This is a research on the Mezquita Mosque in Cordoba, which is the third largest mosque ever built and one of the most beautiful. The mosque is unique as it has a Christian cathedral within its walls and its unique and monumental pillars are a source of amazement, especially, considering that it got built in the 7th century. On this research, I summarize on when the Mosque got built, who built it, the materials and labor force employed as well as the culture prevalent during the time. I also follow the transformation of the Mosque across the centuries to this day.
The Mezquita mosque of Cordoba Spain is one of the most beautiful mosques ever built. It is the third largest mosque in the world and also one of the oddest, because it contains a Christian cathedral that was built inside it after the Moors got expelled in 1236. The graceful Moorish architecture combined with the triumphant Baroque cathedral memorializes in stone the conflict between Christianity and Islam that wracked Spain for 700 years. The Mezquita mosque was built in 785 and enlarged four times during the following 200 years; the cathedral was added in the 16th century. (Brockman, 2011, pg. 330)
The Mezquita Mosque was founded by Abd ar-Rahman I in 785. Rahman I was the sole survivor of a tribe known as the Umayyards who fled Syria. Before Rahman I, the first Muslims who arrived to Cordoba shared la Mezquita with Christians. Rahman I bought the Christians out and started what would become a seven century dynasty of Muslim rule over Spain. After Rahman I died, he was followed by Abd ar-Rahmann II (822-52), who vastly extended the Mosque in the ninth century and under Abd ar-Rahman III (912-61), Cordoba rose to become the largest and most prosperous city in Europe. Improvements on the Mosque continued under his son Al-Hakim II (961-76) who doubled its size and hired Greek contractors to build the new Mihrab (huge doorway used as the entrance to the Mezquita), which stands to this day. The final improvement in size, on the mosque, came under Al-Mansour (977-1002). (Ward, pg. 151)
The Mezquita Mosque is a patchwork combination of all civilizations that occupied Cordoba. None, however, could bring themselves to destroy the Mosque, so each culture added their own personal touches. (Ward, pg. 151)
Cordoba was probably a sophisticated center of the arts from the time of ‘Abd al-Rahman I. Chronicles suggest his keen interest in Syrian culture, which is apparently confirmed by aspects of the Mezquita. (Bloom, J.M., and Blair, S., 2009, pg. 506)
The mosque began as the Christian Visigothic church of St. Vincent around 600, which was in turn built on the ruins of a Roman temple. In 784, the local emir bought it and began replacing it with the mosque. It got enlarged and embellished over the next two hundred years. (Brockman, 2011, pg. 331)
The architectural uniqueness of the Mezquita lies in the fact that it was a revolutionary building for its time, structurally speaking. It defied precedents. Both Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque in Damascus had vertical, navelike designs, but the aim of the Mezquita mosque was to create an infinitely spacious, democratically horizontal and classic space, where the spirit could roam freely and communicate easily with God. The original space of Islamic prayer (normally the open yard of a desert home) was transformed into a 14,400 square meter 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 multicolored 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 indicated a hallucinogenic forest of date palms, and upheld the roof with over one thousand columns, 1293 to be precise, (856 of which remain). (Ham, 2010, pg 204)
Construction of the Mezquita
It is almost certain that the building that housed the early 8th century mosque was destroyed by Rahman I for the first phase of the present Mezquita. Constructed on a straightforward hypostyle plan Abd al-Rahman’s mosque of 785 consisted of 11 aisles of 12 bays that- like the great mosque at Damascus – ran perpendicular to a walled court. Each bay was defined by sets of two-tiered horseshoe arches accompanied by alternating red brick and white stone voussoirs, which later got colored.
Therefore, the simplicity and apparent predictability of the plan were rendered more complex by the building’s elevation. Many of the most inventive forms of this first mosque suggest careful attention to local tradition: both the superimposed arches and the alternating masonry recall the Roman aqueduct of Los Milagros at Merida, while the horseshoe arch was commonly used in Christian Visigothic architecture. For some scholars, the plan and alternating voussoirs also indicate a local imitation of Syrian Umayyad architecture, thereby alluding to the lost home of ‘Abd al-Rahman I’. (Bloom, J.M., and Blair, S., 2009, pg. 507)
Rahman I ordered the mosque construction as a symbol of Cordoba’s claim to being the new center of Muslim culture. The architecture of the magnificent Mosque echoed that of another structure – the mosque of Umayyad dynasty built in Damascus when it had ruled the Muslim empire. But Cordoba’s mosque also incorporated local materials, including pillars salvaged from Roman ruins. By bringing together the old and new, the building celebrated both the Umayyads’ distinguished past in the East and the dynasty’s renewed power under Abd al-Rahman in the west. (Sonneborn, 2006, pg. 26)
The Mosque was built by the moor people who, together with animals that assisted in carrying the pillars and other materials, slaved for years to ensure the magnificent mosque was completed. The columns used for the Mezquita were a mishmash of material brought together from the Visigothic cathedral that previously stood on the site, Cordoba’s Roman buildings and places as far away as Constantinople. This, predictably, presented a problem in keeping a consistent ceiling height and making it high enough to create the feeling of openness. Creative builders came up with the idea of utilizing the tall columns as a base and placing 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 meters and build one of the largest mosques in the globe. (Ham, 2010, pg. 205)
The mosque had numerous pillars, 856 of which are still standing. The red and white peppermint stripes of the pillars were created in most part by white stone and redbrick voussoirs. The pillars are also constructed by onyx, granite, marble, and jasper, filling a total of nineteen aisles. A second row of arches placed above the first almost doubles the ceiling’s height. Some of the more compelling pillars came from the ancient Visigothic basilica. These can be picked out by the impressive capital carvings. Since the pillars brought in were not of the same size with some being taller than others, they had to be sunk into the base of the mosque. The oldest known pillar on the mosque came from Egypt and dates back to the reign of Amenophis IV. (Prince, 2009, pg. 142)
In 836, Rahman II extended this mosque by eight bays to the south, maintaining an identical elevation, arch type and decorative texture. Muhammad I (852-86) constructed a maqsura and completed the building’s exterior, restoring the early Bab al-Wuzara or Puerta de S. Esteban, in 855-6. This, and subsequent doorways have a blind horseshoe arch inscribed in a rectangular frame above an arched lintel and are framed with niches and blind arcades that often exhibit such complex arch types as interlaced or poly-lobed arches.
