08 June 2019

‘You have destroyed
something unique to build
something commonplace’

The Mezquita-Catedral or Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba is one of the most accomplished examples of Moorish architecture in Spain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019; click on image for full-screen resolution)

Patrick Comerford

After walking through the Judería, the mediaeval Jewish quarter of Cordoba, on Thursday [6 June 2019], I spent a few hours in the Mezquita-Catedral or Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba. This is also known as the Great Mosque of Córdoba and the Mezquita, and it is one of the most accomplished examples of Moorish architecture in Spain.

Today, this is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in the Diocese of Córdoba. But a Roman Temple dedicated to the two-faced god Janus first stood on this site, and the Visigoths later built a small church here dedicated to Saint Vincent of Lérins, long before it was ever either a mosque or a cathedral.

Portions of the Visigothic building have survived, including fragments of the floor and the Puerta de San Esteban or Gate of Saint Stephen.

Fragments of a Visigothic building emphasis the originally Christian foundation of the site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

After the Islamic conquest of the Visigothic kingdom, the building was divided between Christians and Muslims, and shared by worshippers of both faiths.

But in 784, the Emir of Córdoba, Abd al-Rahman I, ordered the construction of the Great Mosque and bought the Christian half of the site. Abd al-Rahman I demolished the original buildings and built the Great Mosque of Córdoba here in 785-787, imitating the style of the Great Mosque of Damascus.

According to tradition, when the exiled Umayyad prince Abd al-Rahman I escaped to Iberia and defeated the governor of Al-Andalus, Yusuf al-Fihri, he found the Christians of Córdoba divided among various sects, including Gnostics, Priscillianists, Donatists and Luciferians.

His ambition was to build a house of worship as magnificent as those in Baghdad, Jerusalem and Damascus, and approach in sanctity the fame of Mecca.

The original main entrance to the Mezquita (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The negotiations to buy the earlier church and its site were handled by the Sultan’s favourite secretary, Umeya ibn Yezid. One of the conditions of sale allowed the Christians of the city to rebuild earlier but ruined churches dedicated to three Christian martyrs, Saint Faustus, Saint Januarius and Saint Marcellus.

Over the next four or five centuries, it was expanded considerably by Spain’s Muslim rulers.

Abd al-Rahman and his successors, Hisham, Abd-al Rahman II and Almanzor spent large amounts on designing, building and decorating the mosque, originally known as Aljama Mosque.

Abd al-Rahman I and his descendants reworked the building over the next two centuries to fashion it as a mosque. Abd al-Rahman I also used the mosque as an adjunct to his palace and named it in honour of his wife.

The mihrab of Mezquita faces south instead of towards Mecca (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Traditionally, the mihrab or apse of a mosque faces in the direction of Mecca, the direction of prayer for Muslims. However, Mecca is east-south-east of Cordoba, and, unusually, the mihrab of this mosque points south.

Thousands of artisans and labourers worked on building the Mezquita under the directions of Abd al-Rahman, and new factories and industries sprang up in the city.

As the mosque developed, there were several changes and additions. Abd al-Rahman II ordered a new minaret, while Al-Hakam II enlarged the building in 961, when he made lavish additions, enriching the mihrab or prayer niche and the masqura or caliph’s enclosure. The Mezquita reached its current dimensions in 987 with the completion of the outer naves and courtyard.

The building incorporates several Roman columns with capitals. Some of the columns came from the original the Gothic structure, others were brought in from other regions of the Iberian peninsula, often as presents from provincial governors.

Ivory, jasper, porphyry, gold, silver, copper and brass were used in the decorations, marvellous mosaics and azulejos were designed, panels of scented wood were fastened with nails of pure gold, and the red marble columns were said to be the work of God.

The Patio de los Naranjos or Court of Oranges at the Mezquita (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The earliest part of the building, erected during the reign of Abd al-Rahman I, borders the Patio de los Naranjos or Court of Oranges. Later, the immense building brought all the styles of Morisco architecture together in one composition.

