"The world is not a rectilinear world, it is a curvilinear world. The heavenly bodies go in a curve because that is the
natural way..."

-- George Bernard Shaw

"I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein."

-- Oscar Niemeyer

Saturday, 26 March 2016

39. The Great Mosque of Córdoba: The Sacred and the Profane (Part II)

Nothing says "mosque" quite like a wooden Jesus on a cross. Or an ostentatiously gold-framed painting of an angel smiting a heathen:

Actually, pretty much everything says "mosque" more than a wooden Jesus or a smiting angel. But when the Spanish Christians recaptured Córdoba from its Muslim occupiers in 1236, the last thing on their minds was preserving the Great Mosque as an Islamic monument.

Still, if there's one thing I've learned about Roman Catholic Church leaders, it's that they have tremendous respect for religion -- as long as it's their own. Anyone else's is fair game for persecution, degradiation, desecration, and a dozen other nasty things brought to you by the same fine folk who would later launch the Spanish Inquisition.

A tip-off as to the architectural rape that the Mosque would endure under the so-called "custodianship" of the Catholic Church, can be found in the official name of the building: the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. No one actually calls it that, of course, except for the Vatican and the Spanish Church. Your average Cordoban just refers to it as "the Mosque-Cathedral".

The Mosque was re-consecrated as a cathedral after the reconquest, and the DIY crew started in almost immediately. Under muslim rule, the Mosque had been enclosed only on three sides. The fourth, opened out into the Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of Orange Trees). The net effect was two-fold. The orange trees aligned with the Mosque's red and white arches, creating the image of a large forest. And the sun pouring in made the Mosque a very light and open place to be.

When the Catholics took over, they built a fourth wall and sealed the windows, making the cathedral a rather dark and gloomy place, which it still is today. But then the Catholic clergy prefer their flock to be in the dark -- both literally and metaphorically.

The most visible sign of the desecration of the Mosque -- one that can be seen from the other side of the city across the Guadalquivir River -- is a baroque belfry that was built to cover up the former minaret. It serves as a beacon signalling to the world that the Mosque is "Under New Management". Not that it's an ugly belfry. It's actually quite an attractive 16th-century structure:

But -- and this is a crucial point -- MOSQUES DON'T HAVE BELLS!!!

Other crimes against architecture committed by the Church pretty much fit into the same category as the belfry: eye-catching, in a gaudy sort of way, but wholly inappropriate. Perhaps the greatest abomination -- both in an architectural and religious sense -- was the 1523 insertion of a Renaissance cathedral smack dab into the middle of the Gothic mosque. This was, of course, facilitated by first tearing out the heart of the Mosque and then sticking in a very random-looking selection of naves:


and altars:

There were, however, some attractive additions like the beautifully crafted mahogany choir stalls, pilfered...err...liberated... from the finest trees that the American rainforests could provide:

And the lovely organ just above the choir's heads:

Both would look splendid in a building of their own era, instead of being thrown in to survive amongst a mish-mash of architectural styles and a handful of ornamental do-dads that would look more at home in a pagan temple than a Catholic Church:

I knew, for example, that eagles were regarded as birds of "prey". But I didn't know that they were also considered birds of "pray".

Adding insult to injury, the Spanish Diocese banned Islamic prayer within the building -- an edict that remains intact to this very day -- despite appeals all the way up to and including the Pope. To make doubly sure that no Islamic prayers were offered, the Muslim Mihrab (prayer niche) and nearby chambers were blocked off by metal fencing. And to make triply sure, the Spanish monarchy, which had so enjoyed turfing out the country's Jews in 1492,  also gave the boot to Spain's Muslims in 1609. 

Still, I wouldn't want to make it sound as if the Muslims were all pure-as-the-driven-snow good guys. There is the story of Al-Mansur, the fearsome warlord who led a bloody raid in the late 10th-century that penetrated as far into Christian territory as Santiago de Compostela. There, he rode his mighty steed into the cathedral and let it drink from the font of holy water, both quenching it's thirst and pissing-off the Catholic Fathers no end. Al-Mansur proceeded to have the Church's bells carried 500 miles southwest to Córdoba where they were melted into lamps for the Great Mosque. But don't expect to see them if you visit Córdoba -- following the re-conquest of the city, the Castillian King Ferdinand III had the lamps carried back to the shrine of St. James, where they were converted into molten form and again shaped into bells.

