For two hundred and five years, from 785 to 990, the mosque of Cordoba gradually extended its forest of columns, reflecting one of the most important artistic stages of the passage of the Umayyads through Spain. Its history is the result of the passage of time, where different cultures have been leaving their personal mark capriciously.
The discourse of the builders of the mosque was very clear, preventing the space from being completed with elements that were an impediment to the defined focal and diagonals built by virtue of their prayers. For this reason, the artists of Al-Hakam, aware of this, built heavy superstructures on columns, all of them equal. A lesson that the Christian builders did not understand when they took the city and the monument. They filled everything with pillars, abutments, walls and altars, reaching the final construction of their cathedral in the 16th century. An estimable work, which has broken the invaluable idea of the foundation of the mosque.
Without a doubt, the construction of the cathedral, respecting the walls of the mosque, has allowed us to keep standing today one of the fundamental milestones of the Umayyad track in Cordoba, which was the most important city in Western Europe.
History of the Mosque of Cordoba
The Muslim expansion towards the west in the forties of the 7th century, brought them to Tunisia. It was at the beginning of the 8th century that they decided to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, specifically in 711. The Umayyad troops led by Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed Gibraltar and defeated the Visigoths in the famous Battle of Guadalete. The Muslims took control of the Peninsula, creating a new area known as al-Andalus.
In 756, Abd al-Rahman I founded the independent Emirate of Cordoba without opposition. He establishes the control of this territory proclaiming himself as emir. The city had all the needs of a state, on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, in the heart of a very fertile basin, and a navigable river.
Opening the fertile period that later would be extended by his successors, is the construction of the Great Mosque in 784. This is the first great work built by the Muslims in the peninsula, although they had previously financed the reconstruction of the Roman bridge that gave access to the city.
According to tradition, the place where the mosque was built had a Christian basilica, and the emirs of Cordoba reached an agreement with the Christians to share that space so that under a system of hours, the space would be respected for each worship. In this way it was maintained until the acquisition of the space and the construction of its foundation with Abd al-Rahman. The passage of time was to be followed by numerous modifications, specifically up to the last Umayyad caliph, Hissan II. It can therefore be said that it is the fruit of a whole dynastic project, which instils a unique character.
Parts of the Mosque of Cordoba
The foundation building was relatively smaller than the one we see today, but it already had the essential features of the oratory. Abd al-Rahman I concentrated his attention on the prayer room. His son, Hissan I, completed his father’s work, concentrating on the courtyard and the construction of the minaret. The mosque was oriented to the south, a strategic place, very close to the Roman bridge.
Abd al-Rahman II decided to extend the oratory, projecting it further south. To do this he demolished the wall of the qibla, and added 8 more sections, reaching a total of 20. The period of splendour came in the central years of the tenth century with Abd al-Rahman III. He enlarged the courtyard that had been left unbalanced by the expansion of sections of his predecessor, and decided to plant olive trees, cypresses, laurels, making it a paradise where there is no lack of water. He also rebuilt the minaret, placed it next to the door, and ordered it to be built, abandoning the original eastern minaret typology, the heliocoidal one, deciding that this would have its prismatic traces, and from then on it would be the model for all the mosques of Al-Andalus.
A new extension of the prayer room comes with Al-Hakan II, adding 12 more crossings and bringing the qibla wall further south. This is an important moment because it defines some of the most surprising and important spaces of the mosque, the execution of the skylight, the maqqsura, and the mihrab.
Almanzor is going to commit the fourth great phase of transformation, he is going to extend the floor of the building towards the west because he did not have more space in the south. It includes 8 new sections, and forces him to enlarge the courtyard again. The building gained in capacity even though its access, the minaret, and the mihrab were diverted from the center.
It was in the 15th century when the Bishop of Cordoba, Don Alonso Manrique, carried out the last transformation of the space. He ordered a cathedral transept to be built into the extensions of Al Hakan II, with the approval of King Charles I of Spain.
The minaret is one of the most important constructions of the Islamic culture. It is the way to call to prayer the faithful of Allah, so its study is key in this context. It is Abd al-Rahman III who built what we know today as the bell tower of the cathedral mosque, and is that having a previous of which we retain its foundations, decided to raise a new one next to the entrance door and completely new ways to what was being done.
In the year 1593, the town hall already owner of the mosque, decides to remodel the tower after a big storm years before. The state in which it was in was lamentable, with a destroyed octagonal spire. The project chosen was the one presented by Hernán Ruiz III. He decided to wrap the tower with a thick wall up to the body of bells with Serlian forms on all its faces. But, 30 years later, the state of the tower again faced damages that were confronted by Gaspar de la Peña. With him, the south and west sides of the tower were founded and reinforced, and the original doors of the minaret were closed. Years later, he added a new lantern to the body of bells, on which a San Rafael was placed, made by the sculptors Pedro de la Paz and Bernabé Gómez del Río.
