A Roman temple that became a church that transformed into a mosque and then reverted back to a church, the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba (Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba) is as bizarre as it is magnificent. I’ve seen many beautiful churches and a handful of gorgeous mosques, but until visiting Córdoba had never seen a church—a massive cathedral— inside an enormous mosque. The styles are completely incongruous, but somehow the crazy sequence of construction, renovation, and recycling by Ancient Romans, Visgoths, Muslim Emirs and Roman Catholic Monarchs has created one of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring places of worship in the world.
First, a quick and dirty history lesson. Historians believe that the current site was originally occupied by a temple to the Roman god Janus. In 575, invading Visgoths converted the temple to a church dedicated to St.Vincent. Salvaging Roman and Visgoth ruins, the site was converted to a mosque in 784. Ruling Muslim Emirs made significant changes to the Mezquita (as it is commonly known) until its final form in 987. At that time, it was considered the most magnificent mosque of over 1000 mosques in Córdoba.
The year 1236 marked the siege of Córdoba and the end of Islamic rule. Conquering Christians, under King Ferdinand III initially left the Mezquita largely intact but dedicated it to the Virgin Mary and used it as a place of Christian worship. Over the years, various kings commissioned the construction of chapels within the mosque. The biggest change came in the 1520s when a Renaissance-style cathedral nave was built right in the middle of the Mezquita by Charles V and the Catholic Church. Further additions to the structure, including a Baroque-style cathedral choir, continued until the late 18th century.
Today, the Mezquita is the Cathedral of Córdoba (officially the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción) and is regarded as one of the most accomplished works of Moorish architecture.
The most defining feature of the Mezquita is the red and white striped arches that support 856 pillars “recycled” by Islamic builders from Roman and Visgoth ruins. Like them or not, they make a big statement in the cavernous prayer hall. The photo above only shows a small portion of these distinctive arches. I felt a bit like I was in a giant circus arcade, albeit a solemn one.
The mixing of Moorish style architecture and Catholic Baroque adornments is fascinating.
If the candy-cane stripes aren’t enough, now imagine plonking a towering cathedral in the middle of the mosque. Photos really can’t do this piece of “renovation” justice.
For me, the most beautiful part of the Mezquita is the mihrab, an exquisite prayer niche facing Mecca. The gold-hued mosaic tiles are unbelievable. Unfortunately I didn’t get a good photo of the stunning dome above the niche.
From the outside, the Mezquita is equally striking and dominates the Córdoba cityscape. The photo above is taken from the Torre del Alminar, the bell tower.
The beautiful Patio de los Naranjos (courtyard of orange trees), the ablution area when the site was used as a mosque, is the main entrance to the Mezquita.
The bell tower is another interesting example of renovations as the site was converted to a new faith. The Catholic Monarchs simple built the Baroque-style tower over the original minaret. If you visit, don’t miss the climb up the bell tower where you can see the minaret (below) inside the structure, and get an awesome view of the city from the top.
The oddly-beautiful mix of architectures and faiths in the Mezquita makes it one of the most unique places of worship and it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The only sad note is that the Mezquita-Catedral is not shared between faiths. Muslims have lobbied the Roman Catholic Church to allow them to pray in the Mezquita, but Spanish church authorities and the Vatican have opposed this move.
I’ll be doing another post with photos from our wanderings through beautiful Córdoba. And, coming soon, lots of great hiking in southern Utah and Arizona.
Special thanks to the following sources for the history lesson:
- Lonely Planet, Spain, 10th edition, November 2014