The best way to experience medieval Spain is through its architecture. The buildings of Córdoba are a physical manifestation of the cultures who lived there, from the Romans to the Visigoths to the Moors to the Catholics. At the center of it all lies what might be the most extraordinary building on the planet: the Great Mosque with a cathedral right in the middle of it. Through it we can trace everything from the history of early Islam to the missing link between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. Above all, the Mezquita stands as a 1,037 year-old testament to a culture of tolerance and learning.
From the exterior, the Mezquita is mysterious: a series of intriguing walls whose many revisions and embellishments don’t conform to any single period or style. Islamic arches and carvings mix with Roman columns, primitive stone walls, and ornamentation which may or may not be Gothic, all alongside a Renaissance bell tower. The mixture is emblematic of the diverse cultures living in Córdoba, the center of al-Andalus, better known today as Andalusia.
How did such a mixture evolve? Spain, after more than half a millennium as a Roman outpost, had fallen into chaos over 300 years of repeated invasions by Visigoth tribes. Muslims from North Africa swept through the Iberian Peninsula in the first half of the 8th century. In 756, a refugee prince from Syria arrived and set about consolidating the territory into something closer to the standards of civilization he’d left behind. Córdoba quickly grew into the most enlightened society in Europe.
The Golden Age
Citizens of al-Andalus enjoyed free public education, with open access to over 70 libraries. Thanks to massive translation projects, thousands of years of knowledge contributed to medicine and other sciences.
The Moors revolutionized agriculture in the area, developing irrigation and importing new crops like oranges. Trade with ports across Africa and Asia brought in everything from exotic cloth and spices to the latest in literary and architectural trends. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe remained almost entirely illiterate, dwelling with their animals in primitive structures connected by muddy tracks or nothing at all.
A Culture of Tolerance
Córdoba prohibited persecution of Christians and Jews, whose faith shared a common origin with the Muslims. Those fellow “people of the book” were, for the most part, eager to participate in the advanced society. Many chose to convert to Islam or to intermarry, but even those who didn’t still assimilated – especially when the Arabic language conferred so many advantages, and the universal use of Latin had ended centuries before.
A Mesmerizing Mosque
From its inception, the prince-turned-emir intended for the “Great Mosque of Córdoba” to continue the architectural innovations nurtured by his family back east. Like them, it would utilize existing structures (in this case Roman) as a source of physical material as well as building technologies. It would also incorporate the new mosque architecture, from forms such as the horseshoe arch to the revolutionary ideas about ornamentation.
Inside the Mezquita’s walls lies a massive courtyard, filled with rows of orange trees scenting the air. Most people won’t consciously notice, but the rows line up with the arches of the building wall. Originally, those arches were open and the trees continued the grid of the columns within the building.
When you finally enter the Mezquita itself, the first thing you’ll notice is the cool temperature. Even with open doors it was quite comfortable when we visited, in spite of 100+ºF (38ºC) heat outside. I knew that Moorish builders had developed sophisticated techniques for contending with heat, but I still don’t understand how they managed a temperature drop of over 20ºF (13ºC) with no AC and no fans.
After acclimating to the changes of temperature and light, you’ll perceive columns, columns, and more columns, receding to what seems like an infinite distance. The effect is enhanced by the arches, which not only come in double tiers, but also have red and white stripes. Maria Rose Menocal writes that trying to describe “the nearly kinetic energy … would be akin to paraphrasing a poem.”
All Muslim architecture uses pattern – using infinite repetition to evoke all-encompassing divinity was revolutionary and became one of its hallmarks. However, the mosque at Córdoba does something unique: it actually brings us inside the pattern. In other words, the pattern is not something to look at on a wall; it’s based on human-scaled elements (columns and arches) in our own three-dimensional space. I imagined the floor covered with prayer mats, and realized that the worshippers would literally add to the pattern. The result is mesmerizing. The grid is simple enough to understand, but the infinite repetition is by definition beyond our comprehension.
Once you get past the overall effect, you can appreciate the details. The columns come in a mix of darker marbles, so each one is unique even as it fits into the larger pattern. They also contrast with the soft white of their capitals, and both pieces together bring some ancient Roman into the mix of styles. And those stripes manage to feel graphic, elegant and playful at the same time. They also seem to move just at the edge of your vision….
