Wednesday, July 10: Oh! The Mezquita! I have seen many beautiful places on my holiday, but I don’t think anything equals this stunning mosque turned cathedral.
All day I have anticipated my first glimpse of the Mezquita, the mosque-slash-cathedral I have seen in hundreds of pictures over the years. I remember first seeing photographs in Art History class. Later, fascinated with its red and white striped horseshoe arches, I pored over more pictures. I read of its history.
Yet. Nothing has prepared me for my first encounter with this marvelous place.
We start in the Patio de los Naranjos with its beautiful orange trees. This was originally the mosque’s ablutions courtyard. A door leads from here to the prayer hall itself.
From the courtyard, we can see the Torre del Aminar, rising 93 meters. It is actually easily visible outside the courtyard from Cordoba’s streets. The Baroque-style bell tower was built over the mosque’s original minaret.
After walking through the courtyard, we pass through the entrance into the mosque.
When I walk inside and get my first glimpse of the dark forest of pillars and arches, I’m stopped in my tracks. I literally can’t breathe. And, as corny as it may sound, I am overcome with emotion. I can’t move; I don’t want to move. All I want to do is stand still and to soak up this moment. I feel flushed and choked-up. Tears come to my eyes. I can’t believe I am seeing this legendary place in person. I am here.
The red and white striped arches are in gloomy darkness near this entrance, but they stretch far ahead of me and to my right, in long aisles and rows, and I can see the ones in the distance are bathed in more light than these and I am astounded.
Nothing has prepared me for the immensity and the beauty of this place. It stretches a long way in all directions. It’s much more massive than I ever imagined. And those arches, the double horseshoe arches with their red and white blocks of stone, are like a medieval forest, one in which a person could get lost, and then found. By God, or Allah, or Christ, or some higher power that we humans try to understand with our study of religion, our worship, our moments of prayer and silence.
The Great Mosque ~ Aljama ~ of Cordoba, built during the period of Moorish occupation, is the most splendid Islamic monument in the western world. Its construction commenced in 785, when Abd-ar-Rahman established Cordoba as capital of al-Andalus, on the site of an ancient church dedicated to San Vicente. It was extended during successive periods by Abd-ar-Rahman II, Al-Hakam II and Almanzor.
The Mosque covers an area of 24,000 square meters and its interior is an authentic “forest” of columns and arches, wherein the exceptional and admirable Mihrab, boasting inscriptions of the Quran in gold and rich mosaics, represents the focal point.
The Great Mosque is a harmonious combination of various styles: the initial works of Abd-ar-Rahman I display Hispano-Visigothic influences, taking advantage of materials and columns gathered from other constructions.
The Mosque’s square ground-plan is composed of pillars of two-tiered semi-circular arches that serve to provide greater elevation to the roof, a sense of openness, structural support and enhanced lighting.
Later, Almanzor, emulating his predecessors, further extended the Great Mosque, and concluded construction of the monument. Since 1523 the Great Mosque has also housed a Christian Cathedral, constructed in the wake of the Reconquest along with the other side chapels. In the Cathedral, we can see an impressive High Altarpiece, the Baroque Altarpiece, the choir stalls worked in mahogany and the Treasures of the Cathedral, consisting of priceless jewels, including the particularly noteworthy Monstrance of Arfe. (Mezquita de Cordoba)
The approach to the Mihrab is marked by heavier, more ornate arches. Immediately in front of the mihrab is the maksura, the royal prayer enclosure, with its intricately interwoven arches and decorated domes created by Caliph Hakam II in the 960s. (Lonely Planet Spain)
The Mihrab portal incorporates 1600 kg of gold mosaic cubes, a gift from the Christian emperor of Byzantium, Nicephoras II Phocas. The mosaics give this part of the Mezquita the air of a Byzantine church. (Lonely Planet Spain)
I love it that Cordoba’s government, unlike many other governments in southern Spain, opted not to tear down the Mezquita after the Reconquest. When the bishops wanted to tear it down, according to our guide Barry, the government wouldn’t allow it. However, when the Bishops wanted to use it as a church, they were given permission to add the Cathedral right in the middle. I love the merging of religions in this place. This is the way it should be; people should be allowed to worship however they please, with no intolerance or prohibitions. As in the days when the Moors ruled, there should be religious tolerance; people of all faiths should be able to worship side by side and to celebrate their differences and commonalities.
It is close and damp in the Mezquita on this summer day in Cordoba. I walk around inside for a good long while and sit in various places, damp and sweating. I wonder if it might be cooler outside, where there may be a slight breeze. Once I go outside, I find it’s hotter outside than in, and I would have been better off staying inside. However, once I’ve left, there’s no way back in, as guards stand at the exit. Now I’m left to suffer the fierce sun.
Before we came here today, Barry told us a little history of Cordoba. His version goes something like this: Damascus was the head of the Islamic world. In Damascus, the Umayyads, the second of four Islamic caliphates that were established following the death of Mohammed, were the clan that held the title of caliph. In the Muslim conquests, the Umayyads incorporated the Caucasus, Transoxiana, Sind, the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus) into the Muslim world. At its greatest extent, the Umayyad Caliphate covered 5.79 million square miles (15,000,000 km2), making it the largest empire the world had yet seen, and the fifth largest to ever exist.
In 730, 100 years after the death of Mohammed, there was an uprising in Damascus and the Umayyads were kicked out. The Caliph had to flee. They planned to take control and chose Cordoba to be the center of the Islamic World. According to Barry, the prayer wall in the Mezquita doesn’t align to Mecca because the Caliphs wanted Cordoba to be the center.
The Caliphs picked a reasonable Christian cathedral built by the Visigoths and bought it from the Christian bishops. Both Christians and Muslims used it for about 30 years. Then the Christians decided they wanted their own place to worship. The Caliphs started developing the Mezquita over three generations, from 730-1030.
Cordoba was a city of enlightenment during the Dark Ages in Europe. There was acceptance and tolerance of people’s differences. According to Lonely Planet Spain, the biggest city in Western Europe had dazzling mosques, libraries, observatories and aqueducts, a university and skilled artisans in textiles, leather, metal and glazed tiles. Arab, Christian and Jewish scholars frequented the multicultural court. According to Barry, a property survey was done in London in the year 1000 which found three public baths in London, while in Cordoba, there were over 1,000.
In 1030, there was a popular uprising and the Umayyads asked the Berbers to help out as mercenaries. The Berbers ended up throwing the Umayyads out. Three different North African dynasties took over Cordoba, then they returned to Africa. The North African Muslims were fairly fanatical and not tolerant.
In 1236, Cordoba was captured by Fernando III of Castilla and the once great town began to lose importance.
Later, after stopping for a cool drink on yet another hot day in southern Spain, I cross over the Puente Romano Bridge, a reminder that Cordoba was the capital of the Roman empire in the Iberian Peninsula. From the bridge, I can look back and see the Mezquita as I leave it behind. I can also see the green murky waters of the Rio Guadalquivir.
I arrive at our meeting spot with Scottish Barry before we are due back and before Carole and Barry return, so I go inside a little shop for a drink of sparkling water and a nata con galletas de chocolate gelato.
On our drive back to Mollina, we marvel again at the beautiful Spanish countryside, with its neatly organized and manicured fields of grains and sunflowers and grapevines. Carole still has leftovers of the sweet anise bread she bought in Ronda, produced by Dulces Artesanales. We munch happily on that in the car despite my having just polished off a cone of gelato. 🙂
When we return to the villa in Mollina, I chat on Skype with my friend Jayne in California, eat a sandwich and take a dip in the pool with Carole. Oh, life is so good here. 🙂