sights / Religious

Lonely Planet review

It’s impossible to overemphasise the beauty of Córdoba’s great mosque, with its remarkably peaceful and spacious interior. The Mezquita hints, with all its lustrous decoration, at a lavish and refined age when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side and enriched their city and surroundings with a heady interaction of diverse and vibrant cultures.

The Visigothic Church of St Vincent was the original building located on the site of the Mezquita, and Arab chronicles recount how Abd ar-Rahman I purchased half of the church for the use of the Muslim community’s Friday prayers. However, the rapid growth of that community soon rendered the space too small and in AD 784 he bought the other half to erect a new mosque. Al-Hakim II added the existing mihrab (prayer niche) and, for extra light, built a number of domes with skylights over the area in front of it.

What you see today is the building’s final form with one major alteration – a 16th-century cathedral right in the middle (hence the often-used description of ‘Mezquita-Cathedral’). The structure was partly dismantled to make way for the cathedral, which took nearly 250 years to complete (1523–1766). The cathedral thus exhibits a range of changing architectural styles and tastes, from plateresque and late Renaissance to extravagant Spanish baroque.

The main entrance to the Mezquita is the Puerta del Perdón , a 14th-century Mudéjar gateway on Calle Cardenal Herrero. There’s a ticket office immediately inside on the pretty Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Orange Trees), from where a door leads inside the building itself. Mass is held at 11am, noon and 1pm on weekdays. Entrance is free from 8.30am to 10am Monday to Saturday and groups are not admitted, so weekday morning visits are perfect for appreciating the Mezquita in peace and quiet. Mass is celebrated from 11am to 1pm Sunday in the central cathedral.

The Mosque-Cathedral

The Mezquita’s architectural uniqueness and importance lies in the fact that, structurally speaking, it was a revolutionary building for its time. It defied precedents. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus both had vertical, navelike designs, but the Mezquita’s aim was to form an infinitely spacious, democratically horizontal and simple space, where the spirit could be free to roam and communicate easily with God. The original Islamic prayer space (usually the open yard of a desert home) was transformed into a 14,400-sq-m metaphor for the desert itself. Men prayed side by side on the argamasa , a floor made of compact, reddish slaked lime and sand. A flat roof, decorated with gold and multicoloured motifs, shaded them from the sun. The orange patio, where the ablution fountains gurgled with water, was the oasis. The terracotta-and-white-striped arches suggested a hallucinogenic forest of date palms, and supported the roof with 1293 columns (of which only 856 remain).

Abd ar-Rahman I’s initial mosque was a square split into two rectangular halves – a covered prayer hall and an open ablutions courtyard. The prayer hall was divided into 11 ‘naves’ by lines of two-tier arches striped in red brick and white stone. The columns used for the Mezquita were a mishmash of material collected from the Visigothic cathedral that had previously occupied the site, Córdoba’s Roman buildings and places as far away as Constantinople. This, predictably, presented problems in keeping the ceiling height consistent and making it high enough to create a sense of openness. Inventive builders came up with the idea of using the tall columns as a base and planting the shorter ones on top in order to create the ceiling arches. Later enlargements of the mosque extended these lines of arches to cover an area of nearly 120 sq metres and create one of the biggest mosques in the world. The arcades are one of the much-loved Islamic architectural motifs. Their simplicity and number give a sense of endlessness to the Mezquita.

Originally there were 19 doors, filling the interior of the mosque with light. Nowadays, only one door sheds its light into the dim interior, dampening the vibrant effect of the red and white voussoirs of the double arches. Christian additions to the building, such as the solid mass of the cathedral in the centre and the 50 or so chapels around the fringes, further enclose and impose on the airy space.

At the furthest point from the entrance door, on the southern wall of the mosque, the aisles draw you towards qibla (the direction of Mecca) and the mosque’s greatest treasure, the mihrab built by Al-Hakim II.

Mihrab & Maksura

Like Abd ar-Rahman II a century earlier, Al-Hakim lengthened the naves of the prayer hall, creating a new mihrab at the south end of the central nave. The bay immediately in front of the mihrab and the bays to each side form the maksura , the area where the caliphs and their retinues would have prayed. Inside the mihrab a single block of white marble was sculpted into the shape of a scallop shell, a symbol of the Quran. This formed the dome that amplified the voice of the imam (person who leads Islamic worship services) throughout the mosque.

The arches within and around the maksura are the mosque’s most intricate and sophisticated, forming a forest of interwoven horseshoe shapes. These ingenious curves are subtly interwoven to form the strongest elements of the structure. But they were not only physically functional: their purpose was to seduce the eye of the worshipper with their lavish decorations, leading it up to the mihrab – to the focus of prayer and the symbolic doorway to heaven. Equally attractive are the skylit domes over the maksura , decorated with star-patterned stone vaulting. Each dome was held up by four interlocking pairs of parallel ribs, a highly advanced technique in 10th-century Europe.

The greatest glory of Al-Hakim II’s extension was the portal of the mihrab itself – a crescent arch with a rectangular surround known as an alfiz , surmounted by a blind arcade. For the decoration of the portal, Al-Hakim asked the emperor of Byzantium, Nicephoras II Phocas, to send him a mosaicist capable of imitating the superb mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus, one of the great 8th-century Syrian Omayyad buildings. The Christian emperor sent the Muslim caliph not only a mosaicist but also a gift of 1600kg of gold mosaic cubes. These shimmering cubes, shaped into flower motifs and inscriptions from the Quran, decorated the whole maksura .

Patio de los Naranjos & Minaret

Outside the mosque, the leafy, walled courtyard and its fountain were the site of ritual ablutions before prayer. The crowning glory of the whole complex was the minaret, which at its peak towered 48m (only 22m of the minaret still survives). Now encased in its 16th-century shell, the original minaret would have looked something like the Giralda in Seville, which was practically a copy. Córdoba’s minaret influenced all the minarets built thereafter throughout the western Islamic world.

The Cathedral

For three centuries following the Reconquista (Christian reconquest) in 1236, the Mezquita remained largely unaltered save for minor modifications such as the Mudéjar tiling added in the 1370s to the Mozarabic and Almohad Capilla Real (located nine bays north and one east of the mihrab, and now part of the cathedral). In the 16th century King Carlos I gave permission (against the wishes of Córdoba’s city council) for the centre of the Mezquita to be ripped out to allow construction of the Capilla Mayor (the altar area in the cathedral) and coro (choir). However, the king was not enamoured with the results and famously regretted: ‘You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.’

Subsequent additions included a rich 17th-century jasper and red-marble retable (ornamental screenlike structure behind the altar) in the Capilla Mayor, and fine mahogany stalls in the choir, which were carved in the 18th century by Pedro Duque Cornejo.