The Great Mosque of Cordoba
A reminder of Europe’s interfaith history
By: Selma Roth
SPAIN’S culture is full of reminders that the Iberian Peninsula was once occupied by a Muslim population consisting mainly of Arab and Berber ethnics. Encompassing nearly 8 centuries, the Islamic Al-Andalus period left a clear Arabic influence in the Spanish language: Some scholars estimate that around 8 percent of the words found in the Spanish dictionary have Arabic roots. In terms of monuments, the highlight of this period most often mentioned is the imposing Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex located in the Spanish southeastern town of Granada.
The Alhambra complex and its Generalife gardens are indeed extraordinary and should be on anyone’s bucket list, but of more significance for the Muslim traveler is the Great Mosque of Córdoba, also known as the Mezquita.
The mosque, built initially by Abd Al-Rahman I and with various later additions, is an architectural marvel that leaves Muslim and non-Muslim visitors alike in awe. It is not difficult to imagine how this magnificent structure was a center of worship, religion, philosophy, anatomy, geometry, and all the other sciences the Al-Andalus scholars excelled in.
The story goes that when the exiled Umayyad prince, Abd Al-Rahman I, fled from Damascus to current-day Spain he bought half of the Visigothic Church of St. Vincent on which the Mezquita is built for the Muslim community’s Friday prayers. Soon, this space became too small for the fast-growing population, and in 784 A.D. the emir bought the other half as well, erecting a mosque that he hoped would be on par with those built in Jerusalem, Baghdad, and his home-town Damascus.
His descendants expanded the structure, built a new minaret, and adorned the mihrab, the niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Makkah, with gold mosaics, a gift from the Christian emperor of Byzantium. Remarkably, though, the mihrab in the Great Mosque of Córdoba does not point south-southeast toward Makkah, but south. While in that time it was not uncommon for the qibla (the direction of the Kaaba) to be a bit off, the reason it is here is probably because the mosque was built retaining one of the walls of the old church. The structure reached its current dimensions in 987 A.D., when the outer naves and courtyard, used for ablution and full of orange and lemon trees, were completed.
Soon after and due to internal conflict, Córdoba fell in a state of steady decline, eventually leading to the fall of the caliphate in 1031.
Thereafter, several dynasties ruled the city, but it lost its domination to Seville until in 1236 the Christian Kings “reconquered” Córdoba from the Moors.
While building numerous new churches, the center of the mosque was also converted into a Catholic church, although only very small alterations were made. A chapel was built within the mosque, and the minaret was transformed into a bell tower.
Nearly three centuries later, however, King Carlos I — allegedly against the wishes of Córdoba’s city council — approved the construction of a Renaissance altar area, choir and nave, largely altering the look of the mosque. Unsatisfied with the result, he famously regretted to the priests who built it: “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.”
Regardless how history shaped the building for better or worse, the result remains simply awe inspiring. Visitors enter the Mezquita through the ablution courtyard, now called the Patio de los Naranjos, where lush citrus and palm trees protect the queues, waiting to buy their entrance ticket, from the scorching Andalusian summer sun.
Once inside, the peace and harmony of the large space overwhelms its visitors, as rows and rows of columns —a total of 856 remain from the 1,293 original pillars — and red and white striped horseshoe arches dazzle even the most seasoned traveler. The entrance side is the original part of the mosque built by Abd Al-Rahman I. Though quite dark, it is easy to imagine how full of light the mosque must have been when all original 19 doors were opened at the time of the caliphate, with the courtyard palm trees providing a natural continuation of the columns inside, leading Pakistani poet Muhammad Iqbal to describe them as “countless pillars like rows of palm trees in the oases of Syria.”
The columns were made from pieces of the church that had occupied the place previously, as well as from destroyed Roman buildings, while the red and white stone and marble were found in the region surrounding the city.
Opposite the entrance is the mihrab, spectacularly adorned with 1,600 kilogram of gold mosaic cubes shaped into flower motifs and inscriptions from the Holy Qur’an. This is the latest and most sophisticated addition of the mosque and according to many one of the most magnificent mihrabs worldwide.
In the center, the serenity of the structure is interrupted by a resplendent cathedral that boasts light and vertigo into the low-ceilinged mosque. Like Carlos I, many Muslims regret the building of the Christian structure, saying it destroyed the serenity of the place, and it is not difficult to understand that Muslim worshippers feel offended when security guards brutally order them to stand up when they prostrate in reverence of such marvel, while up to today it is still in use for Catholic services. Several incidences took place in recent years, and Spanish Muslims have lobbied to allow them to pray in the cathedral.
But to say the sacred place belongs to the Muslims is historically incorrect as well. After all, prior to the mosque the soil was home to a Christian church. Rather than claiming it to be either Christian or Islamic, the site is the ultimate reminder of how intertwined the two religions are. For Muslims, the mosque may prompt them of the Islamic Golden Age, during which people of the three monotheistic religions lived together fairly peacefully. For Christians, the mosque is a living proof that Islam is not something alien to Europe: Its existence is intricately part of European history. In fact, it were the scholars in Al-Andalus who transmitted the works of Greek scientists like Aristotle to the hands of the Christians, eventually leading to the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment, which rescued Europe from the Dark Ages and led the continent to blossom.
Remarkably, the current monarchs of Spain directly descend from the Catholic Kings that expelled the Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. In a sense, they represent the continuation of the “Reconquista,” the reconquering of the peninsula from the Muslim rulers, which one may doubt if it is, in fact, a re-conquering, as there was no Catholic monarchy prior to the arrival of Tariq ibn Ziyad and his small army that came to the peninsula upon request from the Visigoths to intervene in their internal conflict.
The “mosque-cathedral” of Córdoba, as the site is often referred to, could be a symbol of Spain’s history at the crossroads of cultures and religions. It could be an example of how civilizations can flourish if they live and work together. It could be granted the status of museum, as the Turkish authorities did with the Aya Sophia in Istanbul, another junction of the Christian and Muslim worlds. The Aya Sophia was a church during the Byzantine Empire, became a mosque under the Ottomans, and in the twentieth century the authorities decided to secularize the building and open it as a museum.
Instead, the Catholic authorities chose to keep using the Mezquita as a place for Christian worship and continue the spirit of the Reconquista.
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