It’s hard not to feel a bit of empathy for countries or states that share borders with more famous ‘celebrities’. Although Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two kingdoms within the same country, the United Arab Emirates, they present somewhat different faces to the outer world. Dubai is the glitzy little brother that attracts headlines for its excessive wealth and showmanship. Everybody knows about Dubai’s love of superlatives (“TALLEST BUILDING IN THE WORLD!” “LARGEST INDOOR SKI HILL” “FIRST SEVEN STAR HOTEL IN THE WORLD!”) and there’s no doubt that Dubai revels in it’s fame.
Abu Dhabi, by contrast, is the more staid older sibling, less showy and more stable in its economic rise. Of course, “less showy” is a relative term in the Gulf and in fact Abu Dhabi is the most petroleum-rich emirate in the country. Indeed, Dubai’s desperate need to have the biggest and brightest is in part a result of its lack of easy oil revenue to grow its economy, something that Abu Dhabi has long been able to rely on. That “tallest building in the world”? It used to be named the Burj Dubai before Abu Dhabi’s ruler Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan bailed out Dubai when the project was running low on money, leading to the tower being given its present name of Burj Khalifa.
All of this is to say that Abu Dhabi typically doesn’t excite the popular imagination in the way that Dubai does, which is truly a shame given the number of incredible things to do there. In addition to its own luxury resorts and theme parks to rival Dubai, Abu Dhabi has two relatively recent buildings that, in my opinion, are far more beautiful than anything in Dubai. The first is the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, commissioned by that leader and his final resting place when he died. The 80 marble domes, combined with the ever-present desert sun, means that you can see the mosque gleaming as you enter the center of the city.
I’ve been to some grand mosques before but this was far and away the most stunning I have ever seen. Actually, it’s probably the most aesthetically pleasing building I’ve seen from any place of worship! Soaring minarets protrude in between the blossoming domes and cupolas and the glaring white stone dazzles the eyes. The entire structure looks like a fantasy and offers an unparalleled introduction to architectural motifs from across the Muslim world.
An expansive central plaza (with room for 50,000 people to pray) is surrounded by dozens of pillars and both pillar and plaza are inlaid with fragile-looking precious stones in a riot of colours.
Since this is a mosque and traditional Islam prohibits the depiction of humans and animals in religious art, the designs are floral, with vines and flowers snaking their way up marble pillars and spreading out across the central plaza likes veins.
In the interior of the mosque, the world’s largest carpet (hand-woven in Iran by 1300 people) stretches out beneath one of the world’s largest chandeliers, with millions and millions of Swarovski crystals refracting the sun into countless splinters of light. Outside the mosque complex, reflecting pools offer a cool break for the eyes from all this white and immaculate gardens finish the perimeter. Regardless of your faith, Sheikh Zayed Mosque is breathtaking!
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is basically brand new and has not yet made a sizeable dent in the itineraries of most tourists to visit the UAE. However, it is absolutely deserving of a visit even for people that don’t normally go to art galleries or museums. First off, let’s clear up the name. Interestingly, the Louvre that everyone knows (the one in Paris) is basically franchising with this museum. So Abu Dhabi gets to use the prestigious “Louvre” name and is loaned an incredible array of art and antiquities and in exchange the Paris Louvre receives more than 1 billion USD. In addition to offering people a chance at seeing priceless works of art that normally are only accessible in Paris, the Louvre Abu Dhabi represents another opportunity to soak up some breathtaking architecture.
There are some similar ingredients in both the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and the Louvre Abu Dhabi: plenty of white stone, skillful use of azure pools to reflect light and offset that glaring stone, and a consideration of light and shadow. In the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a gigantic dome, cut through almost like a tattered piece of cloth, allows sunlight to seep in and speckle the walkways below in an effort to recreate “rays of sunlight passing through date palm fronds in an oasis”, according to the architects.
The galleries of the museum are organized by time period and theme, as opposed to region as they are in most museums. This is an intentional choice on the part of the curators, who hope the museum can bridge gaps between cultures by highlighting similarities and inspirations from across all cultures and religions. While there can be a bit of intellectual whiplash from going through such an exhibit, the pieces are really cool and even people who would say they know nothing of art will recognize some pieces and be intrigued by many of those they don’t. The Louvre Abu Dhabi encapsulates the blend of stunning architecture, oil-money artistic budgets and attention to detail that makes Abu Dhabi such a great place to spend at least a day touring.