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Córdoba's Amazing Mezquita

© By Mike Keenan

  In the 10th century, Córdoba ranked as one of the largest world cities, a cultural, political and economic centre and thriving capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba which governed most of the Iberian Peninsula. Now, it's a beautifully preserved city, the birthplace of famous philosophers such as the Roman, Seneca, Muslim Averroes as well as Imam Abu 'Abdullah Al-Qurtubi and the Jewish scholar, Maimonides.


     Córdoba is blessed with a plethora of religious, civil and military architecture, archeological sites, parks and gardens. The heart of the city is the old Jewish quarter which transports one back into the past with its wrought ironwork and cobble stone streets, too narrow for automobiles, where skilled silversmiths create fine jewelry in their workshops. A few blocks north, modern city life exudes around the Plaza de Tendillas. Just east is the Plaza de la Corredera, a 17th century square offering visitors a daily market.
     Begun in 784, Córdoba's crown jewel is the incredible structure known as the Mezquita or mosque which consumes an entire block and dates back to the Umayyad period, constructed of mighty walls which hide delicate arches, pillars and a dazzling Mihrab or prayer niche. The Mihrab held a gilt copy of the Koran and its worn flagstones indicate where countless pilgrims circled it seven times on their knees.
     Approaching the ancient structure from the street, I'm impressed with its massiveness, built like a fortress and surrounded by huge doors, decorative but heavy and foreboding. Under the Moors, this was the Aljama Mosque, the second largest mosque in the world, taking over 200 years to complete. With ultimate capture by Fernando III in 1236, the mosque was converted to a cathedral and most outer doors were sealed. A third of the pillars were removed for a courtyard. In the center of what remains of the mosque, the arches were reworked and the ceiling raised, the space now forming the centre of the cathedral.
     Inside the Mezquita, row after row of arches and pillars dazzle the eye. Marble was employed for the mosque's construction and many of the 850 columns in the Mezquita were taken from earlier Roman buildings. The repeating arches and soaring ceiling are balanced by exquisitely detailed decorations. Amazed, I view a panorama of giant arches and a forest of columns made of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite. My eyes are constantly drawn upwards and rewarded with ornate ceilings and gilded prayer niches. And truly amazing is the 16th-century Baroque cathedral, featured inside with its own intricately carved ceiling and choir stalls, a communion of architecture representing two major religious faiths. The cathedral was placed in the very heart of the mosque by Charles V in the 1520's. Artists and architects added to the existing structure until the late 18th century, making the combination a unique piece of architecture. A domed shrine of Byzantine mosaics, built by Al Hakam II (961-76) once housed the Koran and Muhammad's sacred relics. In front, is the Maksoureh, an anteroom for the caliph and his court, formed into a masterpiece of Islamic art by its intricate mosaics and ornate plaster.
     Abd al-Rahman I built the mosque over the old Christian basilica of San Vicente. Just past the Torre del Almina, a 93 m. bell tower, visitors walk inside the Patio de Los Naranjos, the Orange Trees courtyard where the faithful washed before prayer. Crossing the main entrance door, in the courtyard, one views palm trees planted in the 13th century, orange trees in the 15th century, olive trees and cypresses from the 18th century.
     The construction of the tower began in the 16th century over the Islamic minaret used to summon Muslims to prayer. Entering the temple, one immediately notices the Greek influences. The Mosque/Cathedral underwent many extensions with a number of chapels constructed, the most famous, the Purisima Concepcion (17th century).
     The cathedral, officially the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, with its history and combination of influences is both beautiful and fascinating, the vast majority of its architecture originating with the Islamic architects. When finished, the Mezquita was the most magnificent of more than 1,000 mosques in Cordoba. In 1236, Córdoba was recaptured from the Moors and rejoined Christendom. In 1984, Córdoba's historic center, including the Mezquita, was made a UNESCO World Heritage site.
     Outside the Mezquita, the Courtyard of the Orange Trees in springtime is perfumed with orange blossoms and offers a beautiful fountain. The Torre del Alminar, the former minaret, has a Baroque belfry. Energetic visitors may catch a panoramic view of Córdoba and its surroundings from the top.
     Córdoba is located on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, spanned by a Roman bridge, the Puente Romano, supported by its original foundations. Bullfighting fans will be delighted to view the exhibit at the Museo Taurino where there is a replica of the tomb of famous torero, Manolete, and the hide of the bull that killed him. Be forewarned that summers here often provoke the highest temperatures in Europe, sometimes exceeding 40°C!

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Karyn Keenan

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