It’s the 10th century and Cordoba is the most spectacular city in Europe. Its residents – exceeding half a million – enjoy paved roads, street lighting, running water and well stocked shops and souks.
There are some 300 mosques and numerous palaces, public buildings and lush gardens – all built to rival the splendours of Constantinople, Damascus and Baghdad.
This is a city of poets and artists – literature and Islamic art is flourishing. There is a wealth of booksellers and libraries – the caliph’s library alone contains 400,000 books – and the majority of the inhabitants are literate.
Schools abound – not just for general and vocational education but medical and technical also. The university attracts students and scholars in astronomy, mathematics, botany, philosophy and logic.
And its crown jewel? La Mezquita.
The Background (in a Nutshell!)
2nd century BC – Cordoba is founded by the Romans who will spend 760 years here. It serves as a provincial capital, its importance due to its strategic location on the highest navigable point of the Guadalquivir River.
584 – Cordoba comes under Visigoth rule.
610 – The start of Islam.
711 – An army of the Umayyad dynasty land in the Iberian Peninsula.
Within seven years, most of the peninsula is under Muslim rule. These new territories come to be known by their Arabic name, al-Andalus (Muslim Iberia included most of Spain, Portugal, and a small section of Southern France).
According to tradition, the Visigoths had converted a temple, dedicated to the Roman God Janus, into a Christian church – the Church of San Vicente. Now the Moors divide the church in two and Christians and Emirs incredibly agree to share the space so that both communities have a place of worship.
756 – Abd al-Rahman I – having escaped the massacre of his family by the Abbasids in Syria some years earlier – establishes control of the region and proclaims himself emir of the independent Emirate of Cordoba.
Cordoba is established as the region’s capital and is rebuilt to reflect the Byzantine roots of the Umayyad dynasty.
Abd al-Rahman orders the destruction of the Visigoth church and construction begins on the Great Mosque. Thousands of artisans and builders are employed and, within a year, the 11 naves of the Prayer Hall are ready to hold Cordoba’s entire Muslim community.
As this community grows, so does the mosque and it undergoes two major expansions by the successors of Adb al-Rahman I. In the ninth century, eight more naves are added to the Prayer Hall. In the tenth century, Abd al-Rahmen III focuses on the courtyard and the construction of a new minaret.
When finally completed in 987, more than 200 years after the first stone is laid, La Mezquita has doubled its size to a vast rectangle and is the second most important mosque in the world after Mecca.
Grand gates lead to the Patio de los Naranjos which was considered a link between the worldly and the sacred. Occupying about one-third of the total area, the courtyard was used for teaching, meetings and trials. Worshippers would gather here to wash before prayer.
This is what we all come to see – the enormous Prayer Hall with its forest of some 850 columns. Scavenged from the ruins of Roman and Visigoth structures, the pillars not only vary in material – jasper, onyx, marble, granite – but also in height and style!
Taller pillars were sunk into the floor and shorter ones were added to. They were capped with Corinthian capitals. A horseshoe arch – common in the architecture of the Visigoths – was added above the pillars with the distinctive red brick and white stone pattern which gives unity to the whole design. Above that again, another row of semicircle arches were added – an architectural necessity as the immense roof would have been too low otherwise.
The rows of columns seem to stretch out indefinitely, creating an endless space that, unlike Christian churches, is distinctly non-hierarchal in nature.
The use of light is clever here – Sunlight streams in from the windows and cupolas which, along with thousands of small oil lights, creates a light show as you stroll around. When the mosque was used for prayer, all nineteen naves were open to the courtyard allowing the rows of interior columns to appear like an extension of the orange trees with shafts of sunlight filtering through.
The bells of the Basilica of Santiago de Compostela were stolen by the Muslim army and Christian captives carried them to Cordoba where they were melted down and made into lights for the mosque. In 1236, when the city was recaptured, the lanterns were carried to Santiago de Compostela by Muslim captives and converted back into bells.
The focal point of the Prayer Hall is the arched Mihrab or prayer niche. The mihrab traditionally has two functions – indicating the direction of mecca (and therefore prayer) and amplifying the words of the Imam. Here in Cordoba, the Mihrab faces not south-east towards Mecca, but south, like the Damascus mosque. Typically, it was a simple little niche in the wall but not here! – more than three metres deep and wide, it’s the size of a small room with a roof made from a single block of white marble. It lies behind an arch, exquisitely decorated with intricate Byzantine-style mosaics and Koran inscriptions. (It was to serve as an inspiration for almost all mihrabs of later western mosques).
The stunning Dome above the Mihrab
But the construction and expansion of the mosque is only half the story – it’s what happens next that makes this building so unique…..
In 1236, Cordoba was recaptured by the Christians and the mosque was converted into a place of Catholic worship. Over the next few centuries, there were some changes and additions including chapels and altars but most of the structure remained intact. Attempts by local bishops to demolish the mosque and replace it with a cathedral were fortunately resisted. Then in the 1500’s, King Charles V granted permission for the construction of a huge Renaissance nave in the centre of the mosque. Pillars and arches were removed and elaborate ceilings were added in the space. Taking two centuries to complete, the cathedral is a breathtaking mix of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque.
The original minaret, built in 951/952, was very similar to La Giralda in Seville………
After undergoing severe storm damage in the 16th century, it was decided to remodel the tower. It was wrapped with a thick wall and still stands encased in Torre del Alminar
The mosque / cathedral was renovated, repaired, and changed several times over the centuries.
In the early nineteenth century, features of the former mosque were found behind an altar, and since then, efforts have been made to restore the original Islamic architecture.
La Mezquita was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
It is supervised by the local bishopric and only Christians are allowed to worship there.
Following a dispute between the church and the city over the name, it was diplomatically changed to Cordoba Mosque Cathedral.
There is no charge for the entrance to the Patio de Los Naranjos.
Entrance fee to the Mosque/Cathedral:
Adult – €10.00
Children – €5.00
Children under 10 – Free
Mon to Sat, 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Free (strict silence).