22 September 2014

Wonders and Marvels: The Mezquita of Córdoba

By Kathryn A. Kopple

Córdoba is an ancient city in the region of Andalusia, southern Spain; a city that has everything for which a traveler in search of old-world charm could hope:  beautifully symmetrical plazas, exotic flowering gardens, reflecting pools, winding stone streets, beguiling alleyways, white-washed walls, colorful tiled facades, high towers, opulent palaces, sparkling fountains, bustling shops, any number of cafes and restaurants, and elegant hotels.  Córdoba also has the distinction of being one of the few—if only--places in the world where it is possible to say:  Voy a la Mezquita a oír misa.  I’m going to the Mosque to hear Mass.  Mezquita refers to the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the most significant and beautiful Islamic structure in the West.   Although the Mezquita retains important architectural elements of the original mosque, hundreds of years have passed since it was converted into the cathedral named in honor of the Virgin of the Assumption.  And yet, while it is a Catholic church where Christians may gather for worship, the people of Spain still refer to the cathedral as the Mezquita.

Recently, while in Spain, my family and I drove from Madrid to Córdoba en route to Granada and Sevilla.  Spain has always been a place to which I’ve returned.  Spain was where, in my well-spent youth, I went to live and study—and, of course, see as much of Iberia as I could see.  During my years abroad, I ventured as far east as Barcelona, had travelled as far west as Portugal, went as far north as Santander, and wandered as far south as Marrakesh.  I spent a year in Sevilla after graduating from college.  I would return again to Spain to take up residence in Madrid.   I’d seen the sun rise over the Alhambra. There had been a memorable ski trip to the Pyrenees.  I’d scaled the Art Nouveau cathedral  (still under construction) known as the Sagrada Familia.  I’d set out on my own for the historic cities of Toledo and Segovia.  One infernally hot day, I hopped a bus that took me to San Lorenzo to the Escorial (the austere palace built by Philip II).  At the invitation of friends, the pristine beaches of Huelva were all mine for a weekend.  But, for all of this travel, I had never been to Córdoba, and not for lack of trying.  Either I would run out of time or money or both, making it necessary to forfeit any plans I might have to visit the fabled city.  I regretted it, naturally.  Spanish friends would ask:  And Córdoba? Did you go to Córdoba?  Did you visit the Mezquita?  No, no.  I had not been there.  Once, a Spaniard and dear friend said to me: “If I had to choose, I would choose the Mezquita over all else in Spain.” I smiled.  Considering all Spain has to offer, that was saying something.  She went on to explain that palaces, cathedrals, museums—these were cultural monuments of which to be proud.  But there was nothing like the Mezquita.  Her enthusiasm, indeed passion, for the great mosque moved me.  I was determined that, on this trip, I would not leave the country until I had could say the same.  Now, having been there, I can.  I have been to the Mezquita and it is every bit as wondrous as its reputation.

 I have been to the Mezquita, and it is wondrous and complex.  The visitor enters a large courtyard enlivened with orange trees.  The size of the courtyard is remarkable, and so is the water system cut into the stone in precise lines that crisscross the patio.  A place of precision and repose; it is a place that invites lingering, reflection.  Then, it is on to the main hall.  It has been described as “a non-hierarchical, almost abstract space with a system of columns and arches extending in all directions in a strict grid… This arcaded hypostyle hall, in its final form, is composed of a ‘forest’ of 856 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite supporting red and white arches… The double arches consist of a lower horseshoe arch and an upper semi-circular arch, a technical solution which allowed higher ceilings that would otherwise be possible only with relatively low columns.”  This forest of elaborate semi-circles is by far the most intriguing aspect of the Mezquita; it elicits a sense of order that does not impede the impression of spaciousness and freedom.  Airy, colorful, and peaceful.   Impressive as it is, the visitor enjoys a sample of the original mosque as “in the 16th century the clergy of Cordoba decided to increase the size of the Cathedral: the new project consisted in the demolition of an important part of the forest of columns and the insertion of a Christian cathedral grandly combining Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, although altering forever the unity of the Muslim building.”  The effect is not altogether successful—as Charles V lamented—but luckily not everything has been lost, and the remains of the original mosque are without a doubt lovely and compelling.

 While there, I was in the company of tourists from distant parts, including Muslims.  I couldn’t help but wondering what they felt, thought, as they walked about the mosque.  Muslims are not allowed to pray at the Mezquita.  To this day, the debate rages on as to why they should be prohibited from doing so.   In times such as these, lifting the prohibition would be seen as a gesture of reconciliation.  History is not so easily effaced—or forgotten.   To preserve a cultural treasure is laudable, but the Mezquita remains a contested site, and will continue to be so unless those of Islamic faith may find there a place to worship alongside Christians.  

Sources:    http://socks-studio.com/2014/04/11/the-field-and-the-nave-the-mezquita-of-cordoba/

Kathryn A. Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.