Córdoba enjoyed a favourable status under the Romans. Under the Emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD), it was the capital of the province of Baetica and the largest city in the Iberian Peninsula and birthplace of the Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca.
Córdoba’s greatest years of glory, however, were from 756 to 1031, when it was the capital of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain). It was during this period that the Great Mosque was built, the first part in the 8th century and the fourth and final section, in the late 10th century. Its progressive growth mirrored the increasing importance of Córdoba, which in the 10th century was the largest and greatest city in Europe.
Its size at its peak is debatable; estimates have ranged from an unlikely 1.000.000 to 90,000, still a significant number when no other city in Europe exceeded 50,000. The city dazzled with its civilised air and multicultural activity, with Muslims, Jews, and Christians (called mozárabes) mingling at all levels. The Christians enjoyed the privilege of being served by a bishop, while in the 10th century the Jews could count on the services of the extraordinary figure of Hasdai ibn Shaprut, personal physician to the Caliph, adviser, diplomat, scholar, benefactor and patron.
Córdoba in the 10th century was a magnet. People came and went, awed by the splendour and magnificence of Abd al-Rahman III’s court**, especially the sumptuous palace, the Medina al-Zahara, which he had constructed just to the west of Córdoba.
**Abd al-Rahman III (ruled 912-961) took the title of caliph in 929, thus
challenging the authority of the caliph in Baghdad.
They came to confer with the Caliph, they came to learn, they came in search of cures; King Sancho of León, deposed of his throne, turned up in 957 for treatment for obesity. He not only recovered his health but also his throne, thanks in large part to the Muslim army he took back with him.
Córdoba boasted paved streets, a form of public lighting and luxurious villas with indoor plumbing (real water closets) along the banks of the Guadalquivir. Patios, gardens and fountains were refreshing oases against noise and the blistering summer heat, and public baths kept the body clean, if not necessarily godly.
Streets were narrow, cool and known for their cleanliness. A modern day visitor to the old Jewish and Moorish quarters near the mosque will have some idea of what it must have been like, except that there would have been no windows with the familiar ironwork grills that now feature as part of the romance of Andalusia. These are later appendages to what were blank outer walls; Muslim home life centred on the inner patio with its fountain, climbing flowers and perhaps a citrus tree.
Commerce was organised in areas or streets according to trade, something like the souks that we find to day in e.g. Moroccan towns. Those selling perfumes and spices were allowed to trade outside the mosque, but sellers of malodorous goods were shunted off to outer areas. Why offend those coming to prayer with unpleasant stenches when the delights of perfume and spices would put them in a much more favourable frame of mind for meditation!
Córdoba enjoyed a booming economy thanks to its skilled artisans and agricultural infrastructure. It was famous for its leather and metal work, glazed tiles and textiles. The variety of agricultural goods introduced by the Moors was astonishing: oranges, lemons, limes, watermelons, figs, pomegranates, almonds, bananas, artichokes, eggplants, spinach, sugar-cane. There were herbs and spices such as cumin, caraway, coriander, fennel, mint, parsley, cloves and nutmeg. And then there were cash crops such as cotton, flax and silk. The introduction of such a variety of new products signalled a dramatic improvement in diet and health.
As a centre of learning, Córdoba was famous for its books, avidly collected by the Caliphs themselves. The library of al-Hakam II (caliph from 961 to 976) was said to number some 400.000 volumes at the time that the famous monastery of Ripoll in Catalonia could boast of its 192 volumes. Exaggerated or not, the point to keep in mind is that the pursuit of knowledge and the power of words were taken seriously. Calligraphy was a highly valued art giving reverence to the language, and copyists were retained to reproduce precious manuscripts. Al-Hakam’s greatest fear was that his library would not long survive his death. He was right. The vizier al-Mansur –the unofficial ruler of al-Andalus from 976 to 1002– burned most of the books on philosophy to please the Muslim clergy; most of the others were sold off or perished in the civil strife not long after.
Medicine, mathematics, astronomy, botany, bolstered by constant contact with Baghdad and the east, were far in advance of anything that the rest of Europe had to offer. Algebra –a combination of Greek geometry and Indian arithmetic– was an Arab creation and Arab numerals –which we use every day without thinking of their provenance– replaced the cumbersome Roman system. With Arab numerals came the decimal notation and the concept of zero (probably derived from India). The implications of these innovations were profound as abstract calculations found a new and much more flexible language. It was this mathematical know-how that permitted the building of the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages.
The power of Córdoba collapsed spectacularly through internal strife in the early 11th century and al-Andalus splintered into numerous mini states called taifas, the most powerful of which was the taifa of Seville. Córdoba remained a Moorish city until 1236 when it fell to advancing Christian forces from the north.
