Awestruck: the Great Mosque of Córdoba
“That will be 8 euros.” The voice resonates from behind a glass screen. It belongs to a man in his 40s, round-faced and indifferent. Digging into the depths of my wallet, I fork out a 20-euro note before sliding it into the metal tray. It disappears in a flash.
As a student 8 euros is quite the hefty sum for an entrance fee. But when you’re paying to see one of Spain’s best examples of Moorish architecture, the money takes on very little importance.
In front of us a retired couple stands outside the entrance way, the lady holding an ice cream cone capped with swirls of pink and white. In a low rumbling voice the guard admonishes her. “Señora, you’re going to have to finish that before you enter.” Face crossed with silent frustration, she steps aside to let us pass. With one foot forward I walk steadily into the darkness.
Mihrab. Mimbar. Mezquita. Dolores points to a cutaway drawing of the mosque, the screen rippling ever so slightly with her gestures. The room is mostly darkened, save the scant traces of midday sun streaming in from one side. There’s nothing like an hour of Spanish art history right before lunchtime. With a flourish Dolores moves onto the next slide. “And this would be the maksura… the area reserved for the ruler and the nobility.”
I stare down at our black and white photocopies, scanning through the columns of pictures and their meticulous explanations. Even after studying the mosque in detail, nothing could have prepared us for the real thing.
Out of nowhere we are confronted by an enchanted forest, softly lit by a series of hanging lamps, their dark bowls evoking the atmosphere of an Arab souk. I take a deep breath. Row after row of columns – 856 in all – stretch out into the distance, their sinuous forms carved in marble, onyx, jasper and granite. And then the endless procession of double arches, all of them decorated with an arresting pattern of red and white.
At first glance you would never have guessed that this was built over a period of two centuries, recycling old Roman columns and capitals from ruined sites across the south. 784 was the exact year of its inception, and successive rulers expanded the monumental complex as Córdoba gained importance on the global stage. By the time it reached its final dimensions in 987, the mosque had become the third-largest in the world.
When I think no one is looking I cautiously touch a pillar, running my fingers across the coolness of its stone and 1200 years of history. It’s only five minutes into our visit and I have already lost track of my companions. In a building of this scale, everyone has been reduced to passing shadows under a collective spell of hushed amazement.
Even without the help of the visitor’s pamphlet, the maksura proves easy to find. But there is a twist that was not anticipated in the art history handouts. Beneath its Moorish arches, the blank space on one wall has now been occupied by a wooden crucifix.
Today the Great Mosque functions as as Córdoba’s cathedral, a status it has held ever since the Spanish re-conquered the city in 1236. Over the next 500 years or so little changes were made to the structure, with the minaret converted into the present-day bell tower. The most significant intervention came in the 16th century, when a cathedral nave was deftly inserted into the middle of the sprawling prayer hall. The result is an architectural puzzle of Christian and Muslim parts, a coexistence that is simply spellbinding.
But there is a deeper level of beauty hidden in the stones. Islamic architecture has a knack for adapting the art of their predecessors; the builders of the mosque learned their domes and gold mosaics from the Byzantines, and their distinctive horseshoe arches from the Visigoths, who ruled Spain before the arrival of Islam.
I can only hope that Dolores reads this, because she is the reason why I understood what I saw. With its Roman columns, Moorish heart and Christian soul, the Great Mosque speaks volumes of Spanish history.