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Monday, 23 September 2013

A holy forest

Córdoba was once the greatest city of the Arab west, rivalling both Cairo and Baghdad. Its mosque – Mezquita – is one of the world’s most beautiful Islamic buildings.

From the fifth to the eighth century Córdoba was ruled by the Visigoths. Two hundred years later, the Moors came, with the help of the city’s disaffected Jewish residents. The Islamic rule permitted the worship of other religions, so Jews, Christians and Moors lived and worked cheek by jowl. A far cry from the intolerance of the Spanish Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand who threw out of Spain not only the Arabs but also the Jews in 1492.
Cordoba - the river is often populated by cattle and goats in the height of summer!

It’s an intriguing fact that often beneath any place of worship you may find older hidden churches and cathedrals. Apparently, during the Visigothic period the church of San Vicente was built, only to be destroyed by the Moors who began in 785 to build on the same site their great mosque; the construction took two hundred years and the mosque was considered so important that it saved the city’s inhabitants the arduous pilgrimage to Mecca, which boasted the only mosque of greater size and importance.

Abd al Rahman I, inspired by the Mosque of Damascus, intended the design to include the traditional ablution courtyard – where the faithful washed before prayer – and the hall of prayer itself. His successor, Abd al Rahman II, carried out the first addition, lengthening the courtyard and the prayer hall aisles.  A minaret was constructed in the courtyard but this is now embedded in the cathedral’s 93m high bell tower, Torre del Alminar. Al Hakam II increased the splendour of the decorations, bringing Byzantine artists to provide beautiful mosaics. The final expansion of the mosque was effected under the rule of Al Mansur.

With its seventeen aisles, divided by tiers of arches spanning columns often taken from Roman and Carthaginian sites; it still has a powerful effect on any visitor entering from the Courtyard of the Orange Trees.  The profusion of magnificent arches has been called ‘a holy jungle’, which is most apt with about 850 columns creating a criss-crossing of alleys, the pillars supporting two tiers of striped arches that add height and create a remarkable feeling of space.

The mihrab – a prayer recess – is situated along the wall that faces Mecca and it held a gilt copy of the Koran. Here you can appreciate the exquisite mosaic art and interlaced arches. The mihrab is topped by a shell-shaped dome. The worn flagstones indicate where pilgrims circled it seven times on their knees – it’s now fenced-off, probably to preserve the floor.

The great mosque and its courtyard were places of worship, centres of teaching, of justice and here too a social life thrived.

In the eleventh century, civil war devastated the city, hundreds were massacred and much of the beautiful city destroyed. Although it remained a Muslim city for another two hundred years, its power had gone, being transferred to Seville and other petty Islamic kingdoms. Córdoba finally fell to the Reconquest in 1236 and its Muslim inhabitants fled south.

Immediately after the Christians took the city, the great mosque became their cathedral – Church of the Virgin of the Assumption – with minor architectural changes, such as placing chapels in the outer aisles. The first chapel – Capilla de Villaviciosa – was built in 1371 and its multi-lobed arches are quite stunning. In 1523 began the construction of a tall cruciform church in the centre of the mosque building. Emperor Charles V had given unthinking permission for the construction. When he saw the result, he accused the cathedral builders: ‘You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.’ Part of the Mezquita was destroyed to accommodate the cathedral; much of it survived and was transformed. And with its dazzling visual effect, the great mosque is still unique.

What is surprising is that, unlike so many other times, the reconquering Christians actually let the original Islamic building stand. They razed many to the ground. This great mosque and the Alhambra palace of Granada suffered privations, but even now they’re still standing, captivating emblems of Arabic history and culture.

Now you encounter the breath-taking forest of Islamic arches then the hodgepodge of styles (Gothic, Renaissance, Italian and Baroque) that comprise the Christian cathedral.  The Christian architects created a Latin cross shaped plan, ingeniously integrating the caliphal structures. The main altarpiece is covered by a vault inspired by the Sistine Chapel, with an unusual set of stalls. Outside, the Muslim courtyard was remodelled with the cloisters. Original palm trees – imported by the Caliphate – were replaced by orange trees in the fifteenth century. It has been argued that the Cathedral administration has preserved the great mosque, which is now a World Heritage Site.


Nancy Jardine said...

That's a fabulous looking building. Thanks for sharing, Nik. I've only seen a tiny amount of Spain so far and there's a wealth, as yet, unexplored for me.

ChuckTyrell said...

I'd be interested to know the effect of Islamic rule on Spaniards of today. Does it make them unique in any way, different from other "Christians," for example. Is the Spanish penchant for providing for family (as in nepotism) above any other responsibility from Islam? Or does it come from someplace else? This seems to have taken root in former Spanish colonies (especially in Central and South America, but also in the Philippines). I just wondered . . . . . . .

Nik said...

Thanks, Nancy. There's a lot to explore, it's a big and diverse country. Chuck, I can't do justice to your question here - but briefly the Arabic influence is evident as you say in family and culture. An interesting book that touches on this is Duende by Jason Webster, autobiography as travelogue...