Architecture Digest: Neighboring Emirati cities Abu Dhabi and Dubai are familiar with superlatives: The two seem locked in a constant competition for the newest, biggest, most luxurious things, from skyscrapers to roller coasters to shopping malls. Perhaps the famous Texas tagline would be better used there: Nearly everything, after all, is bigger in the Emirates. When Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi and founder and first president of the United Arab Emirates, began plans for a mosque in his home city, there was no doubt that it would be spectacular. By the time the project was finished, three years after his death, the Sheikh Zayed mosque was a magnificent display of craftsmanship. While most photographs of the mosque are taken looking up at its domes and minarets, there’s something quite spectacular below, too: the world’s largest carpet.
When building the mosque, the government of Abu Dhabi solicited artistic commissions from across the globe, ultimately incorporating marble, stone, crystal, gold, and ceramic work from various countries in a dazzling mosaic of global creativity. Over 3,000 workers and 38 contracting companies participated in the mosque’s construction, which took more than ten years. For its contribution to the project, Iran offered a handwoven carpet for the mosque’s main prayer room, a fitting recognition of the rich history of carpet weaving in the region. Given the mosque’s awesome size, though (it spans more than 30 acres), this could be no ordinary carpet. Using 38 tons of cotton and wool, 1,200 weavers from Iran’s Khorasan Province crafted the rug over a year and a half under the design direction of Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi. The finished product, which was unveiled in 2007 in time for the opening of the mosque that year, incorporates 2.2 billion individual, hand-tied knots, covers 60,546 square feet, and weighs 12 tons.
Each detail of the carpet’s motif was as meticulously designed as it was executed. Its most prominent color is green, which has a triple significance. First, it was Sheikh Zayed’s favorite color. Green was also the first color of the Islamic flag, and, in the rough terrain of the Emirates, is a near-sacred hue for its symbolism of life in the desert. The rug’s perimeter, a yellowish beige, signifies the sand surrounding such an oasis. Some visitors, when standing on the rug, claim that it isn’t truly one piece, that they can feel a seam. But this, too, is a thoughtful design detail: When shaving the carpet (the final stage of rugmaking), its weavers marked subtle raised lines into its surface to guide worshippers into neat rows during prayer. Part art, part textile marvel, part seating chart, the rug is a triumph of design and craftsmanship.