Abu Dhabi: Located at the heart of the Saadiyat Cultural District, the three gray-white buildings each look unique, yet appear to share something fundamentally similar. This undeniable similarity between them embodies the shared values espoused by the Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith complex that stands as a testament to the UAE’s tolerant outlook.
Housing a mosque, a church, and a synagogue, the complex was officially inaugurated last week, and welcomed its first worshippers over the weekend.
The inaugural Friday prayer was held at His Eminence Ahmed El-Tayeb Mosque on February 17, whereas the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue held its first service on February 19, beginning with the hanging of the Mezuzah followed by Mincha, the afternoon prayer. The same day, a service was held at His Holiness Francis Church, presided over by His Eminence Cardinal Michael Fitzgerald, featuring prayers and hymns sung by a choir. The service concluded with a message from Bishop Paolo Martinelli, the Apostolic Vicar for Southern Arabia.
The three houses of worship are open to worshippers, and visitors will be able to take guided tours of the site from the beginning of March onwards. Designed by British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye, the complex is named after Abraham, the prophet revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.
During a media tour, Musab Mohamed Ibrahim, visitor experience supervisor at the facility, explained that each building is shaped like a cube that is 30 metres deep, 30 metres wide, and 30 metres tall. An interplay of five shared elements is highlighted across the site: water, wood, stone, metal, and light.
“Each house of worship is able to house a set number of worshippers depending on how the space is designated to accommodate worshippers and their specific acts of worship,” he explained.
The houses of worship all lead off a raised central garden, which will play host events and activities. The open space is also designed to allow visitors to enjoy the unique ambience of the facility, and to look out on the various museums coming up on Saadiyat Island.
Eminence Ahmed El-Tayeb Mosque
At the Eminence Ahmed El-Tayeb Mosque, 322 worshippers can stand shoulder to shoulder. The mosque has separate ablution spaces for men and women, as well as separate entrances. A women’s prayer area is separated by a screen.
The façade of the mosque features seven arches, echoing a number that occurs often in Islamic belief and practice. Beyond these arches, Islamic geometric patterns make up a concrete latticework reminiscent of the mashrabiya, a projecting window common in Islamic architecture.
Light penetrates the lattice to a carpeted prayer hall, which includes a mihrab, a niche in the wall facing the direction of the Kaaba in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. The imam stands here when leading the prayer. Alongside it is a minbar or pulpit atop a set of steps, where the imam stands when delivering sermons. The ceiling is shaped by pillars that appear to meet at multiple domed intersections.
His Holiness Francis Church
Opposite the mosque is His Holiness Francis Church, with room for 300 worshippers inside. A golden crucifix hangs over the altar, with pews facing eastward towards the sunrise, which is taken by some Christian groups to represent Jesus’ ascent to the heavens. Ibrahim explained that the crucifix heas meanwhile been purposefully designed without facial features in order to make the church a welcoming space for Christians of all denominations.
The church façade is made up of multiple straight pillars, with two pillars of different lengths at the entrance to symbolise the ascent and descent of Jesus. Outside this space, triangular pools of water call indicate the trinity that is sacred to Christian doctrine.
A baptistry is located outside the church hall in a structure shaped like a spire, another common feature of Christian architecture. A stone corridor leads inside into a baptismal font, where baptisms can be performed.
Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue
The Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue has room for 280 seated worshippers. Seats are arranged around a raised platform known as a bimah, from which the rabbi reads religious texts during festivals and services.
The crisscrossed stone pillars on the facade, as well as the crossed wooden beams on the seats, are designed to symbolise tent-like structures, which hold special significance in Jewish history. The inside hall of the Jewish house of worship also recalls the inside of a tent, with a metal curtain rising to the centre, and a small opening that looks upon the sky. On the central wall are carved the 10 commandments of the Old Testament, with gold menorahs placed in front to be lit during festivals. A corridor that leads to the central hall includes washing facilities for worshippers to purify themselves, and an alcove is set to house scriptures.
The external compound outside the synagogue also includes a special facility for the ritual mikveh purification bath, and a dedicated education centre.
Ibrahim said the synagogue is the first purpose-built synagogue in the UAE.
“I believe architecture should work to enshrine the kind of world we want to live in, a world of tolerance, openness, and constant advancement. As an architect, I want to create something that enhances the richness of human life. Our hope is that through these buildings, people of all faiths and from across society can learn and engage in a mission of peaceful coexistence for generations to come,” architect Adjaye said on the facility’s design.
Rooted in the UAE’s values of bringing people and cultures together, the Abrahamic Family House embodies the diversity of Abu Dhabi and the wider UAE, home to vibrant multicultural communities of various faiths. The project was inspired by the principles in the Document on Human Fraternity, signed by His Holiness Pope Francis and His Eminence Grand Imam Dr Ahmed El-Tayeb in Abu Dhabi in 2019.
It was inaugurated on February 16 by Lieutenant General Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, and Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Tolerance and Coexistence. The following day, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak delivered the keynote address at the first interfaith conference on peaceful coexistence.
“By establishing the Abrahamic Family House, here in Abu Dhabi, with the strong support of the leaders and the people of the UAE, we hope to work together to enhance our ability to share our values of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence with the entire world,” he said.
“The Abrahamic Family House is a true reflection of the provisions of the Document on Human Fraternity, which calls for ensuring peaceful coexistence. It is a testament to the vision of the United Arab Emirates and its leaders towards promoting interfaith dialogue and peace among all. The Abrahamic Family House is a model of coexistence, reconciliation, and mutual respect for the sake of mankind,” Professor Mohammed Al Mahrasawi, co-chair of the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity, and former President of Al-Azhar University, said at the inauguration.
“The Abrahamic Family House is a concrete example for people of different religions, cultures, traditions, and beliefs to return to the essential: love of neighbour. This will be a place which promotes dialogue and mutual respect, and acts in the service of human fraternity as we walk the paths of peace together,” added Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, [resident of The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue of The Holy See.
“On this historic day, we have gathered to celebrate this remarkable monument to loving kindness – the Abrahamic Family House. From today onwards, let us use this extraordinary and sacred site to promote harmony and peace. In a world in which differences can separate us, let us say here that our shared values shall exist for the sake of our universal aspirations,” said Sir Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.