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Córdoba: La Mezquita - an excerpt from Andalucía

La Mezquita is the local name for Abd ar-Rahman’s Great Mosque. Mezquita means ‘mosque’ and even though the building has officially been a cathedral for more than 750 years, no one could ever mistake its origins. Abd ar-Rahman I, founder of a new state, felt it necessary to construct a great religious monument for his capital. As part of his plan, he also wished to make it a centre of pilgrimage to increase the sense of divorce from eastern Islam; Mecca was at the time held by his Abbasid enemies.

Islam was never entirely immune to the exaltation of holy relics, and there is a story that Abd ar-Rahman had an arm of Mohammed to legitimize his mosque as a pilgrimage site. The site, at the centre of the city, had originally held a Roman temple of Janus, and later a Visigothic church. Only about one-third of the mosque belongs to the original. Successive enlargements were made by Abd ar-Rahman II, al-Hakim, and al-Mansur. Expansion was easy; the plan of the mosque is a simple rectangle divided into aisles by rows of columns, and its size was increased to serve a growing population simply by adding more aisles. The result was one of the largest of all mosques, exceeded only by the one in Mecca. After 1236, it was converted to use as a cathedral without any major changes. In the 1520s, however, the city’s clerics succeeded in convincing the Royal Council, over the opposition of the Córdoba city government, to allow the construction of a choir and high altar, enclosed structures typical of Spanish cathedrals. Charles V, who had also opposed the project, strongly reproached them for the desecration when he saw the finished work – though he himself had done even worse to the Alhambra and Sevilla’s Alcázar.

Most people come away from a visit to La Mezquita somewhat confused. The endless rows of columns and red and white striped arches make a picture familiar to most of us, but actually to see them in this gloomy old hall does not increase one’s understanding of the work. They make a pretty pattern, but what does it mean? It’s worth going into some detail, for learning to see La Mezquita the way its builders did is the best key we have to understanding the refined world of al-Andalus.

Before entering, take a few minutes to circumnavigate this massive, somewhat forbidding pile of bricks. Spaced around its 685m (2050ft) of wall are the original entrances and windows, excellent examples of Moorish art. Those on the western side are the best, from the time of al-Mansur: interlaced Visigothic horseshoe arches, floral decorations in the Roman tradition, and Islamic calligraphy and patterns, a lesson in the varied sources of this art.

The only entrance to the mosque today is the Puerta del Perdón, a fine mudéjar gateway added in 1377, opening on to the Patio de los Naranjos, the original mosque courtyard, planted with orange trees, where the old Moorish fountain can still be seen. Built into the wall of the courtyard, over the gate, the original minaret – a legendary tower said to be the model for all the others in al-Andalus – has been replaced by an ill-proportioned 16th-century bell tower. From the courtyard, the mosque is entered through a little door, the Puerta de las Palmas. Inside, it’s as chilly as Sevilla cathedral.

Now here is the first surprise. The building is gloomy only because the Spanish clerics wanted it that way. Originally there was no wall separating the mosque from the courtyard, and that side of the mosque was entirely open. In the courtyard, trees were planted to continue the rows of columns, translating inside to outside in a remarkable tour-de-force that has rarely been equalled in architecture. To add to the effect, the entrances along the other three walls would have been open to the surrounding busy markets and streets. It isn’t just a trick of architecture, but a way of relating a holy building to the life of the city around it. In the Middle East, there are many medieval mosques built on the same plan as this one; the pattern originated with the first Arabian mosques, and later in the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, one of the first great shrines of Islam. In Turkey they call them ‘forest’ mosques, and the townspeople use them like indoor parks, places to sit and reflect or talk over everyday affairs. In medieval Christian cathedrals, whose doors were always open, it was much the same. The sacred and the secular become blurred, or rather the latter is elevated to a higher plane. In Córdoba, this principle is perfected.

