The crowning achievement of Islamic art in Spain is the Great Mosque of Córdoba.
It’s impossible to overemphasize the beauty of Córdoba’s great mosque, with its remarkably serene (despite tourist crowds) and spacious interior. One of the world’s greatest works of Islamic architecture, the Mezquita hints, with all its lustrous decoration, at a refined age when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side and enriched their city with a heady interaction of diverse, vibrant cultures.
The Great Mosque of Córdoba was the most important public project of Abd al-Rahman I, the last surviving Umayyad. When his family, which had held the Caliphate, was deposed and murdered during the Abbasid revolution, Abd al-Rahman escaped and came to the Iberian Peninsula with an army supplied by his maternal grandfather in North Africa. This mosque, which would represent the first established Islamic rule on the peninsula, appropriated the city centre; and inscribed the public meeting space with architectural forms that proclaimed a new order with its open sprawling hypostyle plan.
Arab chronicles recount how Abd al-Rahman purchased half of the Hispano-Roman church of San Vicente for the Muslim community’s Friday prayers, and then, in 784, bought the other half on which to erect a new mosque. Around 785, work got under way on the new building, which the sovereign sited on the west side of his palace complex. Construction was based on longitudinal naves perpendicular to the wall used for prayer, a style imported from Syria, from where the ruling dynasty had emigrated. This was actually a continuation of the early-Christian basilica tradition, with a markedly wider and taller central nave. Continuity was also observed in the arrangement of arcades, with elevations revealing a deliberate relationship between Islam and the Roman legacy.
The mosque was constructed using columns, capitals and stone from Roman and Visigoth buildings in Spain, Europe and even Africa, making the early section a veritable archaeological museum. The hall is a hypostyle (the roof is supported by arcades of pillars). The roof was flat, decorated with gold and multi-coloured motifs. The arches rested on, eventually, 1293 columns (of which 856 remain today) made of stones such as jasper, onyz, marble and granite. The double arches allowed higher ceilings and are formed from a horseshoe arch at the lower level and a semi-circular arch on the upper level. The voussoirs (wedge stones in the vaults of the arches) in red brick and white stone are suggestive of a forest of date palms. They evoke Umayyad hegemony in Damascus – alternating voussoirs in Damascus and Jerusalem were made in the Late Roman way with Opus Sectile (inlaid marble into the arch), in Córdoba they were constructed of alternating stone and brick.
The Muslim building emphasizes light and space, and the arches were superimposed in order to heighten and lighten the building and to make it possible to illuminate it from the courtyard. This innovative element seems to have taken its inspiration from Roman aqueducts. Umayyad oneness reflects local identity and tradition: horseshoe arches, which derive from the architecture of the Visigothic period; Corinthian capitals, which are part of the continuous classical tradition shared by the Umayyads and the indigenous Spanish Roman culture. Islam in Spain overlaid a previous Christian civilization, and earlier still a Roman culture, with, later, strong Jewish overtones as well. In its usual way, Islam absorbed these separate cultures to produce a refined society with no contemporary parallels in Europe, and very few since.
Due to the constantly increasing population of the city, the mosque was successively extended to the form seen today. The first extension (833-852) was carried out by Abd al-Rahman II and was the section most affected by the later construction of the cathedral. Al-Hakam II undertook the second, and richest, extension between 961 and 966, and is considered a fine example of Caliphal art. Like Abd al-Rahman II a century earlier, Al-Hakim II in the 960s lengthened the naves of the prayer hall, creating a new qiblah wall (indicating the direction of Mecca) and mihrab (prayer niche) at the south end. The bay immediately in front of the mihrab and the bays to each side form the maksura, the area where the caliphs and courtiers would have prayed. The mihrab and maksura are the most beautifully and intricately decorated parts of the whole mosque.
Above the mihrab, is an equally dazzling dome. It is built of crisscrossing ribs that create pointed arches all lavishly covered with gold mosaic in a radial pattern. This astonishing building technique anticipates later Gothic rib vaulting, though on a more modest scale.
The greatest glory of Al-Hakim II’s extension was the portal of the mihrab – a crescent arch with a rectangular surround known as an alfiz. For the portal’s decoration, Al-Hakim asked the emperor of Byzantium, Nicephoras II Phocas, to send him a mosaicist capable of imitating the superb mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus, one of the great 8th century Syrian Omayyad buildings. The Christian emperor sent the Muslim caliph not only a mosaicist but also a gift of 1600kg of gold mosaic cubes. The gold tesserae create a dazzling combination of dark blues, reddish browns, yellows and golds that form intricate calligraphic inscriptions from the Quran and flower motifs that adorn the arch and give the mihrab portal its magical glitter. Inside the mihrab, a single block of white marble sculpted into the shape of a scallop shell, a symbol of the Quran, forms the dome that amplified the voice of the imam (the person who leads Islamic worship services) throughout the mosque.
