10 euro – adults,
10.00am to 7.00pm
What’s in a name? This building has been variously called mosque, cathedral, the great mosque of Córdoba, and the Catholic Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption. Google ‘mezquita cathedral name’ and you’ll find recent news reports on local authorities’ attempts to remove the ‘mosque’ from the title of the building and have it become the Córdoba Cathedral.
A friend of mine describes this as one of the finest buildings in the world and many including UNESCO agree. The 8th century mosque was built by Abd-al Rahman I, who made Córdoba the centre of the al-Andalus empire which extended across southern Spain for 300 years.
You enter the mosque from a walled garden which was originally where worshippers would ritually bathe before entering the mosque to pray. It was designed as a place of quiet contemplation walled off from the busy market city beyond. Today however, the garden is a scrappy area of bare stones and a few orange trees: it’s a space for tour groups to gather, to store scaffolding and for families to sit and have their sandwiches.
The mosque features a flat marble floor on which stand over 800 pillars (built of recycled Roman columns) and fantastic red and white double brick arches. The impression is one of a forest of dark pillars surmounted by bright branches. Low lamps hang from the ceiling and provide some dim light but overall it’s a dark place – lit only by the occasional burst from a tourist’s camera.
Then in the centre of mosque is a brightly lit catholic cathedral – the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption – built in the 16th century and embellished up to the 18th century. This cathedral is full of the rococo elements of high Catholicism, plaster angels, gilded statues, a pipe organ and frescoes on the ceiling. Aside from the central nave, alcoves and illuminated points across the mosque display Christian saints and the blessed in poses of inspiration and supplication and ecstasy.
The contrast between the older mosque and the Christian cathedral is jarring. It’s reported that when Charles V of Aragon who had commissioned the cathedral visited the completed building he was displeased by the result and commented, “they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”
So how should the traveller approach this building? It is an exciting numinous space: I got a tingle on the back of my knees on entering (the same sensation as I had at Chartres Cathedral). Tourists are hushed and well-behaved, and despite having 6000 visitors a day, the dim lighting and the large space allow for a few moments quiet contemplation (until someone asks you to take their photo).
You could see the building’s problems from a management point of view (as my travelling companion does). Currently the site is managed by the Catholic Church and the local municipality, and the cathedral continues to offer daily services. Other than the audio-tours available for hire, there’s not much interpretation (and nothing in languages other than Spanish) for the tourist. Put the site in the hands of museum professionals and perhaps there would be better attention to the visitor experience and as well as restoration of the garden and greater care of the building – we happened to pass a workman setting up and he accidentally banged his aluminium ladder into one of the 1200 year old columns: no damage but not much care evident. Perhaps a museological approach could also offer a way to understand the unreconciled elements of the building.
From a religious perspective, it continues to be challenging and controversial. Since the early 2000s, Spanish Muslims have lobbied the Roman Catholic Church to allow them to pray in the cathedral. This Muslim campaign has been rejected on multiple occasions, both by the church authorities in Spain and by the Vatican – and a difficult situation arose in 2011, when several Austrian Muslims on tour decided to pray here. This lead to an intervention by security guards and violence ensued with one of the guards hospitalised.
It is well-worth a visit, Córdoba is a lovely city, the old city has fantastic sites such as the Jewish quarter, famous as birthplace of the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (c. 1135-1204), although watch out if you get caught on one of those narrow streets when a group of tourists are coming the other way – no quarter is given in such encounters. There’s a nice Roman bridge and the map I’m holding lists over 70 museums and historical sites. On top of that, Córdoba is renowned for it’s long pleasant afternoons, it’s geranium planters, pigeons and orange groves under which you can sit and think about time and history and reconciliation while listening to children playing (until someone asks you to take their photo).