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Mezquita Cathedral

2nd Qtr 2009


Córdoba, Spain


The Great Mosque in Córdoba, Spain is one of the world’s treasures of Islamic architecture. In Spanish, mosque is called “Mezquita”, and this one also has the distinction of having been butchered by the Christian clergy after the re-conquest occurred at the end of the 15th century by inserting in the 16th century a Spanish Gothic style cathedral right in the middle of the Mezquita! The Emperor Carlos V said of the cathedral in great anger to the architects Hernán Ruiz I, Hernán Ruiz II and Juan Ochoa: “You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace”. Despite opposition from the cathedral chapter, the Bishop Don Alonso Manrique had received authorization to build the cathedral right in the middle of the mezquita. In all fairness, the Catedral is a handsome Spanish Gothic style building, but it simply does not belong where it is. Fortunately, the mezquita was not totally destroyed, and there is enough of it left that is so strong an architectural statement, that it stands out in stark and beautiful contrast to the cathedral.

The Great Mosque is primarily the work of Apd ar-Rahman I, who razed the Christian church on the site in about 780 AD, and began the construction. The plan was originally eleven aisles wide, and was widened to nineteen aisles total in later additions done in 848, 961 and 987 AD. The salient feature of this type of architectonic element is that the number of aisles is expandable and not offensive aesthetically when it is expanded. The unity of the overall structure is maintained when added to.

Another feature or device used was the layering of the horseshoe arches into a double arcade to give added height to the ceilings because the re-used classical columns were too short. This an architectural device borrowed from the Mosque of Damascus. The lower arch thus functioned as a lateral brace for the tops of the columns and the walls above the upper arches. Each arch has voussoirs (the pie slice shaped segments) of red and ivory and the re-used classical and Visigothic columns are grey and pink, all giving a flickering appearance typical of other Muslim decorative art.

Each of the original eleven aisles were entered into from the walled forecourt known as the “Patio de los Naranjos” or Patio of the Oranges. Dominating the Patio de los Naranjos was a minaret originally built by Abn ar-Rahman III and enveloped by a tower built in the late 16th, early 17th century in the Baroque style. The orange trees in the patio with the several Mudejar fountains and channels of running water are a calming and fragrant accent that preceded the experience of the Mezquita. Before entering, the Muslims would perform their ritual ablutions here.

The main aisle entrance from the Patio de los Naranjos leads to the Mihrab. Wikipedia says the word mihrab originally had a non-religious meaning and simp denoted a special room in a house, a throne room in a palace for example. Others considered a mihrab to have originally signified a throne room. The term was subsequently used by the Prophet Muhammed to denote his own private prayer room. The room additionally provided access to the adjacent mosque, and the Prophet would enter the mosque through this room. This original meaning of mihrab - i.e. as a special room in the house - continues to be preserved in some forms of Judaism where mihrabs are rooms used for private worship. In the Koran (xix.12), the word mihrab refers to a sanctuary/place of worship, and it is in this sense that the term was used to define a special, private prayer room in this mosque.

Ladd P. Ehlinger, AIA

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