In 1727, a storm destroyed the pedestal of the San Rafael, and a few years later, after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, many parts of the building collapsed, especially the decorative elements. The person in charge of restoring the tower at that time was the Frenchman Baltasar Dreveton.
Patio de los Naranjos
The use of the courtyard in Muslim times is not the same as it is today, as it was used for teaching, holding trials and as a link between the worldly and the sacred. This importance of the courtyard is what has made mosques always be linked to a courtyard or sahn, where it is also filled with vegetation and water, where according to the Koran is the transfer of paradise on earth. With the Christian arrival, the courtyard was desecrated and became characteristic of a square attached to the cathedral, being used as a garden, a place of recreation or even as a cemetery.
There are many written sources that have come to our attention that confirm the presence of orange trees in the courtyard at least since 1512. The number of trees has varied over the years, although the truth is that its current configuration is very similar to that of the Baroque.
Forest of Columns
The Forest of Columns is how popularly known its complex of columns that presents in the interior of the monument. These are clear debts of the architectural traditions of Rome and Byzantium. The mosque has about 1300 marble, jasper and granite columns with carved bases and capitals that reflect and reinterpret a classical vocabulary, on which rest a total of three hundred and sixty-five two-colored horseshoe arches. Although some were made specifically for the sanctuary, many others were plundered, taken from Roman and Visigothic ruins in Cordoba and surrounding areas. The number of columns has always aroused the interest of many visitors, and it has been said that there are more than 1000 columns, and even 365 as the days of the year.
Cathedral of Córdoba
After the Reconquest, there had been many attempts to build a cathedral in the city. But the prevailing mosque occupied a large space. It was the result of a dispute between the cathedral chapter, owner of the mosque, and the city, which refused to throw away or transform what had been respected for years as unique. But the beginning of the 16th century marked a before and after, with the arrival of Bishop Manrique in 1519. In 1521 he had resolved to empty the centre of the Cordoba mosque to introduce a high cathedral choir. After several consultations, he entrusted the work to Hernán Ruiz to carry out the project. In 1923 he began to demolish it, and although he had the idea of building it, perhaps the design of the cathedral owes nothing in particular to him, since he followed what he found in Cordoba.
In the construction, pieces of the plunder were used, the demolition of the old mosque was taken advantage of, and the curious thing is that the architect had foreseen the use of these pieces. The wall of the choir that takes over the transept and the transept were carved with pillars of great richness of maclada bases and shafts, without leaving the parallel ones. The walls were also enriched, so that the intervention was excused. Hernán Ruiz prepared designs that were adjusted to the dimension of the ashlars repeatedly.
In the 20th century, the inherited vision of the monument as a historical document determined the intention to recover the original. In the last quarter of the century an important change took place, which prioritized the intention of preserving the authenticity and analyzing all the evolution of the building, which makes us see that today the cathedral has been accepted as a historical transformation although it has always been immersed in controversy.
Mihrab of the Mosque
The mihrab is a richly decorated room or niche behind the wall of the quibla. It points the prayerful Muslim in the direction of the holy city of Mecca, although in the case of the Cordovan mosque – and by extension in all the mosques of Al-Andalus – the mihrab is oriented towards the south, because of the rebellion that the Umayyads then professed against the Abbasids. This is the most sacred place in the mosque. In Cordoba, the mihrab is not a simple niche, but a projection space ordered to be built by Al-Hakan II. It is a small room with a heptagonal floor plan that is covered by an octagonal plaster vault in the shape of a scallop, which all users look at when entering the mosque. Its doorway has a raised horseshoe arch where it is richly decorated with mosaics of vegetal and geometric forms combined with inscriptions that include verses from the Koran. This enclosure is more than three metres deep and wide, unique in its architectural typology of the first centuries of Islamic art. It served as an inspiration for almost all the entrances to the mihrabs of later western mosques.
Chapel of Villaviciosa
With the passage into Christian hands of space, the Christian high altar was to be placed under the skylight that Al-Hakan II had erected. After the first works in the mosque, in his attempt to convert it into a cathedral, the new liturgy was adapted with the construction of a large Gothic nave in 1489. The primitive main chapel of the cathedral was to be the Chapel of Villaviciosa, a space with a basilica floor plan whose elevation was structured through pillars and pointed fajon arches, covered by a wooden gabled framework, which was later to be hidden with vaults, a rose window and 8 ogival windows. Originally the main chapel had frescoes of Italo-Byzantine influence, with iconographic motifs of kings and saints. When the new transept of the Cathedral, the first main chapel, was finished, it experienced a change of dedication. The devotion of the image of the chapel of Villaviciosa, which was taken to the altar of the main chapel of the cathedral, was what motivated the name of this chapel. In the middle of the 18th century a plan was made to enhance the image, and a carved and polychrome wooden altarpiece was paid for in 1709.
