Aside from fiestas and folkloric occasion, having visitors is one of the things I have looked forward to most about the month of May. And I don’t just get one round… with more friends arriving in a fortnight or so, I am lucky enough to get two!
Having visitors is great not only for the fact that you get a snippet of home and the familiarity that comes with it – always a plus when you are so many miles away – but also because it forces you to become a tourist again in your own city (if I can call it that yet?). That is, to revisit the sites with a renewed perspective.
So indeed, it is with renewed perspective that I rediscovered the Mezquita. Last time, I found myself in awe of this magnificently ancient building but neither unable to digest nor properly understand what I was looking at.
There are no signs for the unknowing tourist – and really, I don’t believe there should be as this would detract from the splendour of the place. However, this time, for a mere €3.50 I purchased an audio-guide, which was worth every penny for helping me appreciate what I was looking at (even if the accompanying map was somewhat confusing!).
Beneath almost every cathedral in Europe is always layer upon layer of hidden secrets. In the case of Cordoba, the Mezquita (Spanish for mosque) is no exception.
The famed Mezquita, or the Cathedral of Cordoba is one that dates back to the Christian Visigoths in around about the year 600, then known then as the Basilica of St. Vincent. Archaeological excavations have revealed the remains of mosaics from the temple that once stood on site and it is evident from these excavations that it was the city’s main church even back then.
The Basilica of St. Vincent was demolished during the Islamic conquest of Cordoba, around 715 and in the year 785, the ruling Muslims constructed a mosque in its place. This was no ordinary mosque. It would soon become the most important place of worship in Western Islam.
As Cordoba rose to fame as the capital of Al-Andalus (the Islamic territory in Spain), so too did the Mezquita, which became not only a place of religious significance, but of social, cultural and political magnitude too. During this period, the Mezquita underwent four different stages of construction and came to reach its current dimensions in 987.
But the site of the Mezquita was destined for yet more change. In 1236, King Ferdinand 111, known by the Spanish as The Saint, reconquered Cordoba and transformed the site into a cathedral, which it remains to this day.
With a total area of around 24,000m2, it is allegedly the largest mosque in the Western World.
Overall, the Mezquita will, without a doubt, leave a lasting impression on anyone who visits the city of Cordoba. It dominates the skyline from the far side of the river and can be seen from many different angles down the numerous narrow streets that surround it. A bit like this one (yes, sadly, we now have a Subway in Cordoba):
Encompassed by four imposing walls, is an interior courtyard, free to visit and enjoy at your leisure. Filled with orange trees, cobblestones and a fountain, it really is picturesque and makes the perfect place to stop for a sandwich if there aren’t too many tourists about – preferably not Subway.
The ordained and intricate Mirab, a key feature inside the Mezquita is particularly splendid. It has a shell-shaped ceiling that is carved from a single slab of marble. The chambers on either side are decked with intricate mosaics of gold. You can even see where pilgrims once crouched on their knees from the worn flagstones. Traditionally, the Mirab indicated the direction of Mecca, however, this particular one looks south in the same way as the Damascus mosque and not southeast in the direction of Mecca.
The four stages of Islamic construction each contributed to the site we know the Mezquita to be today. And the amalgamation of historic priority at the time is more than evident in the Mezquita’s design:
1. Abd-ar-Rahman I: The design during this period was inspired by the Mosque of Damascus in Syria, however, it still largely retained a strong hispanic-roman influence, incorporating many materials that came from the demolished Basilica of St. Vincent. You can see how the roman-visigothic pillars formed the base of the large, overlapping archways that extend toward the ceiling and result in the beautiful alternated red and beige brick and stone that has come to signify the ‘look’ of the Mezquita as we know it.
2. Abd-ar-Rahman II: This was a prosperous stage for the city of Cordoba and the phase in which the Mezquita underwent it’s first major extension. It maintained the scheme of the preceding ruler, ordering the construction of the minaret, which is now embedded in the tower of the Cathedral.
3. Al Hakam II: The Mezquita became the mosque in full splendour that overtook Damascus as a reference model following a large and rich extension. Byzantine artistry was incorporated into the building, such as beautiful mosaics and skylights.
4. Al-Mansur: The final expansion was undertaken as a brazen display of power and included the addition of eight aisles, along the east side of the building including the courtyard. It retained the existing structure however, and despite the statement Al-Mansur was trying to make, the alternating arches were not constructed of brick and stone but were painted.
With the Christian changeover, the structure of the building was not altered but modified from the interior to incorporate the various chapels, the treasury and the main transept that we can see today.
Visting the Mezquita
May is the busiest month to be in Cordoba but even now, you’ll find if you pick the right time of day, you can escape the crowds.
Either in the early morning at around 9am or around (Spanish) lunchtime, at 2pm are the best times to visit.
The entrance fee is €8.00 for adults and €4.00 for children.
Official opening hours are:
10.00 – 18.30 Monday to Saturday
13.30 – 18.30 Sunday
09.00 and 10.45 there are services on Sundays where there is free entrance to Cathedral only.
Just a small and rather unspoken trick though, you can actually enter the Mezquita for free prior to 10am on most days.
All in all, the story of the Mezquita embodies the phases of history Cordoba has lived through and it is wonderful for giving you perspective on just how significant each has been.
A tumultuous history of conquest and changing rulership seems so distant and removed from the peaceful place it is today. A place where the pace of life is slow, family and your Christian community is of utmost importance and the only sign of opulence you see (aside from the Catholic church) is in the form of the perfectly-coiffed Spanish housewife stepping out of the hair salon for a Saturday afternoon stroll. It really is fascintating.
Although the Mezquita for me is not personally my most captivating aspect of the city (I prefer to wander the city’s backstreets and soak up the atmosphere) visiting the Mezquita is a must for visitors and is well worth the trip, particularly if you take the time to appreciate what you are looking at. Who knows? Perhaps my blog has helped you in this quest?