Great Mosque/Cathedral seen from the Roman bridge
Cordova, February 7, 1760. Nothing, have I
found particular in this place, except the
cathedral, which is indeed, a most remarkable building. It was anciently a Moorish
mosque, but from the time of the Africans
being driven out of Spain has been converted
into a church.
Cristopher Hervey - Letters from Portugal, Spain, Italy and Germany, in the years 1759, 1760, and 1761
The cathedral (..) still retains the name of Mesquita; it is an unique in its kind; it is very large, the roof is flat and low, (..) and is sustained by a very great number of columns, placed in such an irregular manner, that I spent half a day in endeavouring to form some kind of a plan so as to be able to count them, but without any satisfactory success; however, I am certain, that their number surpasses five hundred and ninety.
Richard Twiss - Travels through Portugal and Spain, in 1772-1773
The mosque, in Spanish called La Mesquita, from the Arabic word majgiad, a place of worship, was begun by Abdoulrahman the First, and destined by him to remain to after-ages as a monument of his power and riches, and a principal sanctuary of his religion. His ideas were sublime, and he was fortunate enough to find an architect whose genius was equal to the task of putting them in execution. He laid the foundation of the work two years before he died: his son Hissem or Iscan finished the whole mosque about the year 800. It was more than once altered and enlarged by the Mahometans themselves, and has since undergone several changes since it became a Christian church. The greatest alteration was made in the sixteenth century, by building a cupola in the center upon Gothic arches, and scooping away part of the ancient edifice to form a large choir.
Henry Swinburne - Travels through Spain in the Years 1775 and 1776 in which several monuments of Roman and Moorish architecture are illustrated.
Floor mosaic of the old church
The Great Mosque was built on the site of a church dedicated to Saint Vincent Martyr. This fact was known from ancient chronicles and in 1931-1936 archaeological excavations under the oldest part of the building found evidence of a church and of some adjoining facilities, perhaps those of an episcopal palace.
The church is dated VIth century; it stood on the site or very near a Roman temple. Some of the marble decorations of the church were made locally in a coarse Visigothic manner, others seem of a finer hand. Cordoba was under Byzantine rule in 552-572 and some decorative elements might have come from Constantinople, similar to what occurred at S. Clemente in Rome.
(left) Small square at the end of Calleja de Las Flores; (right) view towards the bell tower of the Cathedral
The streets round the mosque are narrow,
and ill calculated for affording a general
The only overall view of the mosque is that from the Roman bridge and that too is more a view of the XVIth century cathedral than of the mosque.
The Friday noon prayer has a special importance for Muslims. It is a communal prayer which must be attended by all male members of the community, so Friday is known as the Assembly Day. Large mosques were built to allow a great number of the inhabitants of a town to attend that prayer. As a rule of thumb the Great/Friday Mosque was not meant to impress by its outside aspect, with the exception of the minaret. In most cases it was surrounded by souks, khans, bazaars and the architectural features of the building could only be appreciated by stepping in the courtyard which gave access to the prayer hall (e.g. at Tunis). The great mosques of Constantinople constitute a major exception because they were built on high ground e.g. Suleymaniye or in a large open space e.g. Sultan Ahmet.
(left) View of the south-eastern side, the "qibla", the wall in the direction of Mecca; (right) western side
Indeed there is nothing very
shewy on the outside. The walls are plain
enough, and not very high: the roof is hid
behind battlements cut into steps. On the
east side, the whole length is divided by
buttresses into thirteen divisions, and about
the same number on each of the other
three sides. Swinburne
The Moors had a great veneration for this mosque, which they came very far, even from Africa to visit; and persisted in the custom long after it was in the power of the Castilians and converted into a church.
Alexandre de Laborde - A View of Spain - translated into English for Longman, Hurst, etc. 1809
La Mezquita as it is still called stands isolated, and has served as the chief temple to many creeds, each in their turn. The exterior is forbidding, being enclosed by walls from 30 to 60 feet high, and averaging 6 feet in thickness: walk round them, and observe the square buttress towers with fire-shaped or bearded parapets.
Richard Ford - A Handbook for Travellers in Spain - 1855
The buttresses bring to mind those of the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia which was built approximately in the same time frame as that of Cordoba.
