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.
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.Fortified with wine and cheese we set forth to visit the Mezquita.
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.
Many of the columns contain an interesting detail: the makers mark of the artisans who created them from granite, jasper, onyx and marble. The Mehrab or prayer niche which is often removed when Catholic churches repurpose mosques throughout Spain, has been preserved.
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.
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.”
Although the prayer hall is relatively tall given the double stacked arches, the cathedral nave soars far above. As 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. In 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.
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. The 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. After 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.The exterior walls of the Mezquita retain much of the original Islamic design.Although 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.After 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.