Non-Muslims flock to world's third-largest mosque

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Many Westerners, including women clad in black, have been heading to Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, claimed by its management to be the world's third largest- and also bearing the world's largest Persian carpet and mosque dome.

"It is the third biggest mosque in the world after the Haramain (The Two Sancturies)," said the project's deputy head, Khawla Al-Suleimani, after Islam's two holiest sites in Saudi Arabia - Mecca's Grand Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, reported newswire AFP.

Named after the UAE's late founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahayan, the mosque is considered an architectural landmark and is open to non-Muslims, unlike the sanctuary mosques.

Like many mosques all over the world that are open to tourists, women should cover themselves from head to toe in abayas, or long black robes, handed to them at the entrance.

Visitors have been coming from within the UAE but also from abroad to photograph the beauty of the mosque, said Al-Suleimani.

"Hundreds have been coming every week since the opening [of the mosque] on the first day of Eid Al-Adha," the Muslim feast of sacrifice in December last year, she added.

The project was launched in 1998 by Sheikh Zayed, who besides being the UAE's first president was also ruler of the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Though he died in November 2004, and is buried in a courtyard adjacent to the mosque, work on the project has continued and is set to be fully complete in November 2009.

"The mosque is dedicated to the father of the nation, whose vision was founded on dialogue between religions, civilisations and cultures," say brochures given to visitors by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. The authority began to organise guided tours of the place in February.

"Apart from the thousands of [Muslim] faithful who come to pray, the mosque is visited by non-Muslims: Germans, French, Britons, Italians, Russians, Americans, Argentineans and Indians," it says in a guide.

Unlike Dubai, which has largely focused on leisure and tourism, Abu Dhabi is seeking to become a cultural hub with the mosque a central attraction, and part of the future planning of the emirate.

The Abu Dhabi government in September 2007 published a development plan for the city of Abu Dhabi that will guide planning decisions for the next quarter of a century.

‘Plan Abu Dhabi 2030: Urban Structure Framework Plan' was developed by an international planning taskforce to underpin the ongoing evolution of Abu Dhabi as a global capital city, with projections its population will grow by three million people by 2030.

The mosque, a landmark attraction, is part of preserving the culture of the Emirates, and educating residents and visitors about its history.

"As Sheikh Zayed wished, the mosque was built on a 9.5-metre high hill so it is visible from far, it covers an area of 22,000 square metres, and it can accommodate more than 40,000 faithful," said engineer Mohammad Ali Al-Ameri.

Al-Ameri said construction was nearly complete, with only fences, gardens and car parks still to be finished.

"Built 100% with Italian marble, the mosque has four 107-metre tall minarets, 82 domes of seven different sizes, 96 columns inside and 1,048 outside," Al-Ameri told AFP.

The mosque was built by thousands of workers, nearly all from the Asian subcontinent, were involved in building the mosque, he said. The sculptors were Moroccan.

Thousands of rare and semi-precious stones, some encrusted in marble, have been used to decorate the structure.

The centrepiece of the mosque is a 6,000 square metre hand-made Persian carpet, said to be the biggest in the world.

"More than 1,200 women from the Khorasan region in eastern Iran spent two years weaving the carpet, which weighs 45 tonnes and cost more than $8.5 million," Al-Ameri said.

The carpet covers the floor of the main prayer hall, which can accommodate up to 9,000 worshippers.

Two rooms next to the main prayer hall, with a 1,500-capacity each, are for the exclusive use of women, who can follow sermons delivered by prayer leaders on giant television screens. Islam requires men and women to pray separately.

The main dome is also claimed to be "the biggest" mosque dome in the world, according to Al-Ameri, who said it is 75 metres high with a 32.2-metre diameter.

Another breathtaking piece is a huge crystal chandelier in the main prayer hall, one of seven German-made chandeliers costing more than $8 million. It is 10 metres tall, 10 metres wide and weighs nine tonnes.

The total cost of the mosque has been at more than two billion dirhams ($545 million), Al-Suleimani said.

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