Posts Tagged ‘Middle East travel’

Sheikh Zayed Mosque ~ Floral & Exquisite

April 18th, 2013 13 comments

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

I finally made it to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque—the most exquisite mosque I’ve ever visited. I had not expected to be dazzled, but I was.

What impressed me first was the striking white of the mosque and its grand scale. Next, it was the gorgeous floral motifs and overwhelmingly feminine style. Meanwhile, the various architectural accents—domes, columns and archways—were amazing, too.  

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The mosque, which opened in 2007 in Abu Dhabi, was the vision of Sheikh Zayed, the founding father and first ruler of the United Arab Emirates. The tomb of Sheikh Zayed is located nearby the mosque.

The Design

The mosque is one of the largest in the world and accommodates over 40,000 worshippers. Stunning white with gold accents, the mosque is surrounding by reflective pools and features 1000 columns and 82 domes.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

A fusion of Arab, Moorish, and Mughal elements, the design of the mosque was directly influenced by mosques in Morocco and Pakistan, as well as the Taj Mahal in India. 

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

More than 3,000 people took part in the building of the mosque, which included artisans and materials from many countries, including Italy, Morocco, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, Greece, UK, Germany, New Zealand, and the UAE.

The archways are quintessentially Moorish.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The Courtyard

The courtyard is massive and the floral design in the marble floor is not only spectacular, but also the largest example of a marble mosaic in the world.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The four minarets, placed in the four corners of the courtyard, are classically Arab in design.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The Garden Foyer

Before entering the prayer area, one passes through the garden foyer, which echoes the flower motifs of the courtyard.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Main Prayer Hall

The Main Prayer Hall, which can accommodate 7,000 worshippers, is the heart of the mosque.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The Qibla Wall (direction wall) features the 99 names of God written in Kufic calligraphy and designed by an Emirati calligrapher.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abi Dhabi

The prayer niche is made of gold leaf. 

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The Carpet

Inside the hall is the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet. Made of wool, the carpet is Iranian designed and made. It was crafted by 1,200 women and took two years to complete. The lines marked in the carpet tell the worshippers where to line up.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The Women’s Prayer Hall

Without a doubt, this is the most beautiful women’s prayer area I’ve ever seen. Built to accommodate 1,500 women, the area is spacious and bright.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The ceiling, which was designed in Morocco, is made to match the carpet, which was designed in Malaysia. The two patterns mirror each other.  

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhbai

The mosque also houses a library with classic books on Islamic subjects relating to science, calligraphy, art, and civilization. The collection features a broad range of languages and includes rare and historic publications. Click here to find out more about the Sheikh Zayed Mosque Library.

Visiting the mosque

Opening hours and tour times vary slightly throughout the year. Currently, the mosque is open to visitors daily from 9:00am to 10:00pm and Fridays from 4:30pm to 10pm. I advise morning or evening visits during the hot months.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

I highly recommend the guided tours. Our tour guide Khadija was very knowledgeable and well-spoken. Free tours are currently given daily at 10:00am, 11:00am and 5:00pm. Additional tours on Saturday are 2:00pm and 7:00pm. Friday tours are 5:00pm and 7:00pm. See website for up-to-date visiting hours and tour schedule.

What to wear

Of course, women must cover their hair. The mosque offers unique abayas for female visitors. The abaya comes with an attached hood with a tie. You can select either a long abaya (floor length) or short (shin-length), depending on what you are wearing underneath.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Alternatively, you can wear your own modest clothing: a loose-fitting tunic over a long skirt or wide-leg trousers (what I wore).

Sheikh Zayed Mosque - What to wear

Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Men must be modest, too—long trousers and shirt with sleeves. See the website sidebar for more information on mosque manners.

Did you know?

In Abu Dhabi, there is only one muatheen—that is, the man who calls the worshipers to prayer five times per day.  Yes, just one. His athan (call to prayer) is not recorded, but is projected live from all mosques in Abu Dhabi.

Question: Have you been to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque? What were your impressions?

Al Bustan Palace ~ Muscat, Oman

February 6th, 2013 7 comments

Al Bustan Palace Hotel

In my last post I wrote about our trip to Muscat, Oman. What I didn’t mention was where we stayed—Al Bustan Palace.

We had stayed in this hotel once before, exactly nine years ago. Since then, the hotel was closed for several years for renovation and refurbishment. Now managed by the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel was sure to be classy. I looked forward to seeing the changes, as well as experiencing a bit of extravagance and amenity.

Al Bustan Palace was originally built as a venue for the GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council) to hold their 1985 summit. More palace than hotel, Al Bustan has won its share of awards as the best hotel in the Middle East. Also, the fort-like hotel exemplifies Muscat’s architectural requirements of Arabesque patterns, arches, and domes.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

If you visit Muscat, it’s worth staying at Al Bustan Palace—or at least coming for dinner to view the grand and stunning domed lobby, seven stories high.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Lobby

When we stayed here before, the interior design was pretty, but its Arabian theme was overly colorful and ornate by today’s standards. Now the room design is subdued with neutral colors and understated patterns.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Room

It’s also worth strolling the grounds—all newly updated and improved, along with the infinity pool and beach area.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Garden

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

The hotel is located on a private cove with a wide open beach offering snorkeling and dolphin-watching boat rides. Yes, dolphins.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

This Omani coffee man offered me dates and Arabic coffee every day (as was his job). Each time I had coffee with him, he asked me more about myself.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

The coffee man asked me where I was from, where my husband was from, how many children we had, etc. When he found out I lived in Dubai, he asked which was better—Dubai or Muscat. I gave a vague answer about each city being unique. He insisted I choose the best city. Finally, I told him Muscat was better because of its traditional and natural beauty. At last, he was satisfied.

