The Great Mosque of Cordoba- Andalusian splendour in the Mezquita

Horseshoe arches in the Great Mosque of Cordoba

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 …”

In the orange courtyard of the Mezquita

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

Horseshoe arches in the Great Mosque of Cordoba

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 . 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 original Islamic Mihrab in 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.

Horseshoe arches in the Great Mosque of Cordoba

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!

Crucifix and Moorish arches in the Mezquita

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

Christian imagery in the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba

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.

A Christian Chapel in the Mezquita / Mosque-Cathedral

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.

Horseshoe arches in the Great Mosque of Cordoba

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. 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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20 Comments

  1. Cordoba was one of my favorite places when I visited Andalusia last year. As I entered the Cathedral, I was so overwhelmed, that I almost cried. The atmosphere there was just magical – I assume that it’s good to visit now before tourism catches up again. Also, the whole conflict and absurdity of Andalusia’s past are perfectly reflected in this building. Ah, your post makes me all sentimental – I enjoyed Cordoba so much!

    1. Dear Renata, same here. I was moved to tears when we entered the cathedral. And I have seen a lot of beautiful mosques and cathedrals around the world.

  2. We were quite amazed when we visited the great Mosque of Cordoba. We found the mix of design and religious styles fascinating. Around every pillar was another amazing view. I definitely would recommend a visit! And understand why this was a all-time travel highlight for you.

  3. I love Cordoba! The great mosque in Cordoba is simply amazing and the mix of religions interesting. Those colorful pillars and arches are well captured in your image. The best thing about Cordoba is that there are no long queues and crowds like in Seville and Granada . And there is so much history to absorb! 🙂

  4. I have never been to Cordoba so I didn’t know about this Mosque, it is truly beautiful. The architecture and the details must be even more amazing in real.

  5. I have visited the Mezquita a few years ago, and it is indeed a work of art. It has such a beautiful history, the same as the city, which used to be known back in its Moorish times for being a peaceful place where people of all religions lived harmoniously in the same area. I know that a lot of people skip Cordoba in favour of Granada and Sevilla, but I always tell my friends not to, as it would be a shame.

  6. I immediately recognized the Moorish influence with the vast amount of pillars and red and white stripped pillars. What a beautiful place to visit- to admire and to learn about its history

  7. This modern mosque’s architectural style appears to be magnificent and one-of-a-kind. The mosque’s massive dimensions, currently known as the Mezquita-Cathedral, astounded and awed me. I love every feature of it, especially the fact that it was constructed so long ago, implying that the structure is extremely sturdy.

  8. I found the Great Mosque of Cordoba really unique! First a Roman temple then church, then a mosque, then finally a church/cathedral again. Personally I like the combination of Moors pillars and the Spanish Renaissance style. I wonder if there are Moslems who still pray in this place.

    1. Dear Umiko, probably not. Officially it is a working, consecrated catholic church. And there are mass services. The Great Mosque in Damascus has been a church, but no christian would pray there today.

  9. The Great Mosque of Cordoba features some spectacular designs of Moorish architecture as derived from the name “Mezquite” meaning Mosque in Spanish. It’s amazing to see how king Ferdinand lll renovated the mosque into a church by adding arches to the pillars. No doubt it’s a UNESCO world heritage site displaying confluence of Moorish and Spanish renaissance style of architecture.

  10. Interesting that the Great Mosque changed hands and religions. I also think it’s funny when people get on loudspeakers to tell you to be quiet. They did the same thing to us at the Sistine Chapel!

  11. Thanks for detailing about the Great Mosque of Cordoba. I was in Seville and I also visited Granada, but could not make the time for this beautiful place and I kinda regret. It’s great to find you have traveled to this wonder and undoubtedly, it’s a marvelous place to check in at.

  12. We took a day trip (by train) from Seville to Cordoba to visit the mosque. Definitely one of our all time favorite travel experiences. We spent hours just trying to take it all in. Stunning, and the historical significance…. it’s all so breathtaking.

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