The arches of the maksura are the mosque’s most intricate and sophisticated, forming a forest of interwoven, lavishly decorated horseshoe shapes. Equally attractive are the maksura’s skylit domes, decorated with star-patterned stone vaulting. Each dome was held up by four interlocking pairs of parallel ribs, a highly advanced technique in 10th century Europe. Another outstanding features of this section are the cusped arches forming the entrance and boundaries to it and the ‘courtyard of columns’ characterised by its alternating colours with simple Corinthian capitals in the blue marble shafts and compound capitals in the red marble shafts.
The third extension, in 987, is the work of Al-Mansur. This was the most solemn of all and almost doubled the total area of the mosque.
For three centuries, this building was the focal point of Muslim life in the city and inspired countless artists and intellectuals. The poet Muhammad Iqbal, for example, described it as having “countless pillars like rows of palm trees in the oases of Syria”, while the people of al-Andalus said that its beauty “was so dazzling that it defied description”.
The Mezquita is often compared architecturally to the Great Mosque of Damascus, which appears to have served as a model. However, structurally speaking, the mosque was a revolutionary building for its time. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus placed an emphasis on verticality, but the Mezquita was intended as a democratically horizontal and simple space, where the spirit could be free to roam and communicate easily with God – a kind of glorious refinement of the original simple Islamic prayer space (usually the open yard of a desert home). The naves, though now closed, were open to the courtyard, and their forest-like pattern of pillars is repeated in rows of orange trees planted across the courtyard. Today, out of the 19 doors along the north side of the mosque, only one door sheds light into the dim interior, dampening the vibrant effect of the red-and-white double arches.
In 1236, Ferdinand III of Castile reconquered Córdoba and had the Mezquits reconsecrated as a church. Alfonso X oversaw the construction of the Capilla Villaviciosa and the Capilla Real, both located within the mosque. The minaret was converted to the cathedral’s belltower, and at one stage its bells were those taken from Santiago de Compostela. The most significant – and deplored – alteration to the mosque was, however, the building of a Renaissance nave in the middle of the structure. Permission was given for this by Charles V, but he is said to have repented of it when he saw the final result. Legend has it that when the king saw the result he was horrified, exclaiming: ‘You have destroyed something that was unique in the world.’ The cathedral took nearly 250 years to complete (1523–1766) and thus exhibits a range of architectural fashions, from plateresque and late Renaissance to extravagant Spanish baroque. Among the later features are the Capilla Mayor’s rich 17th century jasper and red-marble retable (altar screen), and the fine mahogany stalls in the choir, carved in the 18th century by Pedro Duque Cornejo.
Today it is impossible not to lament the destruction of the mosque’s original integrity, but it must be conceded that if the building had not been converted to a cathedral, it would not have been spared the destruction of the Spanish Inquisition, which hunted down “heretical” structures as well as people and saw to it that they were eradicated. The tinkering that went on at the Mezquita until the 18th century undoubtedly saved it.
The Patio de los Naranjos is a lovely courtyard, with its orange, palm and cypress trees and fountains, and forms the entrance to the Mezquita. Sources indicate that the mosque courtyard was planted with fruit trees at least as early as the 9th century. Moreover, there are clear signs that from the very beginning, the mosque was built with hydraulics in mind, both to fill the ablution fountains and to nourish the courtyard plantings. Water was collected first by a simple catchment system that collected and funnelled water from the roof gables into the courtyard, unseen from the ground. During the dry season, water was also brought by aqueduct that was an extension of a Roman aqueduct network, repaired in the Umayyad period. Through its intelligent harvesting of water, the mosque was linked to the larger environment of mountains, plain, river and city.
The principal entrance to the mosque is the Puerta del Perdón, (The Gate of Forgiveness), a Mudejar style portal from the 14th century located on the north side of the Mezquita. This is one of the most important doors in the ceremonial life of the Cathedral as it sees the passing of some of the most important religious solemnities. Completed in the year 1377, it has since undergone various reforms, such as that of 1650 by the architect Sebastián Vidal. On it we can see the remains of some mural paintings which, attributed to Antonio del Castillo, represent Our Lady of the Assumption, flanked by Saint Michel and Saint Raphael.