Once a simple olive town, Córdoba has become one of the most important cities in Andalusia next to Sevilla. The 8th century La Mezquita or Great Mosque stands majestically along Calle Cardenal Herrero in the city center. The massive structure symbolizes the numerous religious changes that the Andalusian city of Córdoba has experienced through the centuries.
Abd ar-Rahman’s Great Mosque, which has been a cathedral for over 750 years, is not just the emblematic monument of Córdoba, but also one of the most impressive works of art in the world. The site had originally held a Roman temple of Janus, and later a Visigoth Saint Vincent Basilica. Today, only about one-third of the mosque belongs to the original, but its sheer size is almost equal to that of St Peter’s in Rome.
The initial foundations of the Great Mosque were set by emir, Abd ar-Rahman in 785, who intended to designate the site as the center of pilgrimages in order to amplify the distance from eastern Islam. At the time, Córdoba was the largest and most prosperous cities of Europe, outshining Byzantium and Baghdad in arts and culture, and science. The building of the Great Mosque paralleled these new heights of splendor.
To pass through the Mudéjar gateway, the Puerta del Perdón is to walk through history. The architect introduced horseshoe-shaped arches above the lower pillars, alternating brick and stone. It created the familiar red and white striped pattern that gives the interior an effect of unity, in addition to adding height and spaciousness. Over 850 columns fill its interior, crafted from of onyx, marble and colored granite jasper. Each pillar was raised to make space within the Mezquita, and are of different heights. In this labyrinth of arching pillars, streams of sunlight come in from the windows in the four cupolas, which creates an interesting effect in combination with the thousands of small oil lights.
The Mihrab, a domed reliquary of Byzantine mosaics was built by Al Hakam II and is the focal point. In this mosque, Islamic worshipers would have traditionally faced south-southeast in the direction of Mecca. However, in the Great Mosque instead it looked south, indicating the same way as the Damascus mosque’s direction for prayer, not Mecca.
In front of the Mihrab, the Maksoureh, an anteroom for the caliph and his court was created with Islamic mosaics and plasterwork.
Parts of the flagstone floors of the Mezquita are worn down due to the numerous pilgrims who have passed through its doors, also indicating where they crouched on their knees. The shell-shaped ceiling is carved from a single piece of marble and the chambers found on either side is adorned with exquisite Byzantine mosaics.
The mosque came together in several stages and exhibits Christian, Gothic and Moorish influences. Because the city was subject to frequent invasions, each conquering ruler added their own flourish upon the structure. It was sanctified as a Christian cathedral in 1236, the same year that the city was reconquered by King Ferdinand III. Alfonso X, king of Castille constructed the Villaviciosa Chapel with striking multi-lobed arches while the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) was built as a pantheon for Christian kings, which were integrated entirely in the Muslim temple. The new transepts’ proportions were extraordinary and had the effect of a Renaissance nave.
Under Enrique II, the Capilla Real was rebuilt in the Mudejar style. Again, in the early 1500s, more change came to the cathedral when the church built a huge nave inside the mosque, with the support of Carlos V. The interior also includes breathtaking chapels on the walls in each direction, and altars such as the Santa María del Pilar de Zaragoza from 1345. Carved and gilded wood in the altarpiece embodies Santiago kneeling in front of the Virgin Mary. A cityscape that suggests the city of Zaragoza is between them.
In addition to exquisite paintings and other artistic works, the Mezquita also holds “treasure” comprised of splendid ivory crucifixes, gold and silver goblets and chalices among other items donated to the cathedral in 1620.
The cathedral was elaborated on for centuries by successive emirs, caliphs and kings who expanded and extended it in Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque stylistic additions well into the 18th century, making the structure an intriguing architectural singularity. Today, the Mezquita is the cathedral of Córdoba, though the vast majority of its architecture and art is the masterpiece of Islamic architects.
By: Dawn Levesque