It is extremely spacious,
but its height is very inconsiderable, tho' aided at certain spaces by skylights, which, I
think, are the only windows. Hervey
Light is admitted by the doors, and several small cupolas; but nevertheless the church is dark and awful. (..) Four thousand seven hundred lamps burned in the mosque every night, and consumed in a year near twenty thousand pounds of oil; it also required annually sixty pounds of wood of aloes, and sixty of ambergrease, for the perfumes. Such is the description of this famous temple left us in the writings of the Arabian and old Spanish authors. Swinburne
The 19 entrances into the mosque are now closed, save that of the centre. Ford
As Swinburne noted (and everyone can confirm) the interior of the immense prayer hall is dark and this notwithstanding the windows which were opened in the domes of the Christian section. Art historians say that the original building received enough light from its many doors which were kept open. It is not an entirely convincing opinion, firstly because the climate of Cordoba is a continental one with cold winters and secondly because it is not customary for a Muslim to enter a prayer hall directly from the street, without having performed the ritual ablutions in the courtyard. The doors might have been used for the exit only and be opened only at that time.
The doors opened in the walls are ornamented with
stucco of different colours. Swinburne
Examine the rich Moorish spandrels and latticed openings of the different entrances. Ford
The design of the external gates is very similar, but not identical. These slight differences were perhaps meant to be a show of humility because perfection is not achievable by man, according to a traditional view that "Only God Is Perfect". Some features of these gates, e.g. interlacing arches, can be noticed in Norman-Arab buildings of Palermo and Monreale in Sicily.
On the north
side is a lofty belfry, a modern building. (..)
The cloyster, or court which served the
Mahometans for their ablutions, and as a
place to leave their slippers in, before they entered the holy house, is an oblong square
of five hundred and ten feet (the length of
the church), by two hundred and forty. A
portico of sixty-two pillars environs it on
three sides, about twenty-five feet wide.
The middle is taken up with three handsome
and copious fountains, groves of orange-trees, and some towering cypresses and
palms, which form a most delightful retreat
in the sultry hours. Swinburne
There is a space of one hundred and eighty feet ten inches, which runs the whole length of the building, before the entrance of the temple; here it was that the Musulmans made their ablutions and left their slippers. It is surrounded on three sides with a handsome portico supported by seventy two columns. The area formed by it is planted with citron, orange, cypress, palm, and various other trees, and there are three fountains continually spouting water. Laborde
Enter the Court of Oranges. In this once sacred "temenos" and "Grove" this "Court of the House of God", importunate beggars, although bearded, cloaked, Homeric, and patriarchal, worry the stranger and dispel the illusion. Ascend the belfry tower, which, like the Giralda, was shattered by a hurricane in 1593; it was recased and repaired the same year. (..) The first palm ever planted in Cordova was by the royal hand of Abdul Rahman who desired to have a memorial of his much loved and always regretted Damascus. Ford
National Archaeological Museum of Madrid: suspended model of the prayer hall of the mosque before the changes made in the XVIth century; it shows the extreme length of the aisles
In the days of the Mussulmen, the mosque was a square building, with a flat roof upon arches, which did not rise more than thirty-five feet above the pavement. It was four hundred and twenty in breadth, and five hundred and ten in length, including the thickness of the walls. The roof was borne up by near a thousand columns according to some accounts, and by seven hundred and seventy-eight according to others, which formed nineteen aisles. Swinburne
Nobody can behold what remains of these
Moorish edifices, without being strongly
impressed with a high idea of the genius of
the artists, as well as the grandeur of the
princes who carried their plans into execution.
Abdoulrahman was succeeded by his son
Hissem; whose passion for glory and architecture was not in the least inferior to that
of his father. He put the finishing hand
to the mosque, which the plunder of the
southern provinces of France enabled him
to complete in the course of a few years.
Several historians relate, that the terror
which his name inspired was so great, that
the inhabitants of Narbonne, in order to
purchase peace and liberty, agreed to transport from their city to Cordova, all materials necessary for the construction of the
mosque. (..) I should
imagine it to be more probable, that they furnished him with columns and other monuments of antiquity, which Narbonne
abounded with, and which were undoubtedly
employed in great quantities in the building
of the mosque. Swinburne
Out of the 1200 monolithic columns - now reduced to about 850 - which once supported its low roof, 115 came from Nimes and Narbonne, in France; 60 from Seville and Tarragona, in Spain; while 140 were presented by Leo, Emperor of Constantinople (perhaps Leo VI); the remainder were detached from the temples at Carthage and other cities of Africa; the columns are in no way uniform - some are of jasper, porphyry, verd-antique, and other choice marbles. Ford
Nothing can be more striking than the
first step into this singular rather than beautiful edifice. To acquire some idea of it,
you must represent to yourself a vast gloomy
labyrinth, like what the French are so fond
of in their gardens, a fine quincunx. It is
divided into seventeen aisles, or naves, by rows of columns. (..)
