The Mezquita — At least the Catholics had the good sense not to destroy it when they desecrated it.

mezarchscapehorizontOf all the places we visited in Spain including the magnificent Cathedral and Alcazar of Seville and the Alhambra, the Mezquita in Cordoba was the most awe inspiring.

Today the Mezquita is the Cathedral of Cordoba, but it has a long past as a church, a combined church and mosque and as the great mosque of Cordoba.  The site was originally a Christian church but was developed as a mosque from the 8th century on until the reconquest of Cordoba by Christian forces under King Ferdinand III of Castille in the 13th century.   The minaret was converted to a bell tower as is common throughout Spain, but the cathedral itself was built in the midst of the dramatic architecture of the mosque, thus preserving rather than destroying the stunning architecture.

We were staying in Seville for a week in May and visited Cordoba as a leisurely day trip with the Mezquita our object.  We took a cab to the general area of the Cathedral and wandered about to locate a place a bit out of the tourist path for lunch.  We ran into an American student who lived in the area and guided us to a bar in a little square near his apartment.


Here we sampled some of the local wine and cheese before setting out to view the Mezquita.  Those little loops are a local bread/cracker that is served with wine and beer throughout Spain.  Not salty like pretzels, they work well as the bread course with cheese.mezcheese mezlunch6
The little square where we got our snack was typical of the architecture of the old town which combines Islamic styles with typical Spanish town design.mezlunchsquarebikesmezlunch3Fortified with wine and cheese we set forth to visit the Mezquita. mezcrowdoutside

It is hard to overstate the dazzling impression this place makes on entry.  The enormous prayer hall contains over 850 columns topped with horseshoe arches painted in red and white.  By creating stacked double arches, the main hall is taller than possible with columns alone for support.mezarchscape4mezarchscapehorizont

The 857 columns  with their varied colored stones are imposing.mezcolumn

Many of the columns contain an interesting detail:  the makers mark of the artisans who created them from granite, jasper, onyx and marble.  mezmaker2mezmakermezmark5The Mehrab or prayer niche  which is often removed when Catholic churches repurpose mosques throughout Spain, has been preserved.mezmirab

The Mehrab of a mosque usually orients to Mecca and is along the Gibla or wall towards which the faithful pray; in the Mezquita, however the Mehrab sits south rather than southeast.   There has been agitation by Muslims in Spain to be allowed to worship  in the Mezquita and this has led to several violent confrontations when Muslim tourists have attempted to pray and were confronted and removed by security guards.  No permission has been granted by the Church for this dual use of the building and it remains a point of friction.

Muslims believe that representations of human forms are forbidden by the Koran and so the rich decorations around the Mehrab incorporate Islamic script, geometric design and figures of plants.  

mezmozaicnearmisrabmezmozaic detailmezmozaicdetail2Above the Mehrab is a glorious mozaic dome in blues and golds. mezdomemirabmezdomeclose

The beauty of the traditional Islamic elements of the Mezquita contrast harshly with the Christian nave that is popped up through the center of the prayer hall.mezhalltowardcath

While many chapels and altars were constructed from the 13th century reconquest on, it wasn’t until the early 16th century under Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that the dramatic lofty Renaissance Nave was constructed at the center of the prayer hall.  While Charles V authorized the renovation he was dismayed when he saw the result, remarking  “they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”


Across from the altar in the nave, sits an ornately caved choir.mezchoircontext

mezchoirdetail3Although the prayer hall is relatively tall given the double stacked arches, the cathedral nave soars far above. mezcathedralceilingAs you can see to the left in the picture above, the prayer hall arches are incorporated and blended with the Renaissance architecture.  While much was destroyed, the attention to incorporating rather than simply leveling the mosque preserved some of its beauty and the Christian rulers of the time were mindful of this. mezcathblendIn addition to the Renaissance nave which thrusts upward from the center of the mosque, there are numerous earlier Christian side altars along the walls of the prayer hall and its central structures.

.mezchristiansidealtar mezchristianaltarmezmadona
Throughout the Cathedral, the stunning Islamic architecture incorporates Christian elements.mezcross

The treasury of the Cathedral contains elaborate reliquaries, and other religious items including this elaborate gold monstrance for the host.


When we left the Cathedral into the courtyard, we had to be careful to not fall flat on our face as we threaded our way over cobblestones and the irrigation channels in the ground.    This is not the original irrigation system, but it is typical of Muslim buildings in Spain.  mezirrigationThe use of water is a distinguishing feature of Islamic and Mujedar architecture in spain.  Everywhere you look in the gardens and courtyards there are fountains and pools which serve as a form of air conditioning in hot climes. mezedcourtyardAfter touring the Mezquita we noticed that the rain had stopped and so we walked around the exterior to the back where there is  an old roman bridge across the Guadalquivir river.


We walked out on the bridge for a look back at the Mezquita and the bridge gate that is the entry to the old town.mezbridgetowardsgateThe exterior walls of the Mezquita retain much of the original Islamic design.mezexteriormezexgteriordetailmezexterndetailAlthough much of the rich Islamic architectural detail has been preserved, the later Catholic conquerers also impressed their identity.  Here is the coat of arms of a bishop.mezexteriordetailbishopAfter touring the Mezquita, we had a bit of time to stroll through the old town of Cordoba.  Within the whitewashed buildings are tucked away lovely little courtyards.  When I originally wrote this, I was not aware that Cordoba is famous for its patios; it does just jump out at you when you just wander around and see all these lovely havens.mezcourtyardmezcourtyard3

After a stroll through the town, one last look back at the Mezquita’s bell tower before heading back to the train.mezflowerstreet

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10 Responses to The Mezquita — At least the Catholics had the good sense not to destroy it when they desecrated it.

  1. Eshkie Zachai says:

    You are amazing, dear Janet! I am now planning a trip to S. Spain and Portugal and feel very fortunate to have found your marvelous posts. Muchas gracias!

  2. Mark says:

    Wonderful captions. Thanks for your posting earlier this month on the Rick Steves blog that included this link. We are heading over in March. Blessings to you.

  3. zie says:

    Hi Janet, the photos and all the descriptions are all amazing!

  4. Mary Buchanan says:

    Great ‘taste’ of Cordoba. We are Australians who love Spain & are staying a week in a month or so as part of as bigger Spain trip. You’ve whetted our appetite!!!!! Marvellous photos. Thank you.

  5. Fifi says:

    Thank you SO much for this fascinating post (which we found via your link on Rick Steves). We are in Madrid for a school year and are debating whether to go to Toledo or Cordoba today. Thanks to your link it looks like it will be Cordoba to see the Mezquita. Your description was perfect; not too heavy, just enough to grasp the history and conflict of these two religions contained in this one building. I look forward to sounding like an expert when I take my family there !!
    We visited the Alhambra a couple of years ago but without the children so it will be a good introduction to Moorish history for them. Thanks again!

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