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.
In fact, the opposite is true, with some provisos.
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 Koran," the Muslim holy book, copies of which are stacked in every prayer room, cautions one of the guides.
Armed with cameras to capture the splendour of the place, visitors have been coming from within the UAE "but also from abroad," said 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 which fell in December, she added.
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. Work will be fully completed in November 2009.
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, civilisations and cultures," say brochures handed out to visitors by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.
The authority began to organise guided tours last month.
"Apart from the thousands of [Muslim] faithful who come to pray, the mosque is visited by non-Muslims: Germans, French, Britons, Italians, Russians, Americans, Argentinians and Indians," it said in a guide.
ABU DHABI SEEKING TO BECOME CULTURAL HUB
Abu Dhabi is seeking to become a cultural hub and sees the mosque as one more attraction for tourists looking for more than sandy beaches and huge shopping malls.
"As Sheikh Zayed wished, the 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 metres, and it can accommodate more than 40,000 faithful," said engineer Mohammad Ali al-Ameri.
Ameri said construction was nearly over, with only fences, gardens and car parks still to be completed.
"Built 100 per cent with Italian marble, the mosque has four 107-metre tall minarets, 82 domes of seven different sizes, 96 columns inside and 1,048 outside," Ameri told AFP.
"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, were used to decorate the structure.
The centrepiece is a 6,000 square metre (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 tonnes and cost more than $8.5 million," 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. Islam requires men and women to pray separately.
The main dome is also "the biggest" mosque dome in the world, according to Ameri, who said it is 75 metres high with a 32.2-metre diametre.
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 10metres tall, 10metres wide and weighs nine tonnes.
Ameri would not give the total cost of the mosque, but Suleimani estimated it at more than Dh2bn. (AFP)
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