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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua & Chief Marketing Officer, SITE

Returning to Abu Dhabi

Returning to Abu Dhabi, I had the opportunity to visit the remarkable Abrahamic Family House, a testament to the city’s visionary development since my first visit in the early 2000s. Back then, the grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque was the primary attraction amidst a landscape dominated by construction sites and the sweltering desert heat. Today, Abu Dhabi is a burgeoning cultural hub, with Yas Island offering high-octane entertainment and Saadiyat Island showcasing world-class art and architecture, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the upcoming Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

The Abrahamic Family House, designed by the acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye, epitomizes this cultural renaissance. Opened in March 2023, it houses a mosque, a church, and a synagogue, each distinct yet unified by their white marble exteriors and identical forms. This powerful symbol of interfaith harmony is especially poignant in our current global climate.

That was 16 years ago …

My first trip to Abu Dhabi was back in the noughties shortly after the opening of the spectacular Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in 2007. The Abu Dhabi Convention Centre had opened two years previously in 2005, there was a smattering of 5 star hotels, but in terms of unique, star attractions, the Grand Mosque was the only show in town.

We were shown impressive architectural models and had the long-term vision explained to us but, at the time, all we could see were construction hoardings, cranes and vast expanses of sand. More to the point, perhaps, all we could feel was intense heat and while the story was impressive – particularly the plan to create a global cultural hub – it all seemed like a desert hallucination, a fanciful mirage that wouldn’t ever materialise.

Since that first trip in 2008 I’ve been back to Abu Dhabi several times. There are still hoardings and cranes, but a lot less sand. The long-term vision has turned out not to be a fanciful mirage at all but an impressively executed plan, even if parts of it are a bit delayed – a global pandemic will do that to a plan!

This is today …

Yas Island is all high jinks and adrenaline rushes and is pretty much complete as a family entertainment hub with Ferrari World Abu Dhabi (the fastest roller-coaster on the planet), Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi and Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi. There’s also Yas Links and Yas Marina Circuit and a stunning W hotel. Personally, however, I’ve always been more attracted to the developments on Saadiyat Island, designated as Abu Dhabi’s cultural hub.

The Manarat Al Saadiyat (2009) was the first culture and art building to open on Saadiyat Island but it wasn’t until the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi 7 years ago that the full extend of the vision and ambition for the island became truly apparent. Designed by Jean Nouvel, the Louvre Abu Dhabi won the Pritzker Prize for the starchitect and set the bar for other cultural developments to come like, for example, the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum designed by Norman Foster. It all cases the buildings themselves are unique statement pieces, works of high art, clustered together in juxtaposition, like a huge open air sculpture park.

The Abrahamic Family House

The latest addition to this bourgeoning cultural campus is the Abrahamic Family House. Opened just over a year ago in March 2023, the Abrahamic Family House is a powerful contrary symbol to the truly tragic geo-political realities unfolding in our world at this time. Here the three great monotheist religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, stand side by side, each with its own distinct place of worship yet unified by a single campus location and an identical form, shape and materiality of construction.

The three places of worship are located at the edges of a triangle the centre of which hosts a garden and, beneath, the “forum”, or common area, where the back story to the facility is told. One of the display panels is particularly poignant:

This Declaration may constitute an invitation to reconciliation and fraternity among all believers, indeed among believers and non-believers, and among all people of good will;
This Declaration may be an appeal to every upright conscience that rejects deplorable violence and blind extremism; an appeal to those who cherish the values of tolerance and fraternity that are promoted and encouraged by religions;

In pursuit of dialogue and understanding, an immersive digital exhibition takes visitors on a journey through the three faiths, emphasizing both the unique aspects of each religion and the shared principles central to all. One striking exhibit, where each faith is spotlighted out of pitch-black darkness, focuses on the centrality of light in the sacred scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam:

“And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” – Book of Genesis

“You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” – Gospel of Matthew

“Light upon Light, Allah guides to His Light whom He wills.” – The Holy Quran

While the houses of worship all have white marble exteriors and are identical in size and shape, the elevations are decisively different. The Church of St Francis, for example, is fronted by a forest of rectangular columns expressing the upward/downward dynamic of the Christian belief in the connection between Heaven and Earth.

The Imam Al-Tayeb Mosque, on the other hand, is characterized by its seven elegant arches and intricate geometric patterns that symbolize the infinite nature of Allah while the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue features a prominent Star of David motif on its facade, with horizontal lines symbolizing the enduring faith and resilience of the Jewish people.

The interiors are voluminous, uncluttered and filled with light. The Church of St Francis features high vaulted ceilings and expansive stained-glass windows that bathe the space in a kaleidoscope of colors, creating a serene and contemplative atmosphere. The minimalist design, with its focus on verticality, directs the gaze upward, inviting reflection and spiritual upliftment.

The Mosque boasts a spacious prayer hall adorned with intricate arabesque designs and calligraphy that celebrate Islamic art and culture. Natural light filters through ornate windows, creating dynamic patterns on the marble floor. The mosque’s interior emphasizes openness and tranquility, providing a peaceful environment for worshippers.

Finally, the walls of the Synagogue are adorned with Hebrew inscriptions and subtle decorative elements that reflect Jewish heritage and tradition. Large windows allow ample natural light to flood the sanctuary, enhancing the warm, welcoming atmosphere.

British-Ghanaian architect, David Adjaye, world renowned for his innovative, culturally significant designs, has clearly created an enduring masterpiece promoting interfaith harmony and understanding in a world that needs it more than ever.


4 thoughts on “Back in Abu Dhabi to visit the Abrahamic Family House

  1. Eileen Reed says:

    Padraic, this essay about the spiritual center in Abu Dhabi is so beautifully crafted that I feel as though I am there with you!. Would love to see it one day. Thank you and warm regards to you and Rita, Eileen Toohey Reed, Houston, Texas

  2. padraicino says:

    Ah Eileen – thank you so much! The Abrahamic House is a truly special place to visit, bringing the three monotheist faiths together in one place and a powerful symbol for peace, unity and acceptance of diversity – values that the world needs now, more than ever!

  3. Cherie Weinstein says:

    Thanks for this piece Padraig. Both interesting as a study in tourism development and inspiring/hopeful as represented by The Abrahamic Family house.

    1. padraicino says:

      Hi Cherie – yes, indeed. Definitely highlighting how travel and tourism can be truly transformational- as Mark Twain says “Travel is the enemy of bigotry”

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