Essays - Conquest and Reconquest in Cordoba

An Islamic mosque containing a Christian church, which is Cordoba's cathedral
An Islamic mosque containing a Christian church, which is Cordoba's cathedral

By Lawrence Bohme

The Mosque that is a Church

The most striking thing about the Mezquita is that, incongruously, it is an Islamic mosque containing a Christian church, which is Cordoba's cathedral. What one sees from outside is confusing indeed: a huge, flat-roofed, low-lying building with a large baroque church jutting up in the middle. It rather resembles a multi-tiered wedding-cake, having a heavy, elaborate style which is so unlike our less-guilded times.

But before joining the politically-correct chorus which loves to bemoan this Christian crime against Moorish art (which, undoubtedly, it is), consider the chequered past of this sacred site from its very beginning.



First, the Romans built a pagan temple here, on the right bank of the Guadalquivir River, on which Cordoba was the highest navigable point. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the new Germanic masters of Spain (the Visigoths) replaced it with the Christian church of Saint Vincent. When the Arabs conquered the peninsula in the early 8th century, they tore down the church and began building their great mosque, which - commensurate with Cordoba's importance as the centre of Muslim power in Spain - became one of the largest mosques in all of Islam. When the Christians re-conquered Cordoba in 1236, they did with the mosque what they did in all of the cities of Andalucia. Instead of bothering to build a new church, they simply "converted" the building into a Christian form and set up an altar in the middle. In the 16th century, this modest Gothic insert was enlarged and given its current Renaissance - and later, baroque - styles. The end result is a strange hybrid, with ornately carved altar and pews, and choir (the latter carved entirely in mahogany brought from America).

The original mosque was permeated all around with open arches, so that the sunlight could flood in, leading the worshipper to the shadows of the central area, to represent his mystical journey towards Allah; but the Christians, being less inclined towards letting in the natural elements, plugged up most of the openings so that they could be used as a backdrop for chapels dedicated to the various saints. The minaret was left standing in the middle of the west wall of the patio, but did not fare as well as Seville's Giralda, which was simply capped with a bell-tower. Rather, it was used as the central core of a new baroque sheath, and if you climb up inside it, you see the sealed-up arches and windows of the Moorish original- a tower within a tower. As in Seville, the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Orange Trees) has survived, and it was here that the worshippers washed at the fountain before entering the mosque. But all the other mosque-churches which were created, or rather, improvised, in Andalucia - including the cathedrals of Seville and Granada - were eventually torn down in the baroque period to make way for "real" churches. The Cordoba contraption was only spared because the people of the city, even in those intolerant times, were aware of its special grandeur and beauty. An indication of this grass-roots affection for the great edifice is still alive today: the people of Cordoba do not say "I went to Mass at the Cathedral", but "I went to Mass at the Mosque". It is a contradiction which could only seem natural in Spain.

The mosque was begun at the end of the 8th century and completed 200 years later, in four distinct phases, the last and largest of which (the north side) was carried out by the legendary military leader Al-Mansur. This means that the original 8th century building was only about 20% of its current size. Embedded in the inner side of the eastern wall (the one closest to the river) is a sort of octagonal chapel surrounded with high, arched windows, and richly adorned with mosaics: this is the mihrab, the most sacred part in all mosques which indicated the direction of Mecca.

The most distinctive feature of the Mezquita is the forest of columns which supports the roof, but they, like so many other things, were taken from somewhere else - in this case, from the Church of Saint Vincent which had previously occupied the site. Others came from Roman and Visigothic homes in the city, and when these ran out, the Arabs made their own. But the columns were for the most part only seven or eight feet high, which meant that the huge ceiling would be aesthetically too low. So the Moors brilliantly invented a double-tiered column-and-arch construction, creating a lace-like structure which made it possible to increase the height of the central parts of the temple without cutting off the daylight.

The bells of Santiago

Before the 18th century's enlightened philosophers propagated their humanistic ideas, there was no ideological precedent which made a virtue of tolerance and respect for other beliefs than one's own - something which is all too often forgotten in our guilt-ridden times. Medieval people, of all religions, were alternately fanatical and pragmatic, as the situation demanded, but never broad-minded in the liberal, relativist sense of the word. Such a thing was impossible in the Middle Ages, simply because the idea that there could be more than one "truth" had not yet been invented. Equality, as conceived at the time of the French Revolution, is a very sophisticated political convention, rather than a natural biological fact.

Therefore, in spite of lengthy peaceful interludes and economically-motivated episodes of laissez-faire, there was generally, in the 800-year long war between Spain's Christians and Muslims, an uninhibited desire to cause as much harm and humiliation to one's adversary as possible. This is perfectly illustrated by the story of how the huge bells of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela were dragged 500 miles south to Cordoba and then all the way back again.

At the height of Muslim power, during the Omeya Caliphate at the end of the 10th century, the fearsome warlord Al-Mansur led a bloody raid through Christian territory in northern Spain, going as far as Santiago de Compostela. On the loose in the great pilgrims' city, the Moor had the audacity of riding his horse into the cathedral and letting it drink from the font of holy water, outraging the Christian townsfolk. Then, to make sure that they would never forget the insult, he had the church's bells carried 500 miles south to Cordoba, where they were melted down to make lamps to illuminate the Great Mosque.

When, two and a half centuries later, in 1236, the Castillian King Ferdinand the Third ("The Saint") reconquered Cordoba, his first action, to avenge the humiliation caused by Al-Mansur, was to have the lamps carried back to Santiago de Campostela, where they were melted down to make a new set of bells for the cathedral.