Great Buildings: The Mosque of Córdoba

When a building moves us emotionally

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The Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, also known as the Great Mosque of Córdoba and the Mezquita. Photo by author.

Occasions when a building moves us emotionally are rare. It seems almost impossible to consider that a stone-cold structure could do such a thing, until it happens, and then there is no doubt. A small number of buildings have stirred me in this way: the Pantheon in Rome, the interior of Gaudí’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the first time I visited the Alhambra in Andalusia, Spain.

The feeling is one of awakening. To walk around a beautiful building is to experience a sort of unfolding revelation. Neurologically or spiritually speaking, I can’t say what is happening exactly, except that the sensation feels like a gentle coaxing towards a fresh idea. I feel a bloom of sensations slowly condensing into something profoundly new.

After seeing the Alhambra — an Islamic palace built by the Moors — it didn’t take me long to find out that, not far from Granada, one can find another Moorish masterpiece. In the city of Córdoba is the Mezquita, the largest Mosque built in the reign of the Moors. It is also said to be the most beautiful. Tentatively, unconsciously, I made a pledge to visit the Mezquita in Córdoba and renew my association with the Islamic heritage of Spain.

The Great Mosque is set in the narrow white-washed streets of the old quarter of Córdoba. Rain was falling hard when I arrived in the city. I chose the Hostel Trinidad to spend the night, then almost immediately chased down the maze of streets to find the mosque nearby. I hurried through the Patio de los Naranjos (‘Court of the Oranges’) and sheltered from the rain in the cloisters that surround it. Quickly I crossed the courtyard and through the wooden ‘Blessings Arch’ into the interior.

No passages or reception halls prepare you for the first impression — I entered directly into the deep, calm forum and felt a surge of inspired pleasure. In the hall, 856 pillars made of porphyry, jasper and assorted marbles stand thick, graceful, equidistant, producing aisle after aisle of column-lined avenues. These columns are made from pieces of a Roman temple that once occupied the site previously. The pillars are short, supporting a double-tier of horseshoe arches, each pair of equal dimension, made of terracotta-pink and sandy-white bricks collected into a striping pattern. Between the pillars and arches, I could see the next row of pillars and arches, and so on beyond, row after row, across a sanctuary some 180 metres deep. Tens of thousands of praying Muslims would have used this space to worship. A hushed light spread about the forest like an undisclosed shaft an underground cave, tempting exploration, and at the same time provoking a lingering pause to take in the scene.

It is thought that the site of the mosque was originally a Christian church. In 756 the Muslim ‘Abd ar-Rahman I asserted his rule as leader of Spanish Muslims, made Cordoba his capital, and in 784 instructed the building of the mosque. Three generations of extensions enlarged the mosque to it current size.

I wove slowly between the pillars until I reached the Mihrab, or prayer niche, towards which prayer is faced, in the direction of Mecca. Here one encounters a different intention: a complex inlay of mosaics and gold with geometric and flowing designs, exquisite carvings of excerpts from the Koran combined with floral ornamentation. This is the most richly decorated section of the mosque, and it is spellbinding.

The history of the building did not end with the mosque. When the Castilian king Ferdinand III took over the city following the Christian-Muslim war of the 11th century, the mosque began serving as a Christian cathedral, with numerous alterations made to the interior for this purpose. What stands today is an astonishing amalgamation of Muslim and Christian architecture, a manifestation of the practices of each religion.

Around the outer edges of the arena, the more recent Christian alterations couldn’t be more contrasting. Contrary to the Muslim tenet that actual depictions of its scriptures are forbidden, Christian art, and in particular Catholic art, is based on such imagery. One finds numerous chapels built on the edges of the hall containing sculptures and paintings of a broad range of Christian icons, all peering strangely into the Muslim prayer hall. Then, walking to the centre of the building, I found a massive cathedral structure with a Baroque dome, a pink marble High Alter, shining tin railings, marble and wooden carvings, and a cruciform choir. Together they make an astonishing centrepiece. The union of Christian and Muslim art, in craft and artefact, is not entirely harmonious, but perhaps more interestingly provides at close quarters an iridescent spectrum of two different modes of religious worship.

Inevitably, at least for someone who adheres to neither of the two religions, I was drawn to judge between the two facets of the building. Without hesitation, I found the Muslim section more appealing. Reverential but not dogmatic, mystical, inspiring — it fulfilled all the aspects I associate with the core of any religion.

I can’t claim however that I saw with fresh eyes. I did travel to see a mosque and not a cathedral after all. Indeed, I came to see merely a building, regardless of its purpose, naive as I am to the true revelations of either religion. The dogmas of my own secular religion were thus revealed, and completely satisfied — a doctrine based on the scope of human creativity and human dedication, manifest in stone, coveted and enlivened by the sense of sight.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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