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Marble splendour awaits visitors to UAE mosque

Zayed Mosque took 10 years, half a billion dollars

Dozens of Westerners, including black-clad women, have been flocking to Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, an architectural masterpiece graced with a Persian carpet said to be the biggest in the world.

"It is the third biggest mosque in the world after the Haramain," boasted 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.

But unlike these two mosques, the one named after the United Arab Emirates' late founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, is not off-limits to non-Muslims.

"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," says a brochure.

Women must cover themselves from head to toe in abayas, or long black robes, handed them at the entrance.

"And non-Muslims must not touch the Quran," the Muslim holy book, copies of which are stacked in every prayer room, cautions one of the guides.

The project was launched in 1998 by Sheikh Zayed, who besides being the UAE's first president was also ruler of the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi, one of seven making up the Gulf federation.

Sheikh Zayed, who died in November 2004, is buried in a courtyard adjacent to the mosque.

"The mosque is dedicated to the father of the nation, whose vision was founded on dialogue between religions, civilizations and cultures," say brochures handed out to visitors by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.

The authority began to organize guided tours of the place last month. Work will be fully completed in November 2009.

Special features

"As Sheikh Zayed wished, the 100 percent Italian marble mosque was built on a 9.5-metre (31-feet) high hill so it is visible from far, it covers an area of 22,000 square meters (237,000 square feet), and it can accommodate more than 40,000 faithful," said engineer Mohammad Ali al-Ameri.

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

The centerpiece is a 6,000 square meter (64,583 square feet) 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 tons and cost more than 8.5 million dollars," Ameri said.

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

Two rooms next to the main prayer hall, with a 1,500-capacity each, have been reserved for women, who can follow sermons delivered by prayer leaders on giant television screens.

The main dome is also "the biggest" mosque dome in the world, according to Ameri, who said it is 75 meters (246 feet) high with a 32.2-metre (105.6 feet) diameter.

Another breathtaking piece is a huge crystal chandelier in the main prayer hall, one of seven German-made chandeliers costing more than eight million dollars. It is 10-metre (32.8 feet) tall, 10-metre wide and weighs nine tons.

Ameri would not give the total cost of the mosque, but Suleimani estimated it at more than two billion dirhams (545 million dollars).