The Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain, was the largest mosque in the Western world, measuring almost 24,000 square meters. It was built in stages between 785 and 987 and would be considered the most important sanctuary of Western Islam. It was inspired by the Mosque of Damascus and built from materials gleaned from the 6th century San Vicente Basilica.
The photo below is what I believe to be the original mosque, dating to 785. The architect, Ahd er-Rahman, was the first independent Emir of Andalus. The original mosque was divided into two parts: an open courtyard for ablution (the ritual washing prior to prayer) and this covered hall, with a capacity for over 10,000 worshipers. The archways, built of brick and limestone, are a Visigoth influence and add structural integrity to the building. Of the original 1013 columns, 856 remain after the Reconquista and subsequent destruction of portions of this mosque, to convert sections of it to Christian chapels.
Walking from one end to the other is a tour through its history, as you can discern the ages of the various naves by the differences in the columns, the structure of the arches, and the styles of the oil lamps.
The nave of Al-Hakim II (shown below) was the second extension of the mosque during the late 10th century. I found it to be the most beautiful section of the Mezquita, with its elaborately carved arches and subtle tones. It housed the private chapel for the Caliph, and the mithrab, the elevated pulpit where the imam delivered sermons. A large silver lamp once hung over this area, which held just over 1400 lamps containing perfumed oil. It was destroyed during the building of the Royal Chapel in the 14th century.
After the Reconquista of Cordoba by Fernando III in 1236, the Muslims were expelled and the Mezquita was consecrated as Santa Maria la Mayor, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. In 1371 King Henry II built the Royal Chapel, also known as the Chapel of Saint Ferdinand. Around the same time, permission was given to build a private chapel opposite the mithrab. The king issuing the permission did so with the warning to “be very careful, for that is where the Moorish oratory is found…”
Further destruction occurred the following century during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, when a great center portion of the mosque was destroyed to make room for the Grand Chapel. Although the Council of Cordoba issued a public proclamation to stop this work, Bishop Don Alonso de Manrique (who was in charge of the construction) petitioned King Charles I of Spain to continue, and was granted that permission. When Charles later passed through Cordoba and visited the mosque, he said “Had I known what this was, I would not have allowed it to reach the ancient part, as what you are doing is already done elsewhere, but you have undone what is unique in the world.”
The Grand Chapel was finished in 1766 and to this day is an active cathedral. The altarpiece is made from red Cordoban marble, with paintings by Cordoban artist Palomino. The chandelier was donated in 1629, measures nearly 2 meters across and weighs close to 150 kilos, and was crafted by Cordoban silversmith Sanchez de la Cruz.
Compared to the rest of the Mezquita, I found this chapel ugly and out of place.
Before the Mezquita was a cathedral, it was a mosque. Before that, it was a Visigoth church. A section of the floor of the Mezquita is cut away and covered with a panel of Lexan, to expose the mosaic beneath. It took me a while to find this cutaway in the floor that Rick Steves mentioned in his guidebook, and I had to lay down at the edge of the Lexan to get this shots.
At the other end of the building are glass cases housing Visigoth carvings, bibles, and what I believe is the gearbox for a clock or chime tower, as tall as me and about 8 feet long. It’s a pretty impressive clockwork.
Admission is waived on Sunday mornings so locals can attend Mass. Guards are posted around the chapel area during Mass to prevent tourists from taking photos. You are free to wield your cameras once prayers have concluded.
Walking through the 800+ Islamic arches with Latin liturgy echoing in the background remains one of my most memorable experiences, which I have posted to my website: https://augustphoenixhats.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Mezquita.mp4 and also available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WG7sqMFl4-o
* * *
Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day
and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.
In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.