Property 313 – Historic Centre of Cordoba, Spain
A decade or so ago there was a popular theory floating around that future world conflicts would be along cultural fault lines, the so-called “clash of civilisations” thesis. If you’ve been paying any attention at all over the last 20 years, you’ll know that it’s been an influential idea, particularly when thinking about the conflict between Islamic and Western cultures. Interesting and debatable though this all is, it’s worth remembering that this is not a new phenomenon. And there may be no better example than the mosque-cathedral of Cordoba, in Spain.
I visited Cordoba in the early 2000s, on my birthday as it happened. I had been staying in nearby Seville, and chose a visit to Cordoba as my birthday treat.
Yes, I am a tremendous nerd.
Cordoba is an ancient city. It was originally founded by the Carthaginians, but was conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BC. Following the fall of the Roman Empire it passed through the hands of a number of different rulers, before being conquered by Muslim invaders from North Africa in 711 CE. As the capital of the Islamic realm of Al-Andalus, it was the epicentre of an historic cultural volcano. For the next few hundred years, while most of Europe was still trying to come to terms with the absence of the Romans, the Caliphate of Cordoba encouraged artists, scientists and creators of all sorts to settle in the city and distribute their work.
Great architects were supported by the Caliphate, and the combination of great skill and great piety resulted in the construction of the Mezquita (Mosque) of Cordoba. Construction happened in several stages over around 200 years, but looking at it you’d never know. The basic floor plan resembles a giant hall, with the roof held up by a forest of arches and pillars. A mihrab (prayer niche) sits at one end. So far, so normal.
What really sets the Mezquita apart for me is its calm beauty. The arches are constructed of intricately layered stone of alternating colours and material – jasper, onyx, marble and granite. They look like a giant cake. The whole building has a tremendously light and open feeling, while also feeling strangely like an indoor forest. The designers brought the heritage of Arabia and North Africa along with them, and it translates beautifully to the similarly arid environment of southern Iberia.
Many of the building materials were scavenged from old Roman ruins, and the column capitals are all slightly mismatched. But it works. Compare this with the mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia, which also has a cobbled-together, haphazard look. By the time the Islamic armies arrived in Iberia, they had become far more skilled and had learned to use pre-exiting materials to create something entirely new and unified. The odds and ends of past empires make it an homage, rather than a backyard repair of secondhand goods.
Cordoba was reconquered by Christian kings in the 13th century, as part of the reconquista. Much like the initial Muslim conquest, this was a kind of holy war, and part of the standard method of waging holy war is to erase the religious buildings of the previous owner. We’re all lucky that in this case the Mezquita wasn’t demolished.
Instead, and quite perversely, the Christian conquerors decided to build a cathedral.
Inside the Mosque.
Wander through the stone forest of the Mezquita these days and after a while you’ll come across the cathedral element. It’s built of dark wood and it seems like the heart has been torn out of the old building to install it. While I make no comment on the spiritual merits of it, to me the Cathedral resembles a tumour growing within the heart of the Mosque.
The Cathedral has its good bits. Some of the timber work is extraordinarily fine. There’s a typically florid baroque ceiling. It’s a surprisingly light an airy space, due to the original design of the Mosque. However there’s no doubt that it’s a bit of an aberration, maybe even an abomination. Even Charles V, the Christian king who authorised its construction, commented “they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.” That’s pretty damning.
There can hardly be a more fascinating religious artefact than the Mosque/Cathedral of Cordoba. It’s a record of nearly 1400 years of religious conflict in material form. And if you doubted that the clash of civilisations continues, the Muslim community of Spain has been petitioning the Catholic Church to allow them to pray in the mosque after 700 years of exclusion. Who can say what will happen in the future? I wouldn’t hold my breath though.
The images in this post were taken by my dad, David. I had my own, but they were lost in the Great Nun Betrayal of 2001. Why not duck over to my Dad’s blog to read about gardens, art, and Baroque architecture in a far less slapdash way than you’ll find here.