The mosque of Cordoba, a jewel of islamic art

by | Jun 30, 2023 | Andalucia, Blog, Cordoba, Spain

The mosque erected by Abderramán I at the end of the 8th century experienced successive enlargements that made it, at the time of the caliphate, the most important religious building in al-Andalus and the Muslim west.

During the first half of the 8th century, the power of the Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus went into obvious decline. Political instability and conspiracies increased until they led to the fitna (civil war), which ended with the fall of the Umayyads and the accession of the Abbasid family to the throne in 750. Five years later, the last Umayyads landed at Almuñecar and Prince Abd al-Rahman ibn Muawiya took advantage of tribal disputes to seize power in al-Andalus.

A year later, Abderraman I founded an emirate with capital in Cordoba which, in 773, became independent of Baghdad, the new capital of the Abbasid empire, and culminated the unification of the Muslim territories of the peninsula in 781. Around 785, Abderramán I ordered the construction of a mosque with the intention of reaffirming his independence from the Abbasid power, with which he still maintained a religious bond -since the caliph was the highest spiritual leader of Islam. The mosque of Cordoba is today the oldest preserved monument of al-Andalus.

In the 10th century, the mosque became the largest centre of worship in the Muslim West. This illustration recreates his appearance after the various enlargements to which he was subjected..

Legendary origins

Until now we do not know how they were and where the previous Andalusian mosques were. In the Peninsula, as in the East and North Africa, the first Muslims, with few exceptions, did not reuse churches as a place of prayer and, in fact, many temples remained open to Christian worship for centuries. The opposite happened centuries later, when Castilians and Aragonese conquered the territories of al-Andalus and consecrated the totality of mosques.

After being evicted from the caliphate by the Abbasids, the Umayyads who escaped the repression of the new dynasty landed in al-Andalus and founded the independent emirate of Córdoba.

The lack of news about the first Muslim place of worship in Cordoba before 785 encouraged 10th-century Andalusian chroniclers to elaborate legends inspired by oriental accounts to establish links between Damascus and Cordoba, seat of the new Umayyad caliphate in al-Andalus. Thus arose the myth that Christians and Muslims would have shared for their prayers the pre-existing Visigothic temple, the church of Saint Vincent, which would have been demolished later to erect the mosque; it is a tradition identical to that of the church of Saint John in Damascus. However, the various structures of late antiquity and the Visigoth period found until today by archaeologists in the basement of the Mosque of Cordoba do not correspond exactly with a large Christian basilica.

The myth of “Hispanized” Islam

The myth of interfaith and intercultural collaboration remained throughout the 19th century and part of the 20th. Al-Andalus was seen as an atypical and exceptional political entity, a culture detached from the rest of the Islamic world; only then, “Hispanized” and “Christianized”, could it be accepted within the history of Spain.

This romantic vision led to interpret, at the beginning of the twentieth century, some of the names and signs engraved on the supports of the naves of the mosque built in the tenth century as signatures of Christian workers, Mozarabic and captives, which would prove that the great Andalusian mosque was also the work of Christian workers.

The romantic vision of al-Andalus led to imagine that the mosque had been built with contributions from Christians and Mozarabics.

However, after analyzing the more than seven hundred lapidary signs documented in the mosque, today it cannot be said that Christian stonemasons worked there. In the same way, still today we find attempts to detract from Islamic architecture, attributing to “Byzantium” the striking aesthetic of the prayer room.

Emperors, kings & emirs

On the contrary, current research has highlighted how Islam contributed to the survival of Greco-Latin culture and art for several centuries. From the end of the 9th century, the Andalusian chroniclers began their story with the Iberians and the Greeks, following Roman and Visigoth Hispania.

The Umayyads of al-Andalus presented themselves as worthy successors of the Hispanic emperors and the Gothic kings of Toledo, and as such also assumed their monumental and cultural legacy. Therefore, the reuse of Roman and Visigoth columns in the naves of the mosque did not respond only to economic savings and efforts nor to an exaltation of the triumph of Islam, but to the assumption of the past peninsular by the ruling dynasty. In the 10th century this speech was very useful to the Umayyad caliphs, who based part of their legitimacy on that ancient heritage.

The Umayyad emirs saw themselves as successors of the Hispanic emperors of Rome and the Gothic kings of Toledo and assumed their cultural and monumental legacy.

First builders

The first two phases of the construction of the mosque of Cordoba correspond to the political stage of the independent emirate. The architects of the first building, at the service of Abderramán I, laid the foundations of the aesthetic that has made the mosque famous and gave proof of their genius in conceiving a building based on the solutions of the Roman architecture peninsular, but at the service of a new space formula.

The diaphanous atmosphere of the interior was achieved by the construction of parallel naves separated by overlapping arcades -as happened in the Roman aqueducts- that rest on thin supports or columns. The growth of Cordoba in the eighth century forced Abderramán II to make a first extension towards the south of the mosque, following the same stylistic criteria.

The builders adopted the horseshoe arch and alternating brick and stone voussoirs, which ensured the stability of the seemingly fragile ensemble. Although this first prayer room had to be restored because the foundations gave way and the thrust of the arcades inclined the facade of the hall towards the courtyard, the truth is that it still stands after more than twelve centuries. Meanwhile, the alternation of red and white arches became a sign of identity of the Umayyads and al-Andalus.

The Caliph Mosque

In 929, Abderraman III (912-961) proclaimed the caliphate to strengthen his power in the Mediterranean and reaffirm the independence of al-Andalus from the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. This required the creation of new architectural scenarios, both palatine and religious, in accordance with the new dignity and ceremonial. This was the reason why a palatine city, Medina Azahara, was built on the outskirts of Cordoba, and also that the main mosque or aljama of Cordoba was extended in successive phases to reach the imposing dimensions that we can still see today.

In 929, Abderramán III proclaimed the caliphate and undertook an intense constructive activity, erecting the palatine city of Medina Azahara and expanding the mosque.

The first intervention of the 10th century in the mosque was the expansion of the courtyard and the construction of a new minaret to replace the older one. The tower that ordered to erect Abderramán III was the highest of the time in the West …

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