For three centuries, the Great Mosque of Córdoba held a place of importance in the Islamic community of Andalucia and was seen as the heart of Córdoba, the capital. One visitor said it had ‘countless pillars like rows of palm trees in the oases of Syria.’

The main hall of the mosque served as a central prayer hall for personal devotion, the five daily Muslim prayers and the special Friday prayers. It was also used as a hall for teaching and for hearing cases in sharia law.

In the arcaded hall, 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, granite and porphyry support the roof (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The building is most notable for its arcaded hall, where 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, granite and porphyry supporting the roof. They create a dazzling visual effect, and were made from pieces of the Roman temple that once stood on the site, as well as other Roman and Visigothic buildings, including the Mérida amphitheatre.

The double arches were an innovation, allowing higher ceilings than were not possible with relatively low columns. The double arches consist of a lower horseshoe arch and an upper semi-circular arch.

The alternating red and white voussoirs of the arches were inspired by those in the Dome of the Rock and also resemble those of Aachen Cathedral, which were built almost at the same time. Horseshoe arches were known in the Iberian Peninsula since late Antiquity.

A centrally located honeycombed dome has blue tiles decorated with stars.

The richly gilded prayer niche or mihrab is a masterpiece of architectural art, with geometric designs and flowing designs of plants.

Other features of the mosque included an open court surrounded by arcades, screens of wood, minarets, colourful mosaics, and windows of coloured glass. The walls of the mosque were decorated with Quranic inscriptions.

The floor plan is similar to some of the earliest mosques in Islam. It had a rectangular prayer hall with aisles arranged perpendicular to the qibla, the direction towards which Muslims pray. The prayer hall was large and flat, with timber ceilings held up by arches of horseshoe-like appearance.

The Gate of the Holy Spirit in the walls of the Mezquita (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Hisham’s mosque covered an area 140 metres by 85 metres. It was flanked by stout, fortified walls, with watch towers and a tall minaret. There were nine outer gates and 11 inner doors. Each door led to an aisle within the mosque. The court had spacious gates on the north, west, and east sides, and fountains for the purification of the pious. The 11 north-to-south aisles were crossed by 21 narrower aisles running from east to west.

A staircase to the roof was added 150 years after the mosque was first built, and the mosque was extended south. At the same time, a bridge was built linking the prayer hall with the caliph’s palace. The mosque was later expanded even further south, as was the courtyard.

Abd al-Rahman III added a new tower. The minaret had two staircases, one for going up and the other for coming down the tower. At the top were three apples, two of gold and one of silver, with lilies of six petals.

The minaret of the mosque became the bell tower of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Córdoba was conquered by King Ferdinand III of Castile in 1236 and the centre of the mosque was converted into a Catholic cathedral. Alfonso X oversaw building the Villaviciosa Chapel, the first Christian chapel in the mosque in 1371, and the Royal Chapel within the mosque.

Later kings added further Christian features, and Henry II rebuilt the church in the 14th century. The minaret became the bell tower of the cathedral and was adorned with the bells once captured from the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

After a windstorm in 1589, the former minaret was further reinforced by encasing it within a new structure. The present Torre del Almar or bell tower is 93 metres high, and has steep steps inviting visitors to a view of the city from the top.

The most significant alteration came with building a Renaissance cathedral nave in the middle of the large building in the reign of Charles V of Castile and Aragon. However, when Charles V visited the completed cathedral he was displeased by the result and famously commented: ‘You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace.’

Artisans and architects continued to add to the existing structure until the late 18th century.

The Italian-style High Altar of the Renaissance cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

During Holy Week in April 2010, two Muslim tourists were arrested at the cathedral, after an incident in which two security guards were seriously injured. Half a dozen Austrian Muslims, who were part of a group of 118 people on an organised tour for young European Muslims, knelt to pray at the same time. Security guards stepped in and ‘invited them to continue with their tour or leave the building.’

Muslims across Spain have lobbied the Roman Catholic Church to allow them to pray within the complex. However, Spanish church authorities and the Vatican have opposed any such move.

Modern stained glass in the Mosque-Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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