Once again, I was a bit nervous about whether or not everyone on the tour would show up. The tour company I booked this tour with will charge us for 27 people whether or not 27 people actually take the tour. Also, many of the people on the tour have not met me yet, so am hoping that everyone finds the right location to meet. We were told to meet at the port gate, but it is impossible for us to walk there, so hope the bus realizes that they will have to drive into the port to pick us up.
Clayton and I left the ship at 8 am (we were supposed to meet at 8:45). Lo and behold, there was a beautiful, modern terminal building with FREE WI-FI! Oh, yeah! We are so planning on spending some time there after the tour to get caught up on life (and blogging, of course). I made a little sign that said, “I am Heather” in case anyone was looking for us. The terminal building was air conditioned, and had nice padded seats, so I didn’t want to go outside to wait just yet! A few couples located us, so I collected their money for the tour and at 8:45 led the group outside. We could not find the bus, so I called the contact person’s number. Sure enough, the bus was waiting at the port gate. I let them know that we could not get picked up there, so they drove in to meet us. By now it was 9 am and one person had not shown up. The company representative wanted full payment so Clayton paid the missing guy’s tour cost. The rest of the people on the bus took up a collection to reimburse him, which was very kind. The guide, Silvana, wanted to know if we should wait for him, but we did not want to do so. It was already past time to leave and we wanted to get started.
Silvana started the tour by talking about misconceptions that people have regarding women in Muslim countries. The primary misconception is that women have no rights. Of course, there are countries where this is true, but the UAE is definitely not one of them. The Constitutional Body (Federal Council) is led by a woman and there are 5 ministries that are led by women. There are many highly educated women in the country that have attended Ivy League Colleges, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. When they return to the UAE, they return to the customs of home which means wearing long robes which are traditional garb here. It is a tradition for women to wear black because before modern times, women were in the homes and had to make fires, tend children, etc. Being in the desert, it was hard to wash clothes so black was the most practical color since it hid dirt. The tradition of wearing black continues even though society has changed. Women can go without a robe only in front of those men with whom they share blood ties. They can wear normal western-style clothing in front of other women.
Silvana noted that there were many more green areas in Abu Dhabi compared to other cities in the area. It is expensive to maintain these given that it rains only twice per year. I noticed that there were UAE Street Decorations up, similar to the ones we noticed in Oman. These were to celebrate the National Holiday, December 2nd. There were also large “45” signs up, which no doubt signify 45 years of federation.
If you can imagine life before modernization here, there was no air conditioning (and it is hot here, even during the winter), no source of drinking water, and sanitation. Meat would not keep. If fish were caught they would need to immediately be cooked and eaten.
We were driving by the corniche, which Sheikh Zayed patterned after the one found in Nice, France. It is 10 km long and borders beautiful turquoise and blue water. Date palms line the corniche; it is very picturesque. Unlike Dubai that has 4 man-made islands, Abu Dhabi has just one, Pearl Island, and it is not there simply to be decorative. Its purpose is to serve as a break-water. Much of the construction is new in Abu Dhabi (since oil made the country rich). Buildings that were erected in the 70’s are now considered historic!
First stop of the day today was Heritage Village. As we parked we noticed groups of adorable small children lined up with their teachers to enter the village. Silvana suggested that the women in our group purchase Abiyahs while we were there for our mosque visit. We had been told from the tour company that as long as our knees and shoulders were covered (and of course, that we had headscarves) that we would be ok. This turned out to be completely false. Women needed to be covered from wrists to ankles. A couple of women had worn long skirts but they had slits up the sides and so were also unacceptable. I was not too happy to be buying something I would likely never wear again and figured I could take pictures outside the mosque. The price of the abbiyahs was 100 AED which is roughly $27-$28. Clayton and I wandered around and took a few pictures. This heritage village was very similar to the museum we had visited in Dubai except that the displays were outside and were manned by actual people rather than mannequins. Rather than spend much time looking at the displays, we wandered around admiring the beautiful children that were there. Many were dressed in traditional gear. A few had on camo; not sure what that was about! I noticed that in one of the displays they were setting up to film. I asked one of the crew if it was a movie but was told that they were filming “filler” for the National Day on December 2nd.
There were lovely displays of native crafts and craftsmen actually making items as well. I am not sure if it was appropriate to take pictures of the children, but couldn’t resist because they were SO adorable. Many of them smiled and waved at us (all spoke English, including their teachers that spoke to them exclusively in English). It turns out that today was a very special day. The children were there to be filmed along with a military marching band for the broadcasts for December 2nd. We were able to see the marching band as they entered the village. Does anyone else find it strange that an Arab marching band would have 4 rows of bagpipes?
I eventually decided to buy an abbiyah so went off to bargain with one of the shopkeepers. I found one that I kind of liked but offered her $25 US. She was happy to accept that, but it turned out that I only had $23 with me. She agreed to take less and I now had mosque-appropriate clothing.
As we were leaving I asked Silvana about the posters lining the streets. Some were of Sheikh Khalifa (son of Zayed and president of the UAE); others were of the crown prince, his younger brother Mohammed.