Chapel of the Tabernacle
This space was the result of the interventions of Hernán Ruiz I and III since the last quarter of the 16th century. But in its origin, it had other functions, such as being the Chapel of Santiago or the chapter bookstore. The Chapel of the Tabernacle was then located in the 13th century in the side chapel of St. Peter’s. It is a chapel with a rectangular floor plan, divided into three naves and covered by a ribbed vault. Its attraction lies in the pictorial program presented by its walls throughout the space. The pictorial set was started in 1583 by the Piedmontese painter César Arbasia. Nowadays it is one of the most important enclaves of the cathedral, since it develops the Catholic liturgy on a daily basis.
Curiosities about the Mosque of Cordoba
Since 1984, the Mosque Cathedral of Cordoba, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list. Its long history is complemented by anecdotes and curiosities that we want to highlight.
- Al Hakan wrote a letter to the emperor of Byzantium, Nicephore Focas, asking for the shipment of multicoloured tesserae, glass mosaics for the decoration of the interior of the dome of the maqqsura and the facade of the mihrab. The emperor of Byzantium, a Christian, sent 220 quintals of mosaic tesserae as a gift. In this way, the Umayyad of Cordoba imitated his Syrian ancestor by asking the Emperor of Constantinople for the mosaic decorations of the mosque of Damascus.
- After the conquest of Cordoba by the invincible Ferdinand III on June 29th 1236, he destined the use of the superb mosque for a cathedral church. So its architecture remained unchanged until 1523, when work on the transept began by the architect Hernán Ruíz. On this occasion, discrepancies arose between the town hall and the city in relation to the alteration of the building. The disputes reached Mr. Carlos V, who declared himself in favor of the cabildo. After his trip to Cordoba, and taking charge of the factory, he said “I did not know what this was, because I would not have allowed the old one to be reached; because you do what can be done elsewhere, and you have undone what was unique in the world. The emperor spoke when he had no choice.”
- The Holy King decided to give the Moors an advantage, and Ferdinand III agreed on one condition: those who requested freedom to march had to carry on their shoulders the bells of the Basilica of Santiago de Compostela, which were used as lamps in the mosque. In this way, Fernando III returned the bells to their original place after Almanzor’s decision when he forced the Christians to carry the bells of the Basilica of Santiago on their shoulders to Cordoba.
- Legend has it that many of the single women of Cordoba came every day to observe the painting next to the entrance door of the mosque-cathedral, of a Saint Christopher crossing the river with the child on his shoulders. They had the task of finding a small silhouette of the hidden Virgin Mary. The said Marian figure exists, and we can try our luck. But if visual acuity is not our thing, we can always go to the baroque fountain in the courtyard, in front of the ticket offices. Built in the 17th century and known as the “Fuente del Olivo” (Olive Tree Fountain), we will have to drink the drinking water from one of its four spouts, and in this way, according to legend, we will quickly find a partner. From this curiosity we find a strophe of the popular song that says: “To the fountain of the olive tree / mother take me to drink / to see if I get a boyfriend / that I die of thirst. / To the fountain of the olive tree / I went to drink / and instead of getting a boyfriend / I got thirty-three.
- The only column we can find in the enclosure protected by a wall is curious. This column is known as the column of hell. It is a Solomonic column that for many years its visitors scratched with coins to give off a strong smell of sulphur that they assimilated from hell itself. This caused the column to reduce its original size and a protective screen was placed.
Timetable of the Mosque of Cordoba
The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba has an uninterrupted schedule of visits from 10.00 am to 6.00 pm during the months of January, February, November and December. It extends its offer until 19.00 from the month of March to the month of October included. Although, very to consider it is the possibility of realizing a night visit to the mosque cathedral with two passes of entry, to 21.30 hours, and to 23.00 hours. Every Sunday of the month, it is open from 8.30 am to 11.30 am and from 3 pm to 6 pm. The bell tower can also be visited, its passes are every 30 minutes from 09.30 to 18.30.
These times can be exceptionally modified in the case of extraordinary celebrations.
How to get to the Mosque of Cordoba
Getting to the Mosque of Cordoba is not complicated, as there are different alternatives to avoid getting lost. The most common is that if you come in a group, the bus will leave you at the Calahorra Tower, at the foot of the Roman bridge. From this point, you will only have to cross the bridge and go around the monument in front of you, thus reaching the access by Cardenal Herrero Street, number 1. Also the bus, lines 3 and 12 will leave you at the Cordoba Mosque, remember that the stop is the “Puerta del Puente”. The taxi is another option, perhaps the one that leaves us closer to the access to the cathedral, and is that just ask the driver to take us to the “Conjunto Monumental Mezquita-Catedral”.