First look: Inside UAE's iconic Abrahamic Family House that is home to a mosque, church, synagogue

From their facades to the interiors of all three places of worship, the compound is replete with religious and cultural symbolisms

By Angel Tesorero

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Photos by M. Sajjad
Photos by M. Sajjad

Published: Tue 21 Feb 2023, 7:01 PM

Last updated: Tue 21 Feb 2023, 8:25 PM

The recently opened Abrahamic Family House truly brings people and cultures together — with every design and detail not only embracing diversity, but also promoting humanity and nurturing mutual religious understanding.

Peaceful coexistence is highlighted. There is no hierarchy as all three houses of faith (mosque, church and synagogue) are built in the same size — all standing at 30 metres high and spanning 30 metres each in both length and width.

The compound, designed by the Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye OM OBE, is replete with religious and cultural symbolisms, all aimed at inviting visitors not only to practise their religion but also to learn about the Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) and understand their rituals and practices.

Khaleej Times joined a group of media organisations on Tuesday for a tour that began at a wide hall, called the Forum, located on the lower level, connecting all three houses of worship: the Ahmed El Tayeb Mosque, St. Francis Church, and Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue.

Here, pictures of the signing of the landmark Document of Human Fraternity by His Holiness Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al Azhar Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb in 2019 are prominently displayed.

This area is also dedicated to hold forums or discussions to exchange knowledge and practice of faith.

Moving forward, the visitor experience supervisor, Musab Mohamed Ibrahim, told us to take note of the five elements that are present in all three houses of worships that are not only part of the design but also vital to religious practices. These are stone, wood, water, metal, and light. He also noted that all materials were sourced from the region, including marbles from Oman, to promote sustainability.

St. Francis Church

First stop was the Christian church named after St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th-century monk and founder of the Franciscan Order who dedicated his life to prayer and poverty as an itinerant preacher.

The church is facing the east, where the sun rises and a symbol of divinity. As St. Francis is associated with patronage of animals and the environment, the church is also inspired by nature – designed in the column of a forest, with more than 13,000 linear metres of timber forming the church's exterior.

Outside the church is a baptistry, a shallow pool shaped in the form of a perfect triangle, which is another Christian symbol of divinity. Also noteworthy are the two uneven columns at the entrance of the church which express descent (incarnation) and ascent (resurrection) that are central to the Christian faith.

The church can seat up to 300 people and at the centre of it is a crucifix with no human form to symbolise that it is open to all faiths and denominations.

Ahmed El Tayeb Mosque

The mosque's namesake is the Grand Imam of Al Azhar and its design is inspired by mashrabiya, a traditional architecture in the Islamic world.

The mosque's exterior is made up of seven arches, reflecting the importance of the number seven in Islam and the seven days of the week with Friday at the centre of the structure. There is no dome but the mosque's main internal architecture are nine ascending vaults that form a sail at their apex. These vaults also heighten the echo inside the mosque, giving prayers a powerful reverberating sound.

The two layers of mashrabiya produce circular spots of sunlight on the cream-coloured carpet. Unlike traditional mosques, the Ahmed El Tayeb Mosque only has four visible pillars but the main arc of the mosque serves as the fifth pillar. Air ducts, meanwhile, are craftily hidden behind the mashrabiya to create a smooth wall.

The mosque is facing the holy city of Makkah and can accommodate up to 322 worshippers standing shoulder to shoulder.

The women’s section located on the right side of the mosque is separated by a row of flexible panels that can be adjusted depending on the number of female worshippers. Ablution areas are located outside.

Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue

Named after a 12th-century medical doctor and Jewish philosopher, the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue is built in the form of chuppah or Jewish tent, with a criss-cross design, to symbolise the traditional shelter for prayer.

Outside the synagogue is a mikveh or a bath (for male and female) that is used for ritual immersion in Judaism to achieve spiritual purity. There is also a small synagogue used as schule or classroom.

At the entrance of the synagogue is a phrase written in Hebrew to welcome the worshippers and on its side are basins for washing before any religious services. A bronze chainmail canopy is at its ceiling to create a tent-like structure used during Jewish marriages, where couples stand under a fabric beneath a sea of stars.

The synagogue is designed to face Jerusalem. At its centre are the 10 Commandments of God given to Moses and the people written in Hebrew; while a couple of nine-branched menorahs or candelabrum are placed on the left and right side. The first purpose-built synagogue in the UAE can seat up to 200 worshippers.

Plan your visit

Located in Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Cultural District on Saadiyat Island, the Abrahamic Family House is free to visit. The mosque is open from the first until the last prayer of the day while the church and synagogue are open from 7am to 9pm. Visitors are invited to experience each of the three houses of worship and discover the key tenets of each Abrahamic faith.

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