The Great Mosque of Córdoba (commonly referred to as La Mezquita) is one of the jewels of Islamic civilisation. It is to Córdoba what the Alhambra Palace is to Granada and the Giralda tower is to Seville, a unique focal point of identification, appropriated by Christians through conquest.
The Great Mosque was begun by the Emir Abd al-Rahman I in 785, some 74 years after the conquest of the Visigoths by the Muslims, or Moors as they are more commonly called in the Spanish context. The Mosque was added to by Abd al-Rahman II in 833, before being completed by al-Hakam II and the vizier al-Mansur in the second half of the 10th century. Of the four stages, that of al-Hakam –containing the mihrab (niche in the wall pointing to Mecca)– is the most decorative and striking.One of the largest mosques in the world, the Great Mosque is even by today’s standards an impressive building, measuring some 180 by 130 metres (23,400 sq metres, approximately 590 x 425 ft, or about 250,000 sq. ft.).It is believed that before the construction of the Mosque, both Muslims and Christians shared the use of the Visigothic church of St Vincent. The church was subsequently purchased by Abd al-Rahman I, then torn down and replaced by the Mosque. The decision to build a large and striking house of worship some 30 years after his arrival in Córdoba was both an open challenge from Abd al-Rahman to his enemies in the Middle East as well as a symbolic statement to the still considerable Christian community (Mozarabs) living in the city. Abd al-Rahman was there to stay, a message undoubtedly underlined by the solid walls of the Mosque that give it a military look.
The growth of the Great Mosque in the 9th and 10th centuries mirrored the city’s increasing power, which was implicit also in the ever growing population and in the need to accommodate larger congregations, especially at the Friday noon prayers, which every adult male was expected to attend. It was here that the ruler or his deputy delivered his sermon and here too –during the prayers– that the ruler’s name was mentioned, so that the building had a distinctly political as well as religious dimension.
Seen from the streets outside, the Mosque is an undistinguished building, its size deceptively concealed by its modest height which rises only to some 12.5 metres (40 ft). Except for some of the doorways, the outer walls are unprepossessing, a solid, sand coloured, pockmarked configuration that in parts seems in need of repairs. In the north west corner, the balustraded, tapering bell tower looks distinctly different from the rest of the Mosque. It is in fact a Renaissance tower, begun in 1593, and constructed over the earlier minaret.
Unfortunately, it’s not now (2008) possible to climb the bell tower, but from the top you have an excellent idea of the size of the building, and in the background a stunning view of the Guadalquivir River, the ancient Roman bridge that crosses it, and the distant countryside. (A Google satellite image gives a very good impression of the size of the Great Mosque.)
Immediately below the bell tower is the Courtyard of The Orange Trees (Patio de los Naranjos) whose fountains were used for ablutions. The orange trees are arranged in rows, the deep green of their foliage providing vibrant splashes of colour against the dusty monochrome of the walls and the ground. A scattering of palms and cypresses also adds further colour.
The belfry also affords a perfect view of the Mosque and the Christian cathedral that emerges out of its centre as a single unit. There is no other building like it in the world, a Great Mosque and a Cathedral, in effect two different buildings representing two major religions, sharing the same space. The image is a wonderful and serendipitous architectural metaphor for the tensions between Christians and Muslims in Spain, with each temple throwing into relief the mentality of its creators. The Mosque is low slung, seeming to hug the ground, conveying architecturally the humility before God that the term “Muslim” means: one who surrenders to the will of Allah. On the other hand, the cathedral (an addition of the 1520s, Gothic on the outside, Renaissance inside) rises upwards, its flying buttresses solidly anchored on the roof of the Mosque.
The irony of this is that the mathematics that made possible the technology to build soaring cathedrals (e.g. of Medieval Europe) passed through al-Andalus, and quite likely through Córdoba itself. Still, there is an ironic reversal to this: although the Christians appropriated the Mosque, local worshippers attending Mass commonly say Voy a la Mezquita a oír misa (I’m going to the Mosque to hear mass) rather than to the Cathedral or Church!
The changes that took place after the capture of Córdoba in 1236 by Christian forces underline a difference between Muslim and Christian spirituality. The Christians constructed a wall to cut off the patio, filled in the fountains that had been used for ablutions, and in the course of time erected some 30 side chapels –adorned with small altars, paintings and figures of saints– against the interior of the walls. The Mosque’s name was changed in 1236 to the Church of the Virgin of the Assumption When church authorities proposed the cathedral addition of the sixteenth century it was over the objections of the people. Opposition was overcome only when the king, Charles (Carlos) V, threw his weight behind the project, without ever having visited Córdoba. When he eventually saw in 1526 the damage that he had unwittingly committed, he is said to have exclaimed:
You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world. (It was the same king who ordered the destruction of a part of the Alhambra in Granada to accommodate an equally incompatible Renaissance palace!)
Cordoba Mosque through the lens:
Danby, Miles The Fires of Excellence: Spanish and Portuguese Oriental Architecture Reading 1997
Dodds, Jerrilynn Architecture and Ideology in Early Medieval Spain Pennsylvania and London 1990
Dodds, Jerrilynn ed. Al-Andalus: the Art of Islamic Spain New York 1992
Ettinghausen, Richard and Grabar, Oleg The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250 Middlesex 1987
Gonzalez, Valerie Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture London 2001
Jacobs, Michael A Guide to Andalusia London 1990
Robertson, Ian Blue Guide: Spain London 1993 (6th edition)