Listen, despite nearly getting arrested at the airport, Abu Dhabi was actually one of my favourite cities I’ve ever photographed. Specifically, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was an architectural photographer’s dream.
After the airport fiasco, I took a bus to the Mosque, which lies roughly 15 minutes outside the city centre by bus. Upon arrival, it was apparently the first time it rained in Abu Dhabi in years! And of course, the same thing happened to me in Qatar last February, exactly a year prior. After I got off the bus, I met a group of Germans, and I actually hung out with them during our 14-hour layover! Turns out, we were on the same flight from Bangkok, and their flight was just an hour earlier than mine.
After free entry, women were given head coverings and men who wore shorts were given the traditional Arab garb, the kandora. Upon sight, the Shiekh Zayed Mosque is an extravagant work of architecture, glistening with white, even in the somewhat dull grey weather. On the bright side, the clouds made for great photos!
Constructed between 1996 and 2007, it was designed by Syrian architect Yousef Abdelsky. It’s decked out with luxurious gold accents, striking white marble, and blue motifs provided by the pools of water surrounding the building. It’s almost unreal how pristine it was in real life; despite millions of visitors, it looked like it was untouched!
The Mosque itself can accommodate almost 41,000 (!) worshippers and isn’t just considered a popular tourist spot. Also, before you go, make sure to see what poses you can’t do; I did an “arms spread out” pose and a security guard made me delete the photos (and from my deleted photos folder). I then realised “Hm! This can be interpreted as representing Jesus in a Mosque, bad idea.” You won’t get arrested for it or anything, but just do some research. I did eventually sneak in some arms spread out poses.
We walked around the Mosque quite a few times, admiring new details with every look. Turns out, the SZGM has the world’s largest carpet, made in Iran, and it weighs 35 tons, or 70,000 pounds (31818 kg).
Although I was initially going to take a bus to Dubai for the day, I’m glad I didn’t. I always like going to the less touristy spots (even if AD is still touristy), and while Dubai is full of superficial maximalism, I feel like I wouldn’t have gotten the same taste of Arab culture as I did in Abu Dhabi.
I’ve always admired eastern architecture more than western. As much as I love European cathedrals, they all get quite familiar after a while. Every Mosque and Wat (Buddhist temple) I’ve seen has been completely different in architecture, interior, and feel. I feel like Eastern architecture is a lot more adventerous as well; even the skyscrapers I’ve seen in Macau, Doha, etc were completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
There’s something about the UAE that’s always intrigued me. Just 30 years ago, it was desert, and with the oil boom, it sprouted into one of the world’s richest and prosperous countries. I’m very curious as to how they did everything at such a rapid pace. My Emirati friends back in Edinburgh told me that their cities are unrecognisable from ten, or even five years ago. Would Abu Dhabi be the same if I come back? Would I see the same buildings and shops I saw with my friends? That’s one thing I appreciate about Edinburgh. Even if I come back in 50 years, it’ll largely stay the same.
After the Mosque, the Germans and I headed into the city centre, where honestly, there isn’t much to do for a day, especially if you’re on a budget. If you do have a budget above a 19-year old at the end of a trip (read: more than £3) then you can
- Go to Yas Island where a Ferrari-themed amusement park, Ferrari World is located
- Shop at the Marina Mall
- Go to the Louvre! Yes, Abu Dhabi has their own Louvre
- Go to the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim. If you can’t go to NY or Paris, Abu Dhabi has it all!
- Take a Desert Safari Day Trip and ride camels, bash sand dunes, and see an Arab belly dance for $60-100. I was going to do that, but I knew I had Iceland coming up, which was going to financially wreck me (and it did).
We mainly ate shawarma and hung out at the beach and watched a beautiful sunset. Speaking of shawarma, I feel like it gets no love in the US/UK and honestly, it’s a crime that they’re as slept on as they are.
The sunset made me think in all the chaos of the day, I was blessed to have gotten through customs, meet new friends, and hang out in the UAE! How cool is that?? Did I ever think I’d be hanging with 25-year-olds in the Middle East at 19? Nope! This age did come to a disadvantage, as we tried going to bars, but I couldn’t drink because I’m underage. I could hear America laughing at me from 8,000 miles away.
Overall, I liked Abu Dhabi, but after the SZGM, I got pretty bored. I think I’d spend 3 days here, max. However, it was one of the most unique cities I’ve ever visited, and I’m so, so happy I did. I think about how many countries I wouldn’t have seen if it weren’t for long layovers. Let this be a lesson, if you see a flight with a long layover, take it, it’s a free trip! Also, I still haven’t seen Dubai, so I guess I just have to come back to this fascinating country someday. This time, I will not leave any antibiotics in my pocket!