The pearl merchant's lost mosque

Time frame Behind the donkey-borne traveller is the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed I Mosque's predecessor, the Al-Utayba Mosque, built in about 1936 near Al-Hosn Fort.

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Today, it is in the heart of the city of Abu Dhabi. Back in the early Sixties, when this photograph was taken, the area where the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed I Mosque now stands on Electra Street was surrounded by sand and little of the development of the modern capital. Behind the donkey-borne traveller is the Zayed mosque's predecessor, the Al-Utayba Mosque. Built in about 1936 near Al-Hosn Fort to the south-west of the main settlement of Abu Dhabi by Khalaf al-Utayba, a wealthy pearl merchant, the vanished mosque is one of the lost treasures of the old Abu Dhabi.

Some of the story of the lost building was unearthed for the book Old Mosques of the Coasts of Abu Dhabi, published last year by the National Centre for Documentation and Research in conjunction with the Ministry of Presidential Affairs. The mosque was the Jami, or Friday mosque, of pre-oil Abu Dhabi, according to Geoffrey King of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and an expert in Islamic art and archaeology.

"On Fridays most of the male population of Abu Dhabi would pray at the al-Utayba mosque," he wrote. According to Khamis al-Khimyiri, a 72-year-old man who remembered the mosque from his youth, when Abu Dhabi was very small, this amounted to a congregation of no more than about 70 people. Mr al-Khimyiri told Dr King that people would often sleep in the mosque and that "the founder ? would be carried in a chair to the mosque when he was very old so he could attend prayers. People who lived far away from the mosque would ride to it on their donkeys."

Nothing remains of the building, but photographs in the archives of the oil company BP show it was built from coral masonry and limestone, covered with white plaster. There was a flat-roofed prayer hall, an open courtyard surrounded by a low wall and a "curiously stumpy" minaret. This appears to owe its unusual design to a tradition that evolved in Iraq and Iran; the mosque was said to have been built by Huwala Arabs from the Iranian shore of the Gulf. The building, wrote Dr King, appears to have played "a central social part" in the lives of the people. Mr al-Khimyiri remembered that "when he was a boy, he and his friends would climb the minaret after swimming to dry off in the breeze".

* The National Time Frame is a series that opens a window into the nation's past. Each week it features an image from the archives of both prominent institutions and private collections. Readers are also invited to make their contribution and can submit ideas and photographs to