Editor’s note: part two of Sam Spector’s UAE trip focuses on the capital of Abu Dhabi. I won’t lie; this was not a place on my bucket list until reading these pieces, but I now feel the urge to plan a trip. For more of Sam’s amazing adventures, click here to visit his index page.
In my previous article I wrote about the incredible city of Dubai. (Click here to read it.) However, what surprises many people is that Dubai is actually not the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Rather, the capital can be found a bit over an hour southwest of Dubai in the city of Abu Dhabi. Dubai has become wealthy and famous by creating an attraction out of the city itself, where its rulers decided that by creating a futuristic city that had the best and biggest of everything, people would come, visit, and invest. Abu Dhabi Emirate, on the other hand, is the largest producer of oil in the nation and has become extraordinarily wealthy and significant for this reason. Though it is so close to Dubai, Abu Dhabi has its own international airport and its own airline, Etihad, considered one of the world’s best. In addition to being the nation’s capital city, it also is very much the cultural capital of the Emirates.
Much like Berlin, Abu Dhabi is working on building its own Museum Island. While other museums are popping up, the crown jewel is one that you can already visit, the Abu Dhabi Louvre. Made in partnership with the Louvre in France, the 260,000 square foot museum is the largest museum on the Arabian Peninsula and the most visited in the Arab world. With exhibits that are trying to bridge the gap between the East and West, the Louvre features artwork from some of Europe’s most famous artists, as well as ancient artwork dating back 8,000 years. The architecture of this building is jaw dropping. The entire museum’s 55 buildings, 23 of which are art galleries, are covered by what looks like a giant nest. The woven dome ceiling is designed to look like palm fronds with light going through the branches and artificial trees inside. The few support pillars that hold the roof up are cleverly hidden, giving the dome roof an appearance of floating in midair and providing much needed shade from the unforgiving Arabian sun. Another great feature is that the museum is built right on the water and has a series of levels that protect it from going underwater; however, those levels go above and below the water’s surface based on the tides.
One of the projects that has not yet been completed is the Abrahamic Family House, set to open in the next year. I did not get to visit as it is under construction, but I met with the director of the center and will definitely want to return to see it completed. There will be three large buildings that make up the center, a synagogue, a mosque, and a church that can be adapted for Catholics and Protestants alike. Each building is designed to reflect that religion’s culture and religious components, and will be used not only for religious services but also as a center for interfaith learning and dialogue. To see an Arab country go to this effort to promote interfaith understanding and acceptance was beyond moving, and the director of the Abrahamic Family House hopes that in creating this center it will be a source of inspiration for greater peace and tolerance throughout the Arab world.
Finally, the best sight to see in Abu Dhabi, if not the entire UAE, is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which was completed in 2007 after eleven years of construction. The mosque is famous for its large domes, its 351-foot minarets, and for being the largest example of marble mosaic in the world. The mosque is bright white and is truly a work of art. In addition to marble, the mosque was built using gold, semi-precious stones, crystals, and ceramics. The 33-foot diameter chandeliers are made with millions of Swarovski crystals, and there are 96 columns throughout the mosque embedded with mother of pearl stone. The main hall’s carpet is considered to be the largest in the world and was made by 1,300 carpet weavers over two years with 2.268 billion knots in it. Also at the mosque is a reflecting pool and the tomb of Sheikh Zayed, former ruler of Abu Dhabi. During Ramadan, the mosque holds over 40,000 worshipers, the most in the UAE. It is considered by many to be the most beautiful mosque in the world and for good reason.
I do not know if I would have gone to the UAE if it were not for this trip. It is not the type of place I usually like to go. It is unbearably hot and humid, and as I have said in the past, I do not like ritzy, modern places like Singapore and Monaco as much as I like ancient places that preserve ancient cultures. That said, I was blown away by the UAE; it is a place that is innovative, visionary, and that is seeking to be an example to the rest of the Arab world on promoting interfaith tolerance. You can see all the highlights in about four days, and you can make it a place that you use as a jumping off point; with its incredible airlines and central location, the UAE is the new gateway to the world and worth a visit. However, if you want a UAE focused trip, I recommend two days in Dubai, two days in Abu Dhabi, a day doing a desert safari and a day or two at one of the beach resorts on the Persian Gulf. I know that this will not be my last trip to the United Arab Emirates, and I will especially return to Abu Dhabi, not only to see the completed Abrahamic Family House and the many other future projects, but because my wife saw my pictures and said that it is now at the top of her bucket list.
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