The Mezquita (Spanish for “Mosque”) of Cordoba is a beautiful and fascinating building that symbolizes the many religious changes Cordoba has undergone over the centuries. Today, the Mezquita is the cathedral of Cordoba (officially the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption), but the vast majority of its art and architecture is the work of Islamic architects, who built it as a mosque in the 8th century.
The site on which the Mezquita stands has long been a sacred space – it was host to a Roman temple dedicated to Janus and a Visigothic cathedral dedicated to St Vincent of Saragossa before the mosque was constructed in the 8th century. Finally, a cathedral was added inside the mosque by the Christian conquerors in the early 13th century.
The construction of the Mezquita lasted for over two centuries, starting in 784 AD under the supervision of the emir of Cordoba, Abd ar-Rahman I. Under Abd ar-Rahman II (822-52), the Mezquita held an original copy of the Koran and an arm bone of the prophet Mohammed, making it a major Muslim pilgrimage site.
The Mosque underwent numerous subsequent changes: Abd ar-Rahman III ordered a new minaret (9th century), while Al-Hakam II enlarged the plan of the building and enriched the mihrab (961). The last of the reforms, including the completion of the outer aisles and orange tree courtyard, were completed by Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir in 987.
When finished, the Mezquita was the most magnificent of the more than 1,000 mosques in Cordoba. But Cordoba was subject to frequent invasion and each conquering wave added their own mark to the architecture.
In 1236, Cordoba was captured from the Moors by King Ferdinand III of Castile and rejoined Christendom. The Christians initially left the architecture Mezquita largely undisturbed – they simply consecrated it, dedicated it to the Virgin Mary, and used it as a place of Christian worship.
King Alfonso X oversaw the construction of the Villaviciosa Chapel and the Royal Chapel within the structure of the mosque. The kings who followed added further Christian features: Enrique II rebuilt the chapel in the 14th century; a nave was constructed with the patronage of Carlos V, king of a united Spain.
The heavy, incongruous Baroque choir was sanctioned in the very heart of the mosque by Charles V in the 1520s. Artists and architects continued to add to the existing structure until the late 18th century, making the Mezquita an intriguing architectural oddity.
In 1931, Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal was the first Muslim to pray in the Mezquita since it was closed to Islam. In 1984, the historic center of Cordoba, including the Mezquita, was made a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What to See
The Mezquita de Cordoba is most notable for its giant arches and its forest of over 856 (of an original 1,293) columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite. These were taken from the Roman temple which had previously occupied the site and other destroyed Roman buildings.
The Mezquita also features richly gilded prayer niches. But the Mezquita’s most interesting feature is certainly the mihrab, a domed shrine of Byzantine mosaics built by Al Hakam II (961-76). It once housed the Koran and relics of Muhammad. In front of the Mihrab is the Maksoureh, a kind of anteroom for the caliph and his court; its mosaics and plasterwork make it a masterpiece of Islamic art.
Although it does not fit in with the rest of the mosque, the 16th-century Baroque choir is an impressive sight, with an intricate ceiling and richly carved 18th-century choir stalls.
Outside the Mezquita is the Courtyard of the Orange Trees (Patio de los Naranjos), which in springtime is perfumed with orange blossoms and has a beautiful fountain.
The Torre del Alminar, the minaret once used to summon the faithful to prayer, has a Baroque belfry. Hardy travelers can climb to the top to catch a panoramic view of Córdoba and its surroundings.