Each plane of the composition is covered with a different texture or relief, making the relationship between parts difficult to discern. Rahman III added a large minaret to the mosque and rebuilt its courtyard. Hakam II extended the prayer hall by 12 bays, in 961-6, creating an elaborately domed Maqsura and adorning the qibla with three doorways covered, like the domes, with mosaic inscriptions and decorations. A domed bay supported on an extravagant screen of interlaced and poly-lobed arches introduces the mihrab aisle and creates a basilical space around the approach to the maqsuara. (Bloom, J.M., and Blair, S., 2009, pg. 507)
The breadth of the Mezquita, as with any other mosque, is partly due to Muslim belief that prayers are more efficacious when delivered as close to Mecca as possible – hence the need to accommodate the maximum number of worshippers into the front row. There is also a belief that the architect of the Mosque planned the double row of arches, horseshoe below and semicircular above, for its effect; It is more reasonable to agree with those who argue that the average height of the Roman columns, which were brought to the site from many parts, was too small to allow a roof to be placed directly above them.
That the columns were not produced specifically for the Mezquita is obvious from the fact that they are of different heights, so that some were bedded below pavement level and others had bases of different heights placed beneath them. Tiers of arches were, of course, commonplace in Roman architecture and must have been familiar to the Muslim conquerors before they ever came to Spain, for North Africa had numerous examples of Roman aqueducts. There is also a belief that the builders of the mosque were inspired by the aqueduct of Merida in having the arches striped with alternate brick and stone. However, this belief is absurd as the interpolation of brick courses was well known in the Near East, where it is still said to diminish the damage caused by earthquake shocks and Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock had striped arches some years before the Mezquita was built. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 19)
The first object that meets the eye in the Mosque today is a beautiful Visigothic carved pedestal and stoup, one of the finest relics of the strange Teuton domination of the 6th and 7th centuries. Many of the capitals and some marble lattice work in this part of the mosque are of similar origin. One can identify the boundaries of the original mosque of Abd al-Rahman I, built from 785. The extent can be accurately followed by the fact that the floor on the south and east sides slopes down to it in a gentle ramp, a few inches high. All the columns and their capitals are Roman or Visigothic, many of them being superb examples of the Corinthian order; this is the only part of the Mezquita in which the columns have bases. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 19)
The main entry to the mosque is via the Gate of Pardon, which leads into Patio de los Naranjos, which translates to the “Court of the Orange Trees”, a formal garden where hundreds of sour orange trees grow, as well as cypresses and olive trees. Prior to entering the mosque, a Muslim pilgrim purified himself at the fountain, supplied with water from a large tank built beneath the patio. On entering the interior of the Mezquita, a visitor is struck by the sight of aisles of columns topped with candy striped arches that alternate white brands with red, yellow and green. In the dim light, the impression is not garish or distracting, but of long, inviting corridors. The stone for the columns was taken from the ancient Roman temple and various other Roman ruins in Cordoba. (Brockman, 2011, pg. 331)
The columns lead the eyes to the walls, along which are chapels with mosaics and tiles in intricate combinations, contrasting with the elegant austerity of the columned aisles. The jewels of these small rooms are the two mihrabs, which are arched indentations in the walls that show the direction of Mecca so that worshippers may face the holy place of Islam. (Brockman, 2011, pg. 331)
The glory of the Mezquita is its decoration. The eastern gate, for instance, is a scalloped arch flanked by smaller arches. The latticework and intricately carved niches contrast with the tiles of the interior. Since Islam does not permit statues, pictures or other representations, Islamic art has perfected decorative styles using bas-reliefs, floral designs, and elaborate Arabic calligraphy. (Brockman, 2011, pg. 332)
One of the Visigothic capitals, against the north wall, has a defaced area, where a cross was chipped out by the Moslems. There are ten files of columns leading, with interruptions, to the southern extremity of the mosque; in the ninth from the right, or west, the second column has achieved notoriety. As far back as 1772, Jean Peyron wrote of a column which gave off a foetid smell if it was rubbed with iron. Today the column is half worn through, and even as you are looking at this black spiral Roman shaft someone will come and rub it with a key, simultaneously bending his head so as not to miss the bouquet of Sulphur. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 20)