We stopped at on overlook where we could see the Presidential Palace. What an amazing place! I ended up feeling like every picture I took today failed to capture the magnificence of what I saw. The scale of the palace is incredible. Those that had been to the Taj Mahal likened it to that. To the left of the palace is the Emirates Palace; a misnomer since it is actually a hotel. It is the most expensive hotel ever built (it is a 7-star hotel); it cost $2 billion and has gold-plated everything inside.
Silvana pointed out the Palace Towers which are skyscrapers connected by a skybridge. This bridge is apparently higher up than the one on the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. There is a penthouse in the bridge and it has a circular glass floor. Not a great place for someone with a fear of heights!
We stopped again in front of the entry gate for the Emirates Palace (guarded by a couple of heavily armed men) for another picture stop. Royalty, heads of state and prime ministers stay here. During the cheapest season, the cheapest room will run you around 700 Euros per night ($750, give or take). There is a Formula One race at Yas Island in a couple of days, so this is definitely not low season!
Across the street were three tall towers – Etihad Towers (Fast & Furious 7 was filmed there), the Grand Hyatt and the Bab Al Qabr Hotel (cool-looking building).
We drove down the street to the VIP entrance to the Presidential Palace. Shockingly, they did not open the gates to welcome us in, but we were able to snap a few photos.
As we drove towards the grand finale of the day (Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque), Silvana talked to us more about Islam. She is Christian, but fell in love with a man from a very traditional Muslim family in Jordan. Someone in the group asked to explain more about the facial coverings that a Muslim woman wears. When a girl becomes a woman she covers her face. She explained that many women like having their faces covered; that way their face, smile and charm are reserved for their husband only; they don’t have to be seen by others. A person in our group had noticed a woman at the Heritage Museum wearing a covering only over her mouth. This is called a Burga (not burka) and is common with Omani women and some women in Abu Dhabi. Silvana reinforced the idea that we should live and let live. Why is it offensive to us that these women choose to dress in the traditional way of their culture? Why, indeed?
We passed the Capital Gate Building which has a hotel inside. The top 2 floors are the Crown Prince’s. This building is unique because it is the most inclined building in the world; its slant is 18 degrees. And no, the Leaning Tower of Pisa doesn’t count because it was not designed to be tipped over!
We passed large posters of the 7 leaders of the Emirates. The final poster is of the original Sheikh and is in black and white; the rest are in color. The Sheikh never went to school himself (except to learn the Koran) but wanted his country to become educated. He had King Hussein of Jordan send 10 teachers to Abu Dhabi and also paid himself to send local children to boarding schools in England. That must have been quite the cultural adjustment. Those children had never worn shoes or eaten food using utensils before (this took place in the 60’s).
Silvana talked to us about the Arabic tradition of hospitality. Guests must be fed, sheltered and protected. Before modern times, you protected your guests until they were out of sight when they left your home. She also talked about how Islamic faith believes in the same prophets as the Christian faith (even Jesus); they have added one final prophet, Mohammed. Issa bin Miriam means Jesus, son of the Virgin Mary. Children in the Arabic society are named Issa, as well as Adam and other Biblical names.
We had now reached the mosque. It is so beautiful and so enormous! The women in the group donned their black robes and headscarves; it was really hot out and so it was quite miserable to be wearing these over our normal clothing. I am glad that I invested the money for the abiyah because you could not even be near the outside of the mosque unless you were properly dressed. We had to pass by several security guards whose job it was to inspect clothing of all of the men and women that were entering the mosque grounds. One of the men in our group was wearing shorts that were not below knee length. They let him go through but he had to be reminded to pull them down so his knees remained covered. His wife was wearing a black turtleneck sweater. She was told that it was too transparent and so she had to add a shawl to cover herself as well. We passed through metal detectors and had our bags inspected; we were finally inside the grounds of the mosque.
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque was commissioned by the Sheikh, but he did not live to see its completion. Construction started in 1996 and was completed in 2007. Zayed died in November of 2004 and is buried on the grounds at the mosque. Only family members can visit his tomb. Prayers for his soul are sung over the loudspeakers.
Materials from all over the world were used to build this mosque; only the best of the best was used. Carrera marble from Italy, Sevic marble from Macedonia, marble from India (the same as was used at the Taj Mahal) and green mink marble from China are but some of the materials used. There are 4 minarets of equal height (106 m) and 82 domes. The intensity of light on the interior is based on the lunar phase.
We approached the courtyard. Imagine it is Ramadan; 30,000 men are lined up, shoulder to shoulder in parallel lines (facing Mecca), bowing in unison. It must be quite the site. Including the space in the interior of the mosque, 41,000 can pray here. It is the largest mosque in the world.
While we were wandering into the courtyard to look at the mosaic patterns inlaid there, we saw two couples that had just left the ship in Dubai! We ran into Kathy and Maurice first, then saw Harm and Brenda. What a pleasant surprise!
