I am not familiar with Islamic art. But my recent visit to the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain was an ecstatic experience. This is the first part of an article on the Mezquita of Cordoba.
I start with some history, borrowed from the vast resources of the Metropolian Museum of Art in New York, then continue with a short tour of the outside, and conclude the first part with the entrance in the Mezquita and the first impressions and feelings.
“On July 19, 711, an army of Arabs and Berbers unified under the aegis of the Islamic Umayyad caliphate landed on the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next seven years, through diplomacy and warfare, they brought the entire peninsula except for Galicia and Asturias in the far north under Islamic control; however, frontiers with the Christian north were constantly in flux. The new Islamic territories, referred to as al-Andalus by Muslims, were administered by a provincial government established in the name of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus and centered in Córdoba. Of works of art and other material culture only coins and scant ceramic fragments remain from this early period of the Umayyad governors (711–56).
When the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus was overthrown by the Abbasids in 750, the last surviving member of the Umayyad dynasty fled to Spain, establishing himself as Emir Abd al-Rahman I and thus initiating the Umayyad emirate (756–929). Abd al-Rahman I (r. 756–88) made Córdoba his capital and unified al-Andalus under his rule with a firm hand, while establishing diplomatic ties with the northern Christian kingdoms, North Africa, and the Byzantine empire and maintaining cultural contact with the Abbasids in Baghdad. The initial construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba under his patronage was the crowning achievement of this formative period of Hispano-Islamic art and architecture.”
The Great Mosque of Cordoba was built over a period of three centuries, from the 8th to the 11th. It is a rectangle with a orange tree court with a basin adjacent to it. This court is the oldest Moorish garden in Spain (marked as 7 in the plan that follows).
The concept was to imitate if not exceed the Great Mosque of Damascus.
At the edge of the tree line at the bottom of the photo is the bank of the famous river, Guadalquivir. The plan of the Mezquita that follows is “turned upside down” compared to the photo. The river is at the top. The resolution of the plan is high so that you can download it and view it in full resolution for the details.
Puerta San Miguel (Door of Saint Michael’s) – Marked 4 on the Plan.
Door of the Psalms, viewed from the Orange Tree Court – Marked 6 on the Plan.
Carved wooden beams in the cloisters – detail (Marked 8 on the plan)
When the Moors first arrived in Cordoba, they were content to share the Visigothic Church of Saint Vincent with the Christians. When this became insufficient, AdbAl-Rahman purchased their part and started building the Mosque (marked 9 on the plan) with 11 aisles, opening onto the Orange Tree Court. The architectural innovation in the mosque was the superimposition of two tiers of arches to give added height and spaciousness. They used marble pillars and Roman stone from St Vicent’s Church and other buildings in the area.
Once you are inside (you enter in the area marked 8 on the plan) you get overwhelmed by the “forest of pillars” as one traveler put it, and the completely new feeling of space. It is as if space is distorted, but yet it returns to its normal state, If there is one thing that I will never forget from my visit there is this “feeling” of space. The last time I felt this was when I visited the Chillida museum in the Basque country. The photos cannot convey this feeling, but you get an idea.
This is one of the corridors that take you from the entrance to the Mihrab (marked 13 on the plan), which you can barely see at the end. The two pillars at the beginning of this corridor are supporting the Christian Cathedral that is almost embedded in the Great Mosque. In the photo below you see the parallel corridor on the left as we face the Mihrab.
As I walk down this corridor with direction towards the Mihrab, I get to see some of the marvelous arches within arches of the Great Mosque.
With these first impressions of the inside area, I conclude Part I of my visit to the Mezquita of Cordoba.
In Part II I will cover the Christian Cathedral and the area of the Mahrib.