The second part of the Mezquita built by Abd al-Rahman II extends southward for the distance covered by the next seven columns and their arches. It ends at a row of stone piers, where the original cathedral of the 15th century stood. In the left, or east half of this portion is the present choir of the 16th century cathedral, constructed by the chapter against the wishes of the City Council but at the orders of the young Emperor Charles V. When he saw what had been done to the mosque on his first visit three years later he said “You have built what could have been built anywhere and you have destroyed what was unique”. Dozens of writers have castigated the clergy for building the choir and high altar of the cathedral inside the Mezquita; but has anyone asked himself what would have happened to this marvellous building had they not done so? We are bound to admit that if it had survived intact up to the present day, it would be the only Islamic religious building in Spain to have done so; it is inconceivable that it could have stood for seven centuries, immune from pilfering and decay, without the protection of Christian consecration. This argument, valid for Rome’s Pantheon, is equally applicable to the Mezquita. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., pg. 20)
Near the northern end of this second part, there is a pair of Roman alabaster columns, spirally carved and extremely rare, and then comes the final portion at this west side, the addition of al-Hakam II. This superb creation is as large as the original mosque of Abd al-Rahman I and was added in the latter half of the 10th century, after the failure of awnings in the patio to provide shade for the ever-growing number of worshippers. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 20)
The chapel of Villaviciosa is remarkable chiefly for the ceiling, which is the original covering of the Mihrab of the first extension of the Mezquita, the contribution of Abd al-Rahman II. The crossed stone ribs of the vault were built in the first half of the ninth century: Christian churches, first the Romanesque and later the gothic, took another two centuries to appreciate and copy the idea. In this chapel, we may be looking at the first example of the solution of an architectural problem of the greatest importance: how best to cover a building with an arched roof. The chapel’s single wall, on the east side, is actually the west wall of the royal chapel and formed the retablo or reredos of the original Christian cathedral that was placed inside the mosque in the 15th century, the chapel of Villaviciosa, therefore, representing the sanctuary. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 21)
Among the many treasures that have disappeared from the mosque is the movable pulpit, or mimbar, which was composed of numerous rare woods with inlays of ivory and mother of pearl. Gorgeous as is the effect of this end of the Mezquita today, it must be a pale ghost of its former glory, with paneled and painted ceilings, rugs and hangings, its 2,400 lamps and the candelabras that were brought out on the penultimate day of Ramadan, all glittering with brass, silver and gold. The space in front of the mihrab and the lateral arches, formerly covered with retablos, is called the Chapel of St Peter, or vulgarly del Alcoran or del Zancarron, suggesting that it was here that the bone of Mohammed’s foot was kept in Moslem days. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 24)
How the Mezquita would be built today, presumably.
Were the Mezquita a modern day mega-structure, there would be presumably dozens of tower cranes, construction hoists and thousands of workers on the site. Governments would hype the project by playing to the public gallery on how the mega-structure would be immense for tourism and job creation. Some of the best engineers and architects in the world would be involved in the design, logistics and construction of the mega-structures. The whole construction process from the ground breaking procedure would most likely be recorded on video for television documentaries and for future generations. Site engineers, construction companies, architects, government officials and other stakeholders involved in the project would be interviewed for the documentary which might be given a catchy title like “The Making of a Modern Mega-structure”. On completion, the political leader in Spain, or any other host country for the mosque, would grace the occasion and cut the tape to officially open the Mosque. Religious leaders would also not be left behind, and the top Muslim leaders would be there for the occasion too.
However, it is debatable whether it might be possible in the current times for Muslim and Christian leaders to accept and allow the construction of a cathedral and mosque in the same compound. Terror groups, who are mostly Muslim extremists, might even target such plans alleging Muslim infiltration by Christians. In contrast to the use of humans and animals, during the construction of the Mezquita in the 17th century, to carry heavy pillars and install them uprightly, heavy machines such as cranes and hoists would be used to carry the pillars in a modern Mezquita Mosque construction.
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Prince, D. (2009). Frommer’s Seville, Granada and the Best of Andalusia. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
Bloom, J.M., and Blair, S. (2009). The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture, Volume 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ward, B. Girls with non-French Accents.
Sonneborn, L. (2006). Averroes (Ibn Rushd): Muslim Scholar, Philosopher, and Physician of the Twelfth Century. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group.
Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H. (2000). The Companion Guide to the South of Spain. Woodbridge: Companion Guides.
Ham, A. (2010). Andalucia. Lonely Planet.