The Christians affirmed their victory by building a series of churches known as the iglesias fernandinas since they were commissioned by Ferdinand (Fernando), King of Castile/León. They are solid low, transitional Romanesque-Gothic structures with a fortress-like look that we might expect in an area that was still politically unstable.
The Great Mosque was immediately “cleansed” and mass held in it, with Ferdinand in attendance. Shortly after, the bells that had been removed from the Christian pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in 997, and converted into lanterns for the Great Mosque, were returned north with all due ceremony. Modifications to the building at this time were relatively minor: primarily the building of chapels along the inside of the walls. What was more important, perhaps, was the appropriation for Christian worship of the most important building in any Muslim community, its mosque. It was a very real way rubbing strong salt into the wounds of defeat.
A major alteration took place in the Great Mosque in the 16th century, over the protests of the people. A Gothic/Renaissance church was implanted in the middle of the delicate rows of columns. When the king, Charles (Carlos) V –who had authorised its construction— saw the completed change in 1526, he is said to have exclaimed: “You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.” (Coincidentally, it was the same Charles V who authorised the building of a Renaissance Palace within the Alhambra, the Moorish Palace overlooking Granada.)
Charles is not the only one to have regretted the construction of the church –actually it is only a coro (choir stalls) and chancel. Still, it provides us with a unique and excellent opportunity to see the approach of two major religions to the same God/ Allah.
The mosque is a low building, befitting the Muslim emphasis on submission to Allah; the church soars upwards as if in an effort to reach heaven itself. And having one building within the other is a perfect metaphor of the close, even symbiotic, relationship between the two cultures for several centuries.
Spanish Muslim authorities have sought permission to pray in the Cathedral, but such requests have always been turned down on the grounds that Muslims cannot pray in a consecrated Catholic church. Individual Muslims attempting to pray in the Mezquita have been prevented from doing so by guards
After its collapse, Córdoba became a cultural backwater rescued from oblivion only by its architectural riches. Nineteenth-century travellers from beyond the Pyrenees almost unanimously condemned its appearance. The Reverend Samuel Manning summed up general sentiment when he described Córdoba in the 1860s as a “poverty-stricken, decayed, and dilapidated city… without trade, without manufactures, without life or movement of any kind” (p. 118). The ruling elite of Córdoba were notorious for their disinterest in the outside world and for their intellectual laziness. In truth, the same might be said of most Spanish towns in the nineteenth century, although for Córdoba the perception of poverty and decay was probably more pronounced in view of its past glory.
Change has been slow, but Córdoba is now a bustling agricultural centre drawing its wealth from the rolling cornfields, olive groves and vineyards of the fertile Guadalquivir valley and, since the 60s, from booming tourism. Visitors have a rich choice of places to see.
April 2, 2010. A group of Muslim tourists from Austria were involved in a scuffle with security guards when several of the group began praying in the Mosque on March 31. A clash ensued after the tourists were told to stop. Two guards were wounded in the scuffle, and two of the group arrested by police who had been called in by a guard. The tourists were accused of deliberate provocation, timed to coincide with Easter celebrations. The Muslim Youth Organisation of Austria apologised, but claimed that the actions of the guards were overly aggressive. See www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/apr/01/muslim-mosque-fight.
April 1, 2016. There has been a longstanding dispute between the Catholic church and local authorities over the ownership and name of the Mezquita. In 2006, availing itself of a law enacted during the Franco dictatorship (1939-75), the diocese of Córdoba paid 30 euros to register ownership of the building. It has since increasingly called the building simply “la Catedral de Córdoba,” a restrictive description that has provoked widespread protest. Since 2103, hundreds of thousands have signed an online petition organised by a group called Platform for the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba. They object to the diocese’s attempt to hide the building’s past as a mosque based on ideological beliefs. The regional government of Andalusia has also weighed in in support of the local council approved name of Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba.
On March 29, 2016, the Church authorities relented, explaining that in the interest of tourism and after careful study, the building would now be called the Conjunto Monumental Mezquita-Catedral/ Mosque-Cathedral Monument Complex. And brochures that carried only the headline Catedral of Córdoba have now been replaced by those bearing the title Conjunto Monumental Mezquita-Catedral.
Fletcher, Richard Moorish Spain London, 1994
Fletcher, Richard The Cross and the Crescent London, 2003
Gerber, Jane S The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience New York, 1992.
Gilmour, David Cities of Spain London,1994
Manning, Rev Samuel Spanish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, London n.d. (post 1875)
Nash, Elizabeth Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History Oxford, 2005
Image of Medina Azahara: By Justojosemm – Cordobapedia, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5650162
Image of mosque: By Toni Castillo Quero – Flickr: , CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13926840