Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Travel: The Mesquita in Cordoba, Spain

 Spain’s secular structure


The traveller touring Spain cannot but notice the fact that right across the country, Moorish architecture sits peacefully alongside Roman and Baroque styles. Monuments containing both Islamic and Christian influences are all well maintained and shown off to visitors with much pride.

Cordoba, to the south of Spain’s capital Madrid, is a town on the banks of the Guadalquivir river, picturesquely hemmed in by both Roman and Moorish walls. The river is at its prettiest here, cutting shallow but wide swathes under bridges ancient and modern.

A region replete with a rich history, Cordoba, once a bulwark of Roman-occupied Spain, eventually saw Visigoth occupation and then, in the early eighth century, the Muslims took over.

It was from Cordoba that the conquerors consolidated power over Muslim-Spain or al-Andalusia. This was veritably a golden age for Cordoba, with universities, mosques, public baths and churches, all flourishing side by side.

However, the powers of the Caliphate started to wane by 1031 and in 1236, Fernando III captured Cordoba and brought back Christianity.

In this backdrop stands the magnificent Mezquita-Cathedral — an architectural oddity but a stunning one, nevertheless. Originally a pagan temple, it then became a Visigoth Christian church, before the Umayyad Moors built their grand mosque on the site.

The mosque-cathedral

A mix of styles, neither the Moorish nor the Christian aspects overwhelm each other. There are oil paintings, stained-glass work, lattice fretwork, a grove of oranges…the Mezquita is actually the re-grafting of Christianity onto a Muslim part of Spain.

Let’s delve into the mosque area first. The Mezquita served as the great masjid for the Umayyad caliphs, second, according to them, only to the Great Mosque at Mecca.

Dating back to 787 AD, when the mosque was ready for consecration, the interiors are simply beautiful. All of the 850 statuesque columns make for a series of crisscrossing alleys, leading to gilded prayer niches.

These marble pillars support two-tiered arches that sit atop them, striped red and white, inspired by the pillars in the Dome of the Rock, as also those in the Aachen Cathedral, both of which were built around the same time as the Mezquita.

A centrally located honey-combed dome has blue tiles decorated with stars. The jewel in this particular crown is the mihrab, the prayer alcove, a domed shrine made of Byzantine mosaics like jasper, onyx, marble and granite, sourced from pieces of the Roman temple which had occupied the site previously.

The dull greens, yellows and grays provide a striking jolt of colour in the interior of the mosque-cathedral.


Church of the Virgin of the Assumption

After Christianity returned to Cordoba, the mosque was converted back into a Roman Catholic Christian church, the Church of the Virgin of the Assumption. Parts of the mosque were walled up and the Torre del Alminar minaret was replaced by a Baroque belfry at the base of the Gate of Forgiveness, Peurta del Perdon.

A renaissance style cathedral nave came up in the centre of the mosque, but here is the beauty of it: the visitor moves from the Moorish to the Christian in seamless, fluid fashion, with nothing to jar the senses.

If parts of the church sits oddly with the rest of the structure, there is no denying the beauty of the intricate ceiling and richly-carved 18th century choir stalls.

This part of the church was constructed with the assent of Charles V, king of Castile and Aragon. However, the story goes that when the king finally laid eyes on it, he was dismayed. “You have built here what you might have built anywhere else,” he is reported to have said, “you have destroyed what was unique in the world.”

The beautiful laid-out Courtyard of the Orange Trees (Patio de los Naranjos), the Arabic style fountains, the Islamic patios, all stand testimony to its Moorish past. One comes away with renewed respect for a country that maintains and displays the beauty of diversity.

This appeared in the Sunday Herald sometime in June, 2010. 

All photos by Sheila Kumar and subject to copyright.


Church of the Virgin of the AssumptionCordobalattice fretworkMezquitamosque-cathedralmosquesonyxsecular SpainSpain

Sheila Kumar • February 14, 2013

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