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:
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:
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: