Bulletin 5 - July 1978: The Old Main Mosque

The Old Main Mosque

by Tony Harris

The old main mosque in Abu Dhabi, probably the oldest mosque in the town, was demolished at the end of January. This fine old building, which was situated between the old palace and the sea (just behind the modern saluting base on the Corniche) had begun to show its 75 years. The effect of the salts in the soil and in the air had seriously damaged the pillars and walls. Major cracks appeared and the old plaster was continuously flaking. Successive repairs had hidden the effects for many years but could do nothing to rectify the structural weaknesses.

A committee, formed under the auspices of the Municipality, which met in 1977 finally and reluctantly decided that the mosque should come down. Various ideas were examined and a design for a large new mosque was chosen to replace the old one. The committee learned that the restoration of the old building would have been disproportionately expensive; and this would not have had the advantages of modern techniques of insulation and air conditioning.

The old mosque was laid out on a grand scale in the very early years of this century. Its construction was undertaken by an Abu Dhabi pearl merchant, Khalaf al-Otaiba (whose grandson of the same name is still a prominent Abu Dhabi businessman). He imported a team, some say of thirty or so Iranian workmen, to carry out the work, and used local materials wherever possible. The walls and pillars were made up of local stone and coral, held together with mortar. The roof consisted of small beams of "chandal" wood from India set between the rows of columns. To this was fastened a layer of barasti (palm frond) matting. On top of that was a layer of rush matting made of woven palm leaves and on the very top a layer of packed clay.

The mosque was 40 meters long on its north-south axis and 26 meters deep. It contained 72 columns arranged in 6 rows of 12 and 4.20 meters high. The prayer niche or mihrab was in the center of the western wall (thus facing Mecca) with the pulpit, or minbar beside it. A portico ran along on the eastern side with the pillars of similar size to those within opening on to a covered courtyard 18 meters deep at the northern end of which stood the squat old minaret, decorated with fine wood carvings and 12.50 meters high. Beyond lay a garden 12 meters deep with a few palm trees whose greenery provided further welcome shade. At each end of the garden there was a small room for ablutions, each with a simple well in the center of the floor.

The new mosque on the same site will be built in the Egyptian style, will be fully air-conditioned and have two minarets 54 meters high.



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