Let's give the final word on the Mosque-Cathedral to King Carlos V. It was he who gave the final order for the big 1523 renovation/desecration, without ever having been to Córdoba or understanding the impact it would have on one of Islam's greatest monuments. When he finally saw the damage that had been committed by his minions in his name, he is said to have proclaimed, "You have built here what you or anyone else might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world."

Thursday, 3 March 2016

38. The Great Mosque of Córdoba: The Sacred and the Profane (Part 1)

   Interior of a Mosque in Cordova by Edwin Lord Weeks                          

As a devout atheist, maybe I shouldn't be tossing around terms like "sacred" and "profane". But I do so in a purely secular sense. To me, the closest thing to "sacred" is a great work of architecture - architecture that is so powerful and spectacular that it rises above everything else created in its time. "Profane", I reserve for actions that destroy or degrade the grandeur, beauty and architectural integrity of a great structure.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba displays both of these elements. In this post I'm going to focus on the "sacred" aspects embedded by its original Moorish builders. In the next, I'll show you the "profanities" inflicted on it by the Catholic Church.

The Moors, largely Muslim Berbers from Morocco, invaded Spain in 711 AD as part of the great Islamic expansion that followed the death of Mohammed in 632. They would occupy parts of the Iberian Peninsula for the next 750+ years. Construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba began in 784, taking more than 200 years until it reached its current dimensions in 987.

This massive undertaking - a symbol of conquest and empire - required the efforts of thousands of artisans and labourers. As the Mosque grew in size and importance, so too did Córdoba. At its height, it was the most populous city in the world, and the most advanced centre for science, medicine, education, culture and finance.

Given the general temper of the times, the Mosque's powerful outer walls more closely resemble those of a fortress than a house of worship:

A fortress with really powerful, tall bronze doors:


Amazing door knocks:

And large sections of wall with crenelated tops, arched windows adorned with geometric and floral patterns, and red and white decorative stone and tile:

Inside the Mosque it's all pillars. Pillars, pillars and more pillars. Pillars of jasper, pillars of onyx, pillars of marble and pillars of granite - 856 in all - the largest number of pillars in one building in the history of the world. The pillars support red and white arches of just about every style, size and design. Double arches support the Mosque's high roof:

Interlacing arches:

 Polylobed arches:

And special arches denote the space reserved for the Caliph's family:

The arches can be a photographer's best friend, offering some nifty ways to frame your shots:

Running the length of the prayer hall are beautifully crafted lamps:

and elsewhere in the Mosque as well:

The most important feature of the Mosque, or, for that matter, any mosque is the mihrab or prayer niche. In the case of this mosque the "niche" is the size of a room, and it's quite magnificent:

Its opening is framed by coloured mosaics made of small pieces of glass (tesserae) that create rich bands of dark blue, reddish brown, yellow and gold:

Guilded Koranic caligraphy crawls around the square frame:

But there's something very unusual about this mihrab. By tradition, mihrabs point toward Mecca and show the faithful in which direction to pray. Mecca is southeast of Cordoba. Yet the Mihrab is aimed due south. Why? Because Damascus is due south.

The Ummayad dynasty, which built the Córdoba mosque, had once ruled in Damascus, then the centre of the Islamic world. They built  the Great Ummayad Mosque - still standing today and largely intact despite the civil war. It is believed that when the Ummayads (involuntarily) relocated to Córdoba, they wanted their new mosque to acknowledge its older Damascene brother as the holiest mosque outside of Mecca.

Almost stealing the Mihrab's thunder is its spectacular shell-shaped dome, carved out of a single piece of marble and lavishly coloured with gold mosaics.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba is truly quite massive. If you're just interested in a cursory look at the major highlights, it will probably take you 1-2 hours to see them. If, like us, you'd like a more thorough and detailed look with some serious time devoted to your photography, you'd better budget a half-day. On the other hand, if you're a total architecture and mosque geek who has to examine every pillar, arch and chamber, there's probably enough to keep you busy for a day-and-a-half - although you'll have to make it back to your hotel for the overnight stay!

But sooner or later you're going to have to leave this great wonder of the  medieval world, and rather than doing it with a heavy heart, let your spirits soar as you walk past the stained-glass windows en route to the exit: