The Mezquita of Córdoba

There is this thing that we humans do when we conquer another group of humans we deem dangerous, unfit, or just plain in the way. I mean aside from killing, expelling, or subjugating the people who were conquered.

We desecrate or destroy the holy sites of the conquered. It happens everywhere.

When we were traveling through Turkey five years ago we noticed that all the frescoes in the old Byzantine churches had the faces scratched off. In places like the Hagia Sophia, the golden mosaics were simply plastered over in the service of turning the place into a mosque. In our travels throughout Portugal and Spain, most all of the churches and cathedrals are built on the ruins of old mosques or synagogues, which were torn down after the Reconquista.

The Mezquita of Córdoba is almost an exception to this rule. I’d only read about this place in our travel guide, so was wholly unprepared for what I saw when I walked through the door:

Seemingly endless double arches fill the space without overcrowding it. The architectural idea is to allow the spirit to roam free and commune easily with God. There were originally 1,293 columns that supported the double arches. Today there are 856. We’ll get to what happened to the other 437 in a moment. Photo by T.
Tucked into one side of the vast space is this wonderful prayer nook. Photo by T.
The roof of the prayer nook. Photo by R.

In the 9th century Córdoba was considered the “city of the three cultures” because Muslims, Jews, and Christians all lived there in peace. It was the biggest city in Western Europe, with flourishing artisan and agricultural communities.

Alas, the center cannot hold. The peaceful caliphate that ruled over Córdoba was overthrown by a much less peaceful general, and when that general’s son died everything turned up anarchy. The city was looted by Berbers, and it declined steadily after that.

But the Mezquita remained intact. Even after the Reconquista in 1236. The new Catholic monarchs simply repurposed the space as a church, but didn’t change its core architecture.

It was used thus until 1536, when King Carlos I gave permission to have a cathedral built inside the Mezquita. This required demolishing a large swath of the interior.

The first hint that something is amiss. Red and white stripped arches on the sides and the Islamic arches in the center give way to an archway leading into the Renaissance style cathedral. Photo by T.

A large number of the double arches were destroyed to make room for the cathedral – that’s where the missing 437 columns went. The cathedral itself is nice enough, but it’s also kind of terrible.

The cathedral inside the mosque. When Carlos I saw what the architect had done he was horrified. “You have destroyed something unique in the world,” he said. One wonders what the king thought was going to happen when he approved the plan. Photo by T.

So there you have it. A holy place changes hands and its character changes with it. It’s a thing that happens over and over again across time. The tragedy of it is that so much art and culture is lost in the process. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just leave beautiful things alone?

The Mezquita is still a powerful symbol of Islam in Spain. The Muslim community here has petitioned Rome to allow them to pray there, but the Vatican has not consented.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and I’m sure we’d be forgiven for despairing. But then, as we continued walking through the forest of arches, we arrived at a bit of perspective. Lest any Muslim or Christian get too cocky about who really has the valid claim to the space, we are reminded that the Romans were here first:

A window in the floor reveals Roman mosaic tiles under the foundations of the Mezquita. Photo by T.

There is a one hour window, from 8:30 to 9:30 in the morning, when it is free to enter the Mezquita. Even though there was a line to get in, there still were far fewer people than we saw wandering around in the middle of the day. You will get kicked out after that hour, so be prompt. If you want to spend more time inside you’ll need to buy a ticket. We found that an hour was enough, but probably would have lingered longer had we had the option.

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