These pillars are not all of the same height;
for the Arabs, having taken them from Roman buildings, served them in the same manner
as the tyrant Procustes did his guests: to the
short ones they clapped on monstrous capitals,
and thick bases; those that were too long for
their purpose had their base chopped off,
and a diminutive shallow bonnet placed on
their head. However, the thickness of the shaft is pretty equal throughout. Swinburne
Observe the singular double arches and those which spring over pillars, which are one of the earliest deviations from the Basilica form. Ford
The double arch is regarded as the architectural novelty of the mosque. It was needed because the marble columns were not high enough for such a wide building. This construction technique was already used by the Romans for their aqueducts, in Spain too, as at Tarragona and Merida.
It is supported as they say
by three hundred and sixty-five columns, as
many as there are days in the year, and is
upon the whole one of the most curious
buildings I ever saw. Hervey
In various places the pavement has been so much raised as to cover the bases, so that the columns appear to grow out of the soil. Twiss
I can imagine no coup d'oeil more extraordinary than that taken in by the eye, when placed in such spots of the church as afford a clear reach down the aisles, at right angles, uninterrupted by chapels and modern erections. (..) People walking through this chaos of pillars seem to answer the romantic ideas of magic, inchanted knights, or discontented wandering spirits. Swinburne
The real lowness is increased by the width of the interior, just as the height of the gothic is increased by the narrowness of the aisles. Ford
The layout of the prayer hall is the result of four construction phases. The initial mosque by Abd Ar-Rahman I (756-788) had 11 identical aisles having a depth of 12 arches. Abd Ar-Rahman II (822-852) added 10 arches to the aisles, thus giving the prayer hall a square shape (the aisles are larger than the arches). al-Hakam II (961-976) added 14 arches to the aisles and thus the prayer hall became longer than wide, something which is customary in Latin cross churches, but unusual in mosques; the width of the prayer hall of the Great Mosque of Damascus is more than three times its length and that of the Great Mosque of Kairouan is more than twice its length. Al-Mansur, hajib (highest officer of the Caliphal court) in 978-1002, tried to mend the flaws of the previous enlargements by adding eight aisles and thus restoring the almost square shape of the prayer hall.
are in the middle, you discover nothing but
this wood of columns unterminated by any walls, which has a curious effect. Hervey
Equally wonderful is the appearance, when you look from the points that give you all the rows of pillars and arches in an oblique line. It is a most puzzling scene of confusion. Swinburne
The section added by Al-Mansur is an exact copy of the previous ones, but in order to save time and money some details of the decoration were dealt with in a simpler way: the colours of the arches are not the result of the alternate use of brick and stones, but of painting.
(left) Wall of the "qibla"; (right) decoration of the Sabat, the entrance for the Emir/Caliph
The qibla is indicated by a mihrab, a small niche, which per se is not relevant from a religious point of view, but is nevertheless usually finely decorated. The mihrab of the Great Mosque was placed between two decorated doors, the Sabat and another one leading to a Treasury Room. It was designed before the enlargement by Al-Mansur and therefore it is centrally aligned with the original eleven aisle layout.
Observe the Mihrab, the elaborately
ornamented cabinet or recess in which
the Alcoran was placed, and where the
kalif performed his Chotba, or public
prayer. (..) Visit the Cella, the Holiest of Holies; observe the
glorious mosaic exterior unequalled in
Europe, and of truly Byzantine richness. The Greeks soon made friends
with the dynasty of Cordova as the
natural enemy of their eastern antagonist the kalif of Damascus. According to Edrisi, this splendid Mosaic was
sent to Cordova from Constantinople
by the Emperor Romanus II. (..) There is
nothing finer in this kind at Palermo
or Monreale. Ford
The mihrab was not a mere niche, but a small chapel, which is very unusual. The request of Byzantine assistance for the embellishment of the mosque is another link to the Great Mosque of Damascus, the courtyard of which was decorated by Byzantine mosaic makers. Because the Emirs/Caliphs of Cordoba descended from the Umayyad Caliphs of Damascus, the mosque of that city was the model they wanted to emulate and surpass.