The next day, I tried to pick up our conversation where we left off. Instead, he started from the beginning: where I was from and which I like better, Dubai or Muscat… I wondered, perhaps all us Western women look the same to him?

At any rate, the coffee and dates were fitting, and the hotel was lovely, a perfect anniversary getaway.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Question: Have you been to Al Bustan Palace?

Trip to Muscat, Oman

January 1st, 2013 18 comments

I traveled to Oman nine years ago—a family trip that has become a blur to me. It was now time to go again. So, last week my husband and I traveled there, childfree and with fresh eyes. Four days and three nights. Just the two of us.  

Welcome to Muscat

The city of Muscat, capital of Oman, is so different from Dubai that it’s almost a shock to the system. First of all, it’s all stretched out along the coast of the Gulf of Oman—miles and miles of undeveloped beaches.  

And not a skyscraper in sight. Instead, you find a city of mostly white low buildings nestled between the sea and rugged mountains. Relaxing and pleasing to the eye, it feels like a kind of urban retreat.

Also, the city is not overrun with expatriate workers (like another city I know). Most of the people you meet in Oman—hotel clerks, shopkeepers, baristas, waiters—are actual Omani people.

Mutrah ~ The Port of Muscat

This is my favorite part of Muscat. Mutrah is the capital’s main port area, yet it feels more like a fishing village with its fish market, souk, sidewalk cafés and a corniche. In short, this picturesque area is an ideal place to stroll.


Old merchant homes line the waterfront. 

The Souk

Tucked behind the sidewalk cafés along the corniche is the Mutrah Souk. Authentic and lively, the souk is a traditional Middle Eastern market.

This shop sells bags of frankincense, alongside other “beauty items.” 

It addition to the usual Arabian and Indian bric-a-brac, you can also find some interesting artifacts, as well as Omani hats, chests and jewelry.


Beaches, Beaches Everywhere

I was amazed by the wide-open beaches, such as this one in Qurm.

This beach is a long strip with only a small shopping area and a few stand-alone cafés, like this Starbucks. If this were in another city I know, the area would be overdeveloped with steel skyscrapers, luxury hotels and a mall. 

I try to seek out a Starbucks in every country I visit. I realize this may be weird or even offensive to some, but for me, it’s a little piece of Seattle. I like to see if they carry the Pike Place Blend. (They did.) This particular Starbucks was especially nice. The outside seating provided a perfectly unobstructed view of the beach across the street.


Due to the aesthetic requirements of the city, structures are whitewashed or sand-colored and a limited number of floors high. Also, it seems every structure has some arabesque element—arches or domes or lattice. This gives the city a unique character, as well as a whimsical and unified look. Even though Muscat has a population of one million, it feels more like a small town in places. 

These contemporary-styled white villas have beach views and seem to be typical high-end homes.  

Oman is known for its forts. Much of the architecture is fort-like with thick walls and huge arches. All over Muscat are moutains like these. 

Muscat, Tidy and Charming

The city is surprisingly tidy and clean (almost spotless) with colorful flowers all over.  This roundabout features a replica of a dhow that traveled from Oman to China in the 8th century—and not a single nail used to build it.  

All around the city are sculptures of fish, a tribute to the Omani fishing heritage.

Oman 101

If you are thinking of traveling to Oman, take note that Oman is a peaceful and stable country with low crime. An Arab and Muslim country, Oman is predominately Arabic-speaking with English as a second language. In my short visit, I found the Omani people to be gracious and friendly.

The ruler of Oman is Sultan Qaboos. The leader since 1970, Sultan Qaboos is known for easing the country into modernity by investing heavily in education and by developing a well-trained local work force. 

Getting There

Our flight was through Emirates Airline, Dubai to Muscat, exactly one hour at 2:00 in the afternoon—what a civilized time to fly!

Turns out we misread. Our flight was actually at 2:00 in the morning, and we missed it.

So we drove.

Everyone says it takes five hours to get to Muscat. However, it took us seven hours each way. We had to stop for lunch and coffee (Starbucks, naturally). Also, there was a lot of construction on the road; it appears Oman is converting their roundabouts into flyover bridges, which will  eventually improve things.

But for now, it was slow going. Coming back from Muscat seemed especially long. When we neared the city and I saw the Dubai skyline—the row of steel and glass skyscrapers, punctuated with the Burj Khalifa, I breathed a sigh of relief. Back to civilization.

Next post: Where we stayed: Al Bustan Palace

Question: What are your impressions of Oman?