Moving through the space, you’ll discover plenty of surprising variations in the grid. Since the mosque was built in four main phases over the course of two hundred years, there are places where different building phases meet, with curious juxtapositions.
The End of an Era
Over the next few centuries, Córdoba grew into a cultural and economic powerhouse. As the population grew, so did the mosque: by 961, it had already been expanded several times and acquired a ground-breakingly tall minaret. Its last major renovation included the addition of a separate prayer room for royals, complete with its own dome, and intricate mosaics both inside and out.
Unfortunately, the lavish additions provided fodder for critics of the regime. In essence, it smacked of ‘kingship’ which conflicted with the fundamental Islamic precept of equality before God. It wasn’t long before the dynasty fell apart and in 1009, Córdoba was sacked.
The Cathedral in the Mosque
When a group of conservative Berbers from North Africa seized control in the early 11th century, most Córdobans fled. Populations – and culture – disseminated to various city-states known as taifas. For several hundred years, Muslims, Christians, and Jews mixed in an ever-shifting series of alliances which owed more to localized power struggles than to religion. By the time Catholics took control of Córdoba, many of them had been conducting mass in Arabic for centuries. And so the locals in Córdoba defied King Charles’ order to destroy the “great mosque”, claiming it instead as part of their own heritage.
At some point you’ll encounter the cathedral inserted right in the middle of the building. It doesn’t have walls per se, but there are enough chapels and piers around the edges to screen it off from most of the mosque. Once you enter its boundaries, the roof opens up and light floods in. Horizontal space becomes vertically oriented, and the colors change to bright white and gold. However, the transition isn’t abrupt – some of the most intriguing spots in the building are where the two spaces meet and the architectures mingle. Although the middle of the mosque was removed to add the cathedral, it’s impossible to miss the reverence for the original building.
Not surprisingly, the cathedral provokes very mixed reactions. On one hand, we have Catholics asserting their dominance over the Muslims by assuming control of the mosque. On the other hand, we see them not only leaving most of the original structure intact but actually immersing their own house of worship within it. Picture Catholics coming into the cathedral to celebrate mass, as they did for hundreds of years, surrounded by the glorious mosque. It’s a good reminder that Andalusia was a remarkably cosmopolitan and tolerant culture for hundreds of years before the Inquisition – and that the lines between one faith and another were not always so charged.
Compared to the marble-and-cherub-laden cathedrals in places like Seville, this one is surprisingly light and harmonious. The only parts which struck me as particularly awkward were where Christian iconography had been arranged directly within unaltered portions of the mosque.
The End of Tolerance
Near the ancient Roman bridge over the Guadalquivir River lies the Alcázar de los Reyes Christianos (Castle of the Christian Monarchs), and the tragic conclusion to the story. It’s also a part of Córdoba where I struggled to reconcile what I saw around me – beautiful gardens added in later centuries – with its history.
Granada, the final Muslim holdout for 250 years, finally submitted to Catholics in 1492. Initially, they were promised freedom from persecution, but in just a few years both Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or be expelled. Then, on this very site, those who remained were subjected to harassment, torture, and even death during the infamous Spanish Inquisition.
Today, historic Córdoba is only a fraction of its original size, but you can still walk the tiny streets with whitewashed walls. Their layout was oriented to catch local breezes, and we strolled through the Jewish Quarter in the middle of the afternoon without getting overheated. Local cuisine, such as cool gazpacho and ajoblanco, helps; the old city boasts a number of excellent restaurants.
Old-school Spanish charm at the Hotel Mezquita: our room’s view of the Mezquita across the street (right)
Córdoba’s train station is about 20 minutes from the Mezquita by foot. Frequent service connections include Seville (45 minutes), Granada (90 minutes), and Madrid (2 hours).
The story of medieval Spain’s architecture continues with our posts on Toledo’s Mudéjar architecture, Islamic architecture in Seville, Granada’s Albaicín district, and the Alhambra.
Maria Rosa Menocal’s book, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, brings the culture of al-Andalus to life – and may make you reconsider traditional European history.