By now, one of the men in our group was having trouble with the heat (it was brutally hot) and needed to be pushed in a wheelchair. Clayton kept announcing, “I’m looking for my wife. She’s wearing black.” Of course, lots of women would turn around since almost every woman was wearing black! At least he wasn’t photobombing anyone here…
As a group, we walked along the exterior of the mosques, passing some of the 1196 hexagonal columns that encircle the courtyard. These are inlaid with designs composed of precious stones, including lapis lazuli, jade, tiger eye, carmelite and mother of pearl. The tops of the columns are plated with 24 kt gold palm trees which are to honor the Bedouin heritage of the Arabs.
We stopped to remove our shoes and get a drink of water before entering the mosque. Air conditioning, yes! There was a spectacular chandelier in the entry, but even more spectacular chandeliers further inside (a matched set of 3). These chandeliers are in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest in the world. They were designed by Faustig and are made up of Swarovski crystals. Forty kilograms of 24 karat gold was used to create each chandelier. They are 15.5 meters tall (46.5 ft.) and weigh 12 tons!
The carpet inlaid in the mosque is the largest in the world. We were told in Muscat, Oman that the carpet in their mosque was largest, but it is actually only second largest. This carpet was woven in Iran and took 2 years of continuous labor by 1200 women. There are 2.5 billion knots in the carpet; it covers an area of 560 square meters and weighs 47 tons. It is mainly wool with some cotton (70/30). The pigments for the colors were obtained from flowers. Parts of the carpet are slightly raised. These are not seams; they are put there for blind worshippers to be able to “feel” the lines for prayer. There is a golden Mihrab from which is a niche that imam leads worshippers in prayer. It is gold in color and is covered with gold-glass mosaics. Covering the far wall, the 99 holy attributes of God are written in the Kufi calligraphic style. The columns inside the mosque are made of mother of pearl. Pearl diving was the main source of income in the area before the oil boom. They are also decorate with palm fronds as are the hexagonal columns in the exterior of the mosque.
The final chamber of the mosque has windows that are inlaid with designs made from Murano glass. As is everything else in the mosque, they are quite beautiful.
Since the mosque is open to the public on all except Fridays and the month of Ramadan, those that pray here have separate prayer rooms. Before praying, ritual washing must take place. In addition to washing up to the elbows and the feet, the face, nostrils and interior of mouth get cleaned as well.
As we retrieved our shoes, I realized that we had lost a few group members. I let Silvana know; she called the bus driver and found that 3 of them had returned to the bus already. That left one couple that were unaccounted for. Silvana sent the rest of us back to the gift shop/coffee shop area to wait for her while she retraced the route we had taken to see if she could find the lost sheep. No luck. She rejoined us and Clayton and another guy went back to the mosque to see if they could locate the missing. Again, no luck. We were already 1/2 hour past when we should have returned to the ship, so we had to decide whether or not to leave them behind. I had their email address so sent an email to let them know that we had tried to find them but now had to leave. They would need to take a cab back to the ship. We walked back towards the bus while Silvana made one final attempt to locate them. Lo and behold, just as we had completely given up, they were seen walking towards us. What a relief! Also a huge relief was to be able to shed our hot black abbiyahs and headscarves. Whew!
It took about 20 minutes to get back to the port. Silvana said that if we returned to Abu Dhabi that it would be worth our while to visit the Falcon Hospital. This hospital treats falcons from all over the Gulf region. Feather transplants help falcons that have lost feathers; missing feathers messes up the falcon’s aerodynamics. Someone asked why falcons are so important here. Originally, they were captured when migrating through the area and trained to hunt. Because of the poor diet the locals ate (not much food was available, and what their was spoiled rapidly), they used the falcons to hunt small prey which then became a protein source. Silvana explained that they would not waste good camels as a food source; they were necessary for the Bedouin’s survival. Male camels were sometimes slaughtered for celebrations, but never females. Falcons are now treasured pets for Bedouins, as treasured as their own children. Etihad airlines allows falcons on board their airplanes. As a matter of fact, falcons are even given their own passports!
Silvana pointed out a mangrove forest. Sheikh Zayed had the foresight to protect this forest. It prevents coastal erosion and protects certain species of animals. It also helps to slow the strength of sandstorms, which occasionally plague the area.
We were back to the ship in plenty of time to use the FREE WI-FI in the Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal! Before I talk about that, I want to give a plug for our outstanding tour guide, Silvana. I know some of you reading this will be visiting the port of Abu Dhabi and if you don’t have a tour booked yet, I cannot recommend her highly enough. She is knowledgeable, entertaining, enthusiastic, warm, and anything else you might want in a guide. You can contact her at email@example.com.
Back to the FREE WI-FI! Did I mention that I was excited to find FREE WI-FI? Really, really excited to find FREE WI-FI? I had a nice long block of time to use the FREE WI-FI since our tour was only a half-day tour. I was able to get all kinds of work done including updating my blog. My laptop battery ran out before I finished everything I had wanted to do, but I feel almost caught up on life for the first time in weeks. We have had many wonderful tours but there has been very little down time, so it was fantastic to use that FREE WI-FI! I wasn’t able to finish this blog entry before the battery died, so will be posting it at some point in the future (when I find more FREE WI-FI!).