MEZQUITA The Great Mosque of Cordoba

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Intricate arch inside Cordoba's Mezquita, Spain
Intricate arch inside Cordoba's Mezquita

The massive complex is about the size of 4 football fields. Its roof is held up by a series of double arches made up of its iconic alternating red and white bricks. Those arches are supported by 856 Roman columns shaped from precious stones such as jasper, onyx, marble, granite and porphyry. It’s a site that will take your breath away.

But it’s not just the beauty of the Mezquita that makes it remarkable. It’s the fact that the building tells the story of over 1500 years. What started off as a temple dedicated to the Roman god Janus, later became a Visigoth church in 572 AD. Today, you can still see mosaics from the Visigoths that were unearthed below the foundation of the Mezquita. And the Roman columns? Those were recycled by the Moors as they began work on the mosque.

After the Christians reconquered Spain, the mosque was deemed too beautiful to destroy. It was converted into a church and eventually, an enormous cathedral was built right in the middle! Being surrounded by Muslim architecture and peering into a church, all within the same building, is quite a peculiar experience. But that’s just what the mosque is – a peculiar but beautiful masterpiece that stands testament to 1500 years of human civilization.

What to See in the Mosque of Cordoba

1

ARCHES & COLUMNS

Impressive row of arches in the interior of Cordoba's Mosque, Spain
Rows of arches inside Cordoba's Great Mosque

The columns of the mosque support the famous alternating red and white brick arches which are said to be inspired by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The arches are doubled, which at the time was a new building innovation, allowing for higher ceilings to be built. Seeing these endless columns, a visiting Muslim poet once described the mosque as having “countless pillars like rows of palm trees in the oases of Syria.”

2

PATIO OF THE ORANGE TREES

Patio of the orange trees seen from the bell tower – Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain
Patio of the orange trees – Mosque of Cordoba

Known as the Patio de los Naranjos, this open courtyard is attached to the mosque and surrounded by walls and the bell tower. The patio is where the Muslims would wash as part of their purification ritual before entering the mosque.

In the courtyard, there are citrus trees and palms planted in rows mimicking the columns found inside the mosque. The trees were irrigated by channels that were fed by the water cistern. These channels can be seen today, however, they are not the originals.

3

CATHEDRAL

Superb mahogany choir in Cordoba's mosque-cathedral, Spain
Superb choir in Cordoba's mosque-cathedral

The Mezquita’s main chapel (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption) is found right in the center of the complex. It features a baroque altarpiece, priceless jewels and a choir carved from mahogany brought from the New World. Next to the altarpiece is another noteworthy item – the statue of St. James the Moore Slayer.

Melange of architectural styles in Cordoba's Mezquita (Spain)
Melange of architectural styles in Cordoba's Mezquita
4

BELL TOWER

Views of the Mosque's bell tower among palm trees – Cordoba, Spain
Views of the Mosque's bell tower

The bell tower was built in the 17th century over what was the mosque’s minaret. If you can climb the 54m (177 ft) to the top, you will be rewarded with some great views of the courtyard and mezquita below. The views of the city aren’t bad either and you can even see the Alcazar de Cordoba at a bit of a distance.

To get to the top of the bell tower, a separate ticket is required which costs 3€. There is one bell tower tour every 30 minutes from 9:30am to 1:30pm and from 4pm to 5:30pm.

5

MIHRAB

Impressive mihrab in the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain
Dome of the mihrab in the Great Mosque

The Mihrab is a prayer niche found in mosques and the one found inside the Great Mosque of Cordoba could be the most beautiful in the world. The way it lights up and sparkles is truly impressive. It features verses from the Quran and plant motifs set in a mosaic. This tile work was done by craftsmen sent from Emperor Nicephorus II of the Byzantine Empire.

Muslim prayer niche inside the Mosque of Cordoba (Andalusia)
Muslim prayer niche inside the Mosque

History of the Mezquita

Unlike any other building in Spain, the Great Mosque of Cordoba tells the history of the Iberian Peninsula, starting with the Romans. It is said that the location was first the site of a temple dedicated to the Roman god, Janus. When the Visigoths arrived from the north in 572 AD, they converted the temple into a church, the remnants of which can still be seen inside the mosque today.

Impressive row of arches in the interior of Cordoba's Mosque, Spain
Rows of arches inside Cordoba's Great Mosque

The Muslims (Moors) invaded from northern Africa in 711 and made a unique agreement with the Visigoths to share the building for worship – one half for the christians and the other half for the Muslims. This agreement lasted until 784 when the Muslim Emir Abd al-Rahman I purchased the church and demolished it to make room for the grand mosque of Cordoba.

Visigoth mosaics found under the Mosque's foundations – Cordoba, Spain
Visigoth mosaics found under the Mosque's foundations

Over four centuries, the mosque was continually extended as Cordoba prospered. The city enjoyed public baths, running water, and even paved streets that were light up at night with oil lamps. In addition, Cordoba was open to artistic expression and was home to numerous scholars and philosophers, such as Maimonides and Averroes. Many consider Cordoba to be medieval Europe’s cultural capital.

Views of the mosque-cathedral and its patio from the bell tower – Cordoba, Spain
Views of the mosque-cathedral and its patio from the bell tower

Cordoba’s golden period ended once King Ferdinand III of Castile arrived during the reconquista in 1236. The conquering christian forces were impressed with Cordoba and especially the mosque. Instead of destroying it, they decided to convert it into a Roman Catholic church.

Cathedral entrance inside the Mosque of Cordoba, Spain
Cathedral entrance

Several chapels were built into the corners of the mosque over the centuries and eventually in the 16th century Charles V, King of Castile and Aragon, granted permission to build a Renaissance cathedral. This wall-less cathedral looks as though it was just plopped into the middle of the mosque – a truly strange sight to behold. Charles V only visited the cathedral after it was completed and was not too pleased. He famously stated “You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace.”

Today, Cordoba’s mosque-cathedral is a beautiful masterpiece that stands testament to 1500 years of Spanish history.

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