A synagogue, a church and a mosque united a stone's throw from the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates). Dedicated to the three Abrahamic religions, the “House of the Abrahamic Family” is located on the island of Saadiyat, not far from the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Open free of charge during the day to the public, the interfaith complex welcomes the faithful of the three religions during prayer times.

Designed and built in just four years, the site already has a notable international resonance. Inaugurated on February 16, 2023, the building was designed by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, also designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. The visit of Pope Francis to Dubai in February 2019 gave decisive impetus to the project. During his stay, the latter indeed co-signed with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, imam of the al-Azhar mosque in Egypt, the “Document on human fraternity for world peace and common coexistence”. who laid the intellectual foundations.

The project therefore precedes the Abraham Accords signed on September 15, 2020, which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. However, it is part of a policy of promoting interreligious dialogue led by the Ministry of Tolerance and Coexistence since its creation in 2016. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is following suit with “Letters of Light” (until to January 14, 2024), exhibition focused on the Holy Books of the three Abrahamic religions under the curatorship of Laurent Héricher. Organized in collaboration with the National Library of France, it presents ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments) and the Koran, while exploring the emergence of sacred texts and their dissemination in different languages ​​and cultures. This exhibition finds a complementary anchor in the permanent galleries of the museum, in particular that devoted to “universal religions” whose museography establishes a thematic dialogue between religions. In his own way, Michelangelo Pistoletto adds to the edifice: “Judgment Time” (until January 7, 2024), his new exhibition at the Galleria Continua in Dubai, features objects of worship from the four main monotheistic religions which reflect each other into each other thanks to the mirrors facing them. During a conference organized at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the nonagenarian Italian artist returned to the importance in his eyes of the notion of “preventive peace” (as opposed to the dangerous one of “preventive war”).

Architectural sobriety and relevance

The Israel-Hamas war and its shock waves throughout the rest of the world make a visit to this place particularly emotionally intense. Despite its recent construction, the House of the Abrahamic Family manages to exude an atmosphere that is both solemn and spirited. This architectural success must be assessed in light of the challenges of its mission: respectfully unifying the three religions without assimilating them. This was taken into account from the orientation of the three places of worship: towards Jerusalem for the synagogue, to the east for the church, and towards Mecca (qibla) for the mosque. David Adjaye’s minimalist design materializes through three buildings of identical size and volume, each measuring 30 by 30 meters. This tripartite scheme removes any hierarchy, while the inscriptions are systematically presented in Arabic, English and Hebrew. The absence of bright colors, the use of common materials such as wood, rock and bronze, as well as the integration of elements such as light and water, contribute to the general harmony, enriched by a open and shared garden on the upper floor. The angular shape and stone color, taken from the tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron (a holy place for the three Abrahamic religions), anchor the building in Antiquity, even if no reference is made to it on site. The choices made in the structure and interior fittings present subtle nuances, faithfully reflected in the place’s logo.

Symbolic forms

The Moses-Maimonides Synagogue is distinguished by its zigzag-shaped exterior pillars and its bronze mesh curtain, suspended like a tent in the upper part of the building, in reference to the sukkah [cabane]. In addition to the construction of a mikvah [bain rituel]the modularity of the layout of the synagogue adapts to both Sephardic and Ashkenazi congregations.

The Saint-François-d’Assise church stands out for the presentation of fine colonnades on the exterior as well as the imposing “rain” of wooden slats falling vertically in its choir to form a triangular structure. In addition to this symbol of elevation, the crucifix which floats above the altar tends to recall the Christ on the cross (1950) by Germaine Richier who similarly merges the body of Jesus with the cross to translate the mystery of the Incarnation.

As for the Ahmed al-Tayeb mosque, curved and arabesque shapes predominate there. The absence of minarets and floral ornament gives way to a curvilinear structure inside and out, in a surprising familiarity with the architecture of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona. The four facades are covered inside with mashrabiyas arranged over their entire height which filter the light onto the off-white carpeted floor. Removable partitions make it possible to separate men and women during prayer times, a separation taken up by the creation of two ablution areas on either side of the mosque. The Mihrab [niche pratiquée dans la muraille pour indiquer la qibla] is very refined, just like the minbar [escabeau servant de chaire] which seems to float above the ground.

The total cost of the construction of the building remains confidential, as is often the case in Gulf countries. The originality of the place now ranks it among the unmissable tourist sites of Abu Dhabi. This vocation was anticipated thanks to the integration of a multimedia exhibition space, a program of cultural and educational activities, a restaurant and a store offering design objects bearing the image of the interfaith complex.

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