The Great Mosque of Cordoba The Great Mosque of Cordoba can be seen as “the earliest extant example of Andalusi architectural culture”[i]. The Mezquita’s history begins with its initial inception and assembly in the late eighth-early ninth century, continuing into its expansions of the tenth century, culminating in its unexpected welding of ideology in the sixteenth century. “As the premier monument of al-Andalus, the Cordoba mosque embodies the history of the Iberian peninsula from its Islamic takeover in 711 through successive stages of Umayyad and post-Umayyad dominion and beyond.
Following the fall of Cordoba in 1236, the mosque was preserved as the repository of Castillian Spain’s signs of victory, and became a source of aesthetic and architectural inspiration that was eventually transported to the New World”[ii]. The mosque lies on the foundations of a former Christian Visigothic church, believed to have been started in 600 A. D. Built in a Spain under Moorish rule, the construction of the actual Mezquita, formally the “Aljama Mosque,” began between 784-786 A. D during the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman I[iii].
Rahman built the mosque as an adjunct to his palace, naming it in honor of his wife. Expansions, such as commissioning a new minaret to enlarging the building entirely, most notably occurred under the reigns of ‘Abd al-Rahman II between 833-852 A. D, al-Hakam II between 961-976 A. D, and the vizier al-Mansur from 987 A. D. As the Moorish rule in Spain was ending, Cordoba was conquered. Because of this, in 1236, Ferdinand III, the king of Castile, blessed the Mezquita as the city’s cathedral instead. For the next three hundred years, only relatively minor changes were made to the building.
In the early sixteenth century, the Mezquita under went historically significant changes. The Bishop and Canons of the cathedral wanted to demolish the mosque in order to build a new cathedral; however, “the opposition of the townspeople to the proposed destruction of the building led to the unprecedented decision, endorsed by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to insert an entire Gothic ‘chapel’ into the very heart of the former Great Mosque”[iv]. The result is a controversial theological juxtaposition: arising from the center of the low, sprawling, mosque are the forms of a Gothic cathedral.
The Great Mosque is built in an “open-plan” form: “this design was the most primitive and the original plan of the great ninth century mosque at Cordoba is an admirable illustration”[v]. The “open-plan” form means that part of the rectangular structure is left open in a courtyard, in this case the Patio de Naranjos, while the other part is roofed. The Mosque was designed to house prayer through out all seasons and elements, “providing a shelter from the cold and wet and an area for hot weather”[vi]. The covered section is a hypostyle hall, meaning its roof is borne on rows of columns[vii]. Any four adjacent columns create a bay, which is the module for the whole in that bay is added to bay to allow infinite growth in any direction”[viii]. The spaces between the columns create ‘aisles’ that stretch from the entrance to the far wall, emphasizing how long the mosque runs end to end: “In the open-plan, with its aisles and bays extending on all sides, it is the limitlessness of space that is emphasized”[ix]. This notion extends to the exterior courtyard, the Patio de Naranjas, where the rows of trees planted serve to create a visual comparison and continuation of the vast rows of columns found inside.
The alternating red and white striped double arcades of piers and arches create a striking visual effect, emphasizing the height of the hall. The use of such arches and piers, including the color choices of red and white, are associated with other Umayyad monuments, showing Aba al-Rahman’s connection to the established Umayyad tradition [x]. The combination of the arches and columns as well as “the originality of its overall compositional effect are all factors that enhance [The Great Mosque’s] value to the history of Western Islamic architecture in particular”[xi].
The striped arches balanced atop the jasper, onyx, marble and granite columns not only contribute structurally, but make the interior of the mosque aesthetically enticing and hypnotizing. These elements of the interior reflect and perpetuate a major principle of Islamic architecture: “This infinity and oneness are in fact the architectural embodiments of an understanding of the divine nature. Islamic architecture is the projection into the visual order of these two essential aspects of Allah himself; the building expresses tawhid, which is the metaphysical doctrine of the Divine Unity as the source and culmination of all diversity”[xii].
Commissioned by the caliph al-Hakam II between 962-966 A. D, the most lavish interior ornamentation is concentrated in the maqsura. The maqsura is the prayer space reserved for the ruler, so it makes sense that it would be the most decorated area of the mosque. The space is composed of three domed bays in front of the mihrab, the traditionally niched wall that indicates what direction Mecca is, indicating in which direction to face while praying. In the Great Mosque, however, the mihrab was unprecedented for straying from tradition, taking the form of an entire room and being flanked by two rooms with intricate mosaics.
Visually separated from the rest of the prayer hall by screens made of elaborate intersecting polylobed arcades, the maqsura exhibits a variation on the basic architectural themes found in rest of the mosque[xiii]. These detailed screens, carved marble, stucco and elaborate mosaics emphasize the special status of the space. The Great Mosque is not only a visually stunning structure, but also embodies history. The addition of the cathedral in the center of the building represents a very significant change in Spain’s history from eight centuries of Arabic domination to a Catholic Monarchy.
Luckily, majority of the original mosque has been left untouched by the Catholics out of an appreciation of the beauty, craftsmanship and architectural achievements the Great Mosque embodies. The Catholic addition creates a juxtaposition between the two, normally opposing, religions; however, “while the mosque’s Muslim historians made it the concrete visual representation of a distinct creative culture, its geo-political position in the history of medieval Spain made it the symbol of national personality forged out of the interaction of two at times ideologically opposed worlds” [xiv].
Spaniards choose to embrace the eccentricity of the mosque, upholding it as one of Spain’s great monuments. Overall, “by creating a translucent, multifaced monument charged with the symbolism of authority, the Analusian Umayyads left a legacy whose multiple layers of meaning were of value to both Spanish and Islamic cultural history”[xv]. The Great Mosque is an amazing monument that unites both Islamic and Spanish history through its unique style, rich history, subsequent influences and lasting presence, still standing today as an mblem of multiple cultural histories and superb architecture. Works Cited Anderson, Glair D. and Mariam Rosser-Owen. Revisiting Al-Andalus: Perspectives on the Material Culture of Islamic Iberia and Beyond. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV. 2007 Davies, J. G. Temples, Churches, and Mosques: A Guide to the Appreciation of Religious Architecture. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982 “Great Mosque of Cordoba. ” ArchNet: Islamic Architecture Community. Site created and designed by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture and Planning. Khoury, Nuha. 1996. “The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth century. ” Muqarnas 13, 80-98. Notes: ———————– [i] Glair D. Anderson and Mariam Rosser-Owen Revisiting Al-Andalus: Perspectives on the Material Culture of Islamic Iberia and Beyond. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV. 2007 p. 27 [ii] Nuha Khoury, “The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century. ” Muqarnas 13, p. 80-98. 1996 p. 80 [iii] “Great Mosque of Cordoba. ” ArchNet: Islamic Architecture Community.
Site created and designed by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture and Planning. . [iv] “Great Mosque of Cordoba” [v] J. G. Davies, Temples, Churches, and Mosques: A Guide to the Appreciation of Religious Architecture. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982. p. 121 [vi] Davies p. 121 [vii] Davies p. 121 [viii] Davies p. 121 [ix] Davies p. 126 [x] “Great Mosque” [xi] Nuha Khoury p. 80 [xii] Davies p. 126 [xiii] “Great Mosque” [xiv] Nuha Khoury p. 80 [xv] Nuha Khoury p. 15