on April 18, 2008
The Great Mosque in the historic heart of Cordoba is one of the most beautiful examples of Muslim art in Spain. Its 1000 columns create a forest of onyx, jasper, marble and granite, topped by horseshoe arches of candy-striped red and white marble. Pieces of the Roman temple and early Christian and Visigoth buildings previously occupying the site form the columns. Besides the horseshoe-topped arches, the Mezquita also features richly gilded prayer niches. The building occupies a rectangle of 180 metres by 130 metres. The Mezquita dates from the 10th century when Cordoba under the Muslims was the largest, most prosperous city of Europe, outshining Byzantium and Baghdad in science, culture and the arts. Developing the Great Mosque paralleled these new heights of splendour. Outside is the Courtyard of the Orange Trees, which in springtime perfumes the air. It has a beautiful fountain. When the Muslims’ prayed, all 19 naves of the mosque were open to this courtyard allowing the interior columns to appear like an extension of the outside trees.The architecture borrows from that of the Romans. It uses the same horseshoe-shaped arches to bridge the pillars, but at two levels. A second and aesthetic innovation was to alternate brick and stone in the arches, creating a red and white striped pattern. This gives a distinctive character to the whole design. Sunlight streams in from windows in the four cupolas creating interesting effects combined with artificial light from the thousands of small lights.The Mihrab, the Muslim pulpit, has a shell-shaped ceiling carved from a single block of marble. The chambers on either side contain exquisite Byzantine mosaics of gold. Where pilgrims once crouched on their knees is shown by worn flagstones. The Mihrab once housed the Koran and relics of Muhammad. In front of it is the Maksoureh, an ante-room for the caliph and his court. Its mosaics and plasterwork make it a masterpiece of Islamic art.The Mosque became a Christian place of warship on the defeat of Cordoba in 1236. Gradually a cathedral arose over the years from the centre of the mosque. It pales in comparison with the mosque. Even the Holy Roman emperor Charles V regretted destroying something unique to make way for something commonplace. Although it clashes with the mosque, the cathedral is impressive in its own right, with an intricately carved ceiling and the 18th century Baroque mahogany choir stalls are some of Europe’s most elaborate. Its Bell Tower, built on the site of the original Minaret, is 93metres high. From its top are superb views of Cordoba.Although partly destroying a unique building, without the addition of the cathedral there would now be no mosque for it was only because of the continued use of the building for warship that it survived. Continual restoration has been necessary to preserve its fabric. Today Muslim immigrants and Spanish converts to Islam are seeking the right to pray inside what was once Europe's most spectacular mosque. It would be a grand gesture and a salve to old wounds to let this happen!
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