Entering from the so-called courtyard of oranges into the Great Mosque-of Cordoba, dimly filtered light surrounds us. A strong whiff of incense wafts by. We are still adjusting our eyes to the soft light to take in rows of horseshoe arches when the loudspeaker crackles: “You are entering a catholic place of worship! Please remain quiet and respectful …”
The Great Mosqsue of Cordoba is also called Mezquita, and Mezquita means mosque in Spanish. But the famous Mezquita of Cordoba is indeed, officially, a church today. And its official name is Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. In the 13th century, the Catholic Spanish king Ferdinand III turned the Great Mosque of Cordoba into a church.
Endless marble pillars
Beyond the heavy entrance door we are standing in a room filled with marble pillars. They seem to be extending into infinity. The ceiling isn’t low, and the floor not covered in carpets as it might be in a mosque. But with its rows of columns and arches, the room immediately emanates that intimate atmosphere of old mosques. We have seen similar mosques in Uzbekistan, or in Iran, in Turkey, and in Egypt. As is often the case in these places, many of the pillars are older than the building itself. They come from numerous earlier, Roman sites. In the Mezquita some of the re-used pillars need larger pedestals than others to compensate for the differences in height.
Roman Temple, church or mosque?
Indeed, there used to be a Roman temple at this spot in the centre of Cordoba. Later, Visigoth Christians built a church in the same place. After the Moorish conquest of Spain, the Muslim conquerors and the Christians used the building in turns for a while. But eventually the new ruler Abd ar-Rahman I coerced the Christians into moving out, tore the church down and built a new mosque in 784.
A modern mosque design
The new Great Mosque of Cordoba was large and impressive, and in a new, Moorish style. The dominant feature of this Moorish architecture is the row of horseshoe arches. The pillars have extra-large capitals on which the arches rest, turning slightly inwards to form almost a circle. In the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the height of these arches was insufficient to support the high roof. The builders came up with a most innovative solution: They added another row of traditional arches on top, like in Roman aqueducts.
There seem to be pillars and arches everywhere in the Mezquita! Another typical Moorish design feature is the alternating red and white stripes of the arches. These do not stem from Roman or European traditions, but are imported from the Arab Middle East. We have seen similar architecture in Syria when we lived for a while in Damascus. Later, we also visited the ruins of a whole Umayyad city, Anjar, in Lebanon. And while most of the new Muslim conquerors were North African Berbers from Mauretania – hence the name “Moors” – their leader came indeed from the Middle East. Abd ar-Rahman I was the last heir of the defeated Umayyad dynasty in Damascus.
The expansion of the Great Mosque of Cordoba
The door where we have entered the Mezquita is part of the original building by Amir Abd ar-Rahman I. It was 11 bays wide and had its Mihrab on the South-eastern wall, vaguely in the direction of Mecca. At that time, the mosque builders were still unable to determine the exact orientation towards Mecca. Defining the exact direction of Mecca was, after all, one of the main reasons for the obsession of Muslim scientists with astronomy and mathematics. Building huge astronomical observatories, they were eventually able to calculate exact locations on earth, and hence the direction towards Mecca. The first mosque in Moorish Spain with the correct orientation was 150 years later the palace mosque of Medina Azahara, which we visited the next day.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba, meanwhile, quickly became too small for the growing number of Muslims in Cordoba. Several generations after the Arab conquest, it was obvious that the Muslim rulers were going to stay. That meant that for many locals, conversion to Islam offered career opportunities and an easier life. Over the course of the 9th and 10th century, the Great Mosque of Cordoba hence received several extensions. From the main entrance door, the room extends for more than 100 m to the side and to the back. In total, there are almost a thousand pillars.
A mosque turned into a church?
Walking further through the forest of pillars, we realise that there are strange chapels and sculptures that don’t belong into a mosque. Dotted around the building and along the walls are crucifixes, altars, and shrines for Catholic saints. In addition, we also pass some museum vitrines showing excavated remnants of the Visigoth church that used to be here before the mosque!
But then, somewhere in the middle of the building, we find ourselves at the cathedral part of the Mosque-Cathedral. There are walls instead of pillars, and the roof is much higher, with white arches and decorations in the Spanish Renaissance style. It is a relatively new addition. After the Spanish Reconquista and the reintroduction of Christianity, all Muslims had to leave Cordoba. The Christians then made some small changes to the building but used it as a church straight away.
The Emperor and the Mosque-Cathedral
According to a popular legend, the mighty Emperor Charles V gave his permission to build a cathedral inside the Mosque in the 16th century. A few years later he travelled to Andalusia. It was then that he saw the new cathedral inside the Great Mosque of Cordoba for the first time. The Emperor was flabbergasted:
Had I known what you were going to build, I would not have allowed it!
Whether he actually said that or not, most people agree that the original Moorish part of the building with the horseshoe arches is much more beautiful than the white Spanish church in the middle. Personally, we rather dislike the large choirs that stand in the middle of most Spanish churches and block the view from the back.
However, the church building inside a large mosque did make the Great Mosque of Cordoba truly unique. Whereas even a beautiful old mosque would just be one of many mosques, Cordoba has a truly exceptional building. The Great Mosque of Cordoba was accordingly among the first sites in Spain to get a UNESCO World Heritage status in 1984. This was later extended to include the surrounding Old Town as well.
More highlights in the Old Town of Cordoba
The old alleys around the Great Mosque are quite atmospheric. We walk them often as a number of Cordoba tourist highlights are dotted around the Mezquita. In particular, we enjoy the Archaeological Museum and the excavations of the Moorish bathhouse (Baños del Alcázar Califal). The former Jewish Quarter still holds an old synagogue (without a congregation for centuries). But it is primarily home to souvenir shops and restaurants. You can easily spend two days in the beautiful old town of Cordoba.
Should you visit the Great Mosque of Cordoba?
Yes, if you are travelling in Andalusia you must definitely visit the Great Mosque of Cordoba! It is one of the absolute highlights Spain has to offer. For us, the Great Mosque of Cordoba was even one of our all-time travel highlights, similar to Persepolis in Iran and Leptis Magna in Libya.
How to visit the Great Mosque of Cordoba
Cordoba is a major city in Andalusia and has good train connections with Madrid. The Mezquita is in the centre of the Old Town. Most of the sights in Cordoba are in walking distance, except for the Moorish palace town of Medina Asahara, another UNESCO site close by.
We travelled in Andalusia during a touristic slump due to Corona restrictions, so it was easy to buy tickets for the Mezquita on the spot, just like the equally spectacular Alhambra of Granada. In normal years, you would probably have to book in advance, especially if you want to climb the tower as well. However, the Great Mosque of Cordoba is absolutely worth the effort and the high entrance fee (11 Euro in 2022). Book tickets at the official site here.
NB: We were not sponsored for this blog post and paid all expenses ourselves.
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