clock on a nonstop flight from O'Hare International Airport to Maui, Hawaii, and back.|
But the city of Abu Dhabi boasts a skyline that rivals Chicago. The waterfront is equally impressive. Much like Lake Shore Drive, Corniche Road is vibrant with families on outings, cyclists, boaters with skiers in tow and museums and parks.
One of the largest places in the capital is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which gives free guided tours. Although I looked in the Grand Mosque before I left, none of my research came close to the experience. It's so vast it becomes intimate.
This architectural work of art can accommodate more than 41,000 worshippers at one time. That would be more than 10 percent of the Quad-Cities area, all in one place, at one time.
Our bus dropped us off and we walked through the gardens and past reflection pools on our way to the entrance. The view is breathtaking, with so much detail it's difficult to take it all in.
Women taking the tour lined up to get abayas, or black cloaks with a head covering, to wear while taking the escorted tour.
Visitors can photograph the Grand Mosque but not the burial site of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, who conceived and built the mosque. He was first president of the United Arab Emirates, and died before the Mosque was completed.
The Grand Mosque is made of marble and has 82 domes, more than 1,000 columns, and some estimate the size exceeds five football fields.
There also are small details, such as the floral inlays that loop and curl across a 183,000 square-foot marble courtyard or accent the stained glass windows on the interior walls. Or the mother-of-pearl inlays that mark the 90 columns in the prayer hall.
We walked the vastness of the courtyard and followed our guide along the arcades, past the library that houses publications in many languages, artwork and other treasures. Natural materials were the first choice in building the Mosque; the overall architecture borrows from Mughal and Moorish designs, yet the four towering minarets definitely are Arab.
Inside the prayer hall, which can accommodate 7,000 at prayer, we sat cross-legged on the carpet and looked around at the majestic setting as our guide talked about the abaya and how it's optional for women to wear.
Most do, he said, because it makes dressing easy. One of his sisters wears one, while another has never worn one.
He told us the carpet was designed by Ali Khaliqui. It measures 60,570 square feet and took about 1,200 carpet knotters two years to complete. Made mostly from New Zealand wool, it weighs 35 tons and has 2.268 billion knots.
Looking up, we could see the detail in the German-made chandeliers. The largest has a diameter of 33 feet and is 49 feet high.
Looking forward we gazed at the Qibla or prayer wall, the most important wall in any mosque. All mosques look toward Mecca and the prayer wall is placed on the side that is closest to Mecca. There are no statues or photographs to detract from prayer.
Traditional Kufic calligraphy on the Qibla lists the 99 names or qualities of God (Allah). In the center is the Mihrab, which is not quite an alcove, but a location that shows its importance as it points precisely to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
One article I read stated that if you set off from the point at the top of the Mihrab, you would eventually walk into Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam.
We ended the tour with a few minutes of free time to walk around on our own.
As I handed in my abaya, I admit I felt a bit bare walking back to the bus.
IF YOU GO
Tourism: Schedule time for a complimentary tour of one of the world's largest mosques, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. With the exception of Friday mornings when the mosque is open only for worship, guided tours are offered several times a day. Check the website for specific times as they vary by season. Visit visitabudhabi.ae/en and click through to the mosque.
Getting there: Etihad Airways provides non-stop service from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to Abu Dhabi. Etihad consistently is rated among the top air carriers in the world, especially when it relates to inflight service. etihadairways.com
Staying where: The Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, has a business acumen with a resort attitude. Set along a strait (Khor Al Maqta) from the Arabian Gulf (historically known as the Persian Gulf), with two salt water pools and five sandy beaches, it is easy to slip into the laid back ambience. The breakfast buffet is staggering in its choices and quality. A souk (traditional shopping area) is on site, also the award-winning spa, Chi. Water taxis and electric carts transport guests throughout the expansive property. shangri-la.com/abudhabi/shangrila
You should know: English is taught in schools. Signage is in Arabic and English.
About cash: One U.S. dollar is worth 3.67 Arab Emirates dirham.
Tipping: Tipping a cab driver is not expected. Tipping is permitted for hotel personnel, wait staff and tour guides.
Timing: The UAE is 12 hours ahead of Central Standard Time. If it is 6 p.m. on a Saturday here, it is 6 a.m. on Sunday in the UAE.
The skinny: No shots required. No advance visa required; a visitors' visa can be arranged at arrival. Always check "Know Before You Go" information from the Department of Homeland Security before any international travel, cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/vacation/kbyg.
Dress: Relish in the culture by respecting it. Key word? Modesty in tone and attire for men and women. Casual business attire is the best way to dress in public. Sandals, sure. Shorts? No. Sleeveless? No. Leave imprinted T-shirts and spandex at home.
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