The Mezquita: The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba

This stunning monument, one of the most beautiful religious buildings in the world, reflects the complicated religious history of Spain.

The Mezquita in Córdoba, Spain, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Touring the Mezquita: The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba is utterly captivating. Its dazzling blend of Islamic and Christian architecture is unique in the world, with more than a thousand Moorish columns surrounding a sixteenth-century cathedral in its center. Visit this landmark to attend mass in the cathedral and to learn about the multi-faceted spiritual history of the Iberian Peninsula.

The site has seen a succession of religious landmarks: first a Roman temple, then a Visigoth basilica, followed by an Islamic mosque, and then by a Catholic cathedral constructed inside the mosque.

In 711, Muslim forces (known as the Moors) invaded the Iberian Peninsula and founded a civilization that would last for seven centuries. At a time when much of Europe was mired in the stagnation and chaos caused by the fall of the Roman Empire, the Moors created a sophisticated civilization known for its scientific, architectural and literary riches.

From their capital in Córdoba, the Moors ruled the Muslim kingdom of Al-Andalus (from which Spain’s modern region of Andalusia takes its name). The city’s riches rivaled the splendor of Constantinople and Baghdad.

Over the centuries, the Reconquista—the re-conquest of Spain by Christian forces—gradually whittled away at Moorish control on the peninsula. Córdoba was captured in 1236, and Granada, the last Moorish outpost, fell to the Christian forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492.

A Blend of Two Faiths

The Mezquita’s minaret was converted into a Christian bell tower. (photo by Bob Sessions)

The history of the Mezquita (which is Spanish for mosque) is closely intertwined with that of the city of Córdoba. Abd al-Rahman the First built the Aljama Mosque in 786-788 on the site of the San Vicente (St. Vincent) Basilica, which itself was likely built over an earlier religious monument, a Roman temple to Janus.

The new mosque reused materials from the city’s Hellenistic, Roman and Visigoth periods. The goal was to build a mosque that would rival those of other major Muslim capitals. 

The Mezquita was enlarged several times, eventually making it the second-largest mosque in the world at the time. More than 20,000 worshippers could gather within its walls.

The Mezquita’s mihrab marked the focal point for Muslim prayer. (photo by Bob Sessions)

When Córdoba came under Christian rule once again, the mosque was adapted rather than torn down because of its great beauty.

While its distinctive Moorish architecture was largely preserved, chapels were built along its inner walls, including a royal chapel begun in 1371 and funded by Spain’s King Henry II. Two centuries later, a new, larger church was built, this one in Renaissance style.

A Wondrous Landmark

From my first step inside the Mezquita, I was entranced. I marveled at the more than 1,100 columns that receded into the distance, which support 365 double arches in an alternating pattern of white stone and red brick.

The columns are made of granite, jasper and marble, many reused from ancient sites. The distinctive double arch design was likely influenced by the aqueducts and triumphal arches of ancient Rome. The forest of columns creates a different visual effect with each step. The overall effect is mysterious and yet serene.

Another splendid feature of the Mezquita is its mihrab, a niche that shows the direction of prayer in a mosque. Here it is a small octagonal room covered by a scallop shell dome. 

I explored the Christian history of the monument in the Cathedral of Santa Maria, which was first consecrated in 1146 and re-consecrated in 1236. Since then, mass has been held every day in the church.

Inside the Mezquita is the sixteenth-century Cathedral of Santa Maria. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Another significant site inside the monument is the Archaeological Area of San Vicente, which displays pieces of the original Visigoth church that were uncovered during excavations.

Don’t miss the Chapel of Santa Teresa, which features a huge gold monstrance (a vessel that holds the consecrated eucharistic host). A door on one side leads to the cathedral’s treasury.

Outside the mosque, the remains of its original minaret were incorporated into a bell tower that towers about a grove of orange trees. When the building functioned as a mosque, this courtyard is where worshippers performed ritual ablutions before prayers.

With its fascinating blend of two religions, glorious art and architecture, and many centuries of history, the Mezquita is one of the most remarkable places religious monuments in the world.

 

 

If You Go: Tickets to the Mezquita: The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba can be purchased onsite, but you’ll save time by buying them online. Even if you don’t purchase a ticket, you can still enjoy its lovely courtyard. For more information see the Tourist Office of Spain.

 

Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Holy RoverNear the ExitThe Soul of the Family Tree, and Every Step Is HomeHer website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.

 

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