Dome of the chapel
In this last quarter was the holy chapel, where they deposited the books of the law. The door of it faced the great gate, down the principal aisle. (..) The roof of the dark inner sanctuary is said to be of one block of marble, eighteen feet wide: if so, it is not only curious for its size and quality, but also for the ingenuity of the architect, in placing it in so perfect an equilibrium, as to remain unshaken so many ages. The manner of casting the arches, grouping the columns, and designing the foliages (..) is very heavy, intricate, and unlike all the Moorish architecture I saw at Granada. Indeed it is many centuries more ancient than any ornamental work at that place. Swinburne
This specimen offers the finest type in Europe of the true temple of Islam. (..) It was called Ceca, Zeca the house of purification. In sanctity it ranked as the third of mosques, equal to the Al Aksa of Jerusalem, and second only to the Caaba of Mecca. (..) A pilgrimage to this Ceca was held to be equivalent in the Spanish Moslem to that of Mecca, where he could not go: hence "andar de zeca en meca" became a proverb for wanderings. Ford
|Other great mosques in this web site:|
The Great Mosque of Bukhara
The Great Mosque of Damascus
The Great Mosque of Divrigi
The Great Mosque of Diyarbakir
Selimiye Camii at Edirne
Shah Abbas Mosque at Isfahan
Suleymaniye Kulliyesi at Istanbul
The Great Mosque of Kairouan
The Blue Mosque of Tabriz
The Great Mosque of Tripoli in Lebanon
The Great Mosque of Xian
(left) Capilla de Villaviciosa; (right) detail of its architectural design
Visit the Capilla de Villaviciosa,
once the Maksurah (reserved area) or seat of the kalif. (..) This spot has been
sadly disfigured by Spanish alterations. Ford
The mosque was turned into the Cathedral of Cordoba soon after the Christian conquest of the town in 1236. The first Eucharistic ceremony was held in Capilla de Villaviciosa, a chapel which was designed out of a dedicated area of the mosque.
Capilla Real: details of the decoration
Many chapels stuck up in various parts between the
pillars, interrupt the enfilade, and block up
the passage. Swinburne
Observe the quaint lions, like those in the Alhambra, and the Azulejos and the arabesque stucco, once painted in blue and red, and gilded. The inscriptions are in Cuphic. Ford
In the following centuries two funerary chapels were obtained by closing arches of aisles adjoining Capilla de Villaviciosa. Capilla Real houses the tombs of Kings Ferdinand IV and Alfonso XI of Castile and its decoration is similar to that of the Real Alcazar at Seville, i.e. it retains many Moorish features. Overall these chapels did not impact on the design of the mosque although they impaired the view of the prayer hall in its entirety.
(left) Capilla Mayor (Choir): main altar; (right) ceiling of Capilla de la Concepcion (1679-1682)
A choir was erected in the center of the whole. Were this choir in any
other church, it would deserve great praise,
for the Gothic grandeur of the plan, the
loftiness of the dome, the carving of the stalls, and the elegance and high finishing
of the arches and ornaments: but in the
middle of the Moorish mosque, it destroys
all unity of design, darkens the rest, and
renders confused every idea of the original
general effect of the building. Swinburne
So much for the Mosque. The modern addition is the Coro; this was done in 1523 by the Bishop Alonso Manique. The city corporation, with a taste and judgment rare in such bodies, protested against this "improvement" but Charles V, unacquainted with the locality, upheld the prelate. When he passed through in 1526, and saw the mischief, he thus reproved the chapter: "You have built here what you, or any one, might have built anywhere else; but you have destroyed what was unique in the world. You have pulled down what was complete, and you have begun what you cannot finish." Ford
Notwithstanding the general deprecation of the choir, I would say a word of appreciation for its architects. They endeavoured to bring some light and air in a building which did not have the right ratio between the area it covered and the height of its roof. As Swinburne pointed out it is singular rather than beautiful.
The stalls were carved after the designs of Cornejo of Seville. It took twelve years to finish the work, and one to put it up. Swinburne
Plan of this section (see its introductory pages):
|Andalusia||Almeria Antequera Baelo Claudia Carmona Cordoba Granada Italica Jerez de la Frontera Medina Azahara Ronda Seville Tarifa|
|Castile||Archaeological Park of Carranque Castillo de Coca Olmedo Segovia Toledo Villa La Olmeda|
|Catalonia||Barcelona Emporiae Girona Tarragona|