In the aesthetics of this mosque, too, there is more than meets the eye. Many European writers have seen it as devoid of spirituality, a plain prayer-hall with pretty arches. To the Christian mind it is difficult to comprehend. Christian churches are modelled after the Roman basilica, a government hall, a seat of authority with a long central aisle designed to humble the suppliant as he approaches the praetor’s throne (altar). Mosques are designed with great care to free the mind from such behaviour patterns. In this one, the guiding principle is a rarefied abstraction – the same kind of abstraction that governs Islamic geometric decoration. The repetition of columns is like a meditation in stone, a mirror of Creation where unity and harmony radiate from innumerable centres. Another contrast with Christian churches can be found in an obscure matter – the distribution of weight. The Gothic masters of the Middle Ages learned to pile stone upwards from great piers and buttresses to amazing heights, to build an edifice that aspires upwards to heaven. Córdoba’s architects amplified the height of their mosque only modestly by a daring invention – adding a second tier of arches on top of the first. They had to, constrained as they were by the short columns they were recycling from Roman buildings, but the result was to make an ‘upside-down’ building, where weight increases the higher it goes, a play of equilibrium that adds much to the mosque’s effect. There are about 580 of these columns, mostly from Roman ruins and Visigothic churches the Muslims pulled down; originally, legend credits La Mezquita with a thousand. Some came from as far as Constantinople, a present from the emperors. The same variety can be seen in the capitals – Roman, Visigothic, Moorish and a few mysteries.

The Mihrab and Later Additions

The surviving jewel of the mosque is its mihrab, an octagonal chamber set into the wall and covered by a beautiful dome of interlocking arches, added in the 10th century under al-Hakim II. A Byzantine emperor, Nikephoras Phokas, sent artists to help with its mosaic decoration, and a few tons of enamel chips and coloured glass cubes for them to work with. That these two states should have had such warm relations isn’t that surprising; in those days, any enemy of the pope and the western Christian states was a friend of Constantinople. Though the mihrab is no longer at the centre of La Mezquita, it was at the time of al-Hakim II; the aisle extending from it was the axis of the original mosque.

Next to the mihrab is the Treasury, a fanciful Baroque chamber with a lofty dome which contains some of the cathedral’s treasures, including a vast 16th-century silver monstrance, some gaudy Baroque ecclesiastical plate, and a pair of elaborate reliquaries (adm included in entrance ticket). On the other side of the mihrab, the tiny Museo Visigodo de San Vicente is tucked away in the corner of the Mezquita and displays a small collection of 6th- and 7th-century capitals and inscriptions from the Visigothic basilica that formerly occupied the site. Near the main entrance by the Puerta de las Palmas, an opening in the floor looks down on to Roman ruins which predate the Visiogothic church and include fragments of a mosaic.

Looking back from the mihrab, you will see what once was the exterior wall, built in Abd ar-Rahman II’s extension, from the year 848. Its gates, protected indoors, are as good as those on the west façade, and better preserved. Near the mihrab is the Capilla de Villaviciosa, a Christian addition of 1377 with fancy convoluted mudéjar arches that almost succeed in upstaging the Moorish work. Behind it is a small chapel, usually closed off. Fortunately, you can see most of the Capilla Real above the barriers; its exuberant stucco and azulejo decoration are among the greatest works of mudéjar art. Built in the 14th century as a funeral chapel for Fernando IV and Alfonso XI of Castile, it is contemporary with the Alhambra and shows some influence of the styles developing in Granada. Far more serious intrusions are the 16th-century Coro (choir) and Capilla Mayor (high altar). Not unlovely in themselves, they would not offend anywhere but here. Fortunately, La Mezquita is so large that from many parts of it you won’t even notice them. Begun in 1523, the Plateresque Coro was substantially altered in the 18th century, with additional stucco decoration, as well as a set of Baroque choir stalls by Pedro Duque Cornejo. Between the Coro and Capilla Mayor is the tomb of Leopold of Austria, Bishop of Córdoba at the time the works were completed (and, interestingly, Charles V’s uncle). For the rest of the Christian contribution, dozens of locked, mouldering chapels line the outer walls of the mosque. Never comfortable as a Christian building, today the cathedral seems to be hardly used at all, and regular Sunday masses are generally relegated to a small corner of the building.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls