03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Christianity, Europe, Islam, Spain

#56. Great Mosque. Córdoba, Spain. Umayyad. c. 785–786 CE. Stone masonry.

#56. Great Mosque. Córdoba, Spain. Umayyad. c. 785–786 CE. Stone masonry.

Art Historical Background

After the Umayyad Dynasty was ousted from Syria by the conquering Abbasid Dynasty they made their way across North Africa to a new home in Andalusia, Spain. The Umayyad prince, Abd al-Rahman I, recreated aspects of his previous capital in his new home, Córdoba. In 786, after Abd al-Rahman conquered the Visigoths, he transformed the Basilica of San Vicente (that itself was a converted Roman temple) into the city’s main mosque. It was a signal, locally and internationally, that Islam was here to stay in the Iberian Peninsula (& for 700 years it was the dominant religion of the Andalusian region).

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Read more: Medieval Al-Andalus

Before you even enter the mosque is a beautiful and peaceful courtyard. There are rows upon rows of fragrant orange trees that evoke the lush gardens of the old Umayyad capital, Damascus. There are a also few fountains scattered about that were originally used by the faithful to wash their hands and feet before going in to pray.

The mosque is best known however for its interior hypostyle hall which is filled with hypnotic rows of striped double-arched columns. Some of the material and inspiration for the columns come from the recycled Roman and Visigothic houses of worship. The horseshoe arch is the most notable borrowing from the Visigoths and became iconic to the Córdoba mosque.

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The most intricate design in any mosque is the mihrab. A mihrab is a niche set into the qibla wall that points towards Mecca (the city in Saudi Arabia in which all Muslims face to pray). However in this mosque, the mihrab points south because it is meant to be aligned as if the mosque was built in Damascus, not Córdoba. I never knew this tidbit of information until I read it in the brochure while visiting this past summer!  I wonder if the “common” Muslim knew that when they prayed in that mosque they were not indeed facing Mecca…hmmmm?

Sometimes the mihrab is a simple indication in the wall, but here it has elaborate tesserae mosaic (small pieces of glass with gold and color backing), a highly decorated dome in front, and beautiful calligraphy all around.


Read more: UNESCO: Historic Center of Córdoba

Another feature of a typical mosque is the minaret, the tower for the muezzin to call the faithful to prayer five times a day. However, like many Islamic aspects of the Great Mosque, it was later engulfed by the conquering Christians and the minaret is now incorporated into the church’s bell tower. The mosque was first consecrated as a Catholic church in 1146 as the Cathedral of Santa Maria.


Normally, I would be sad that the Christians destroyed part of the mosque to “Catholicize” it after the conquest but it takes on a different meaning in this historic site. What I mean is that the site was first a Roman temple (although the Roman’s probably destroyed something to build even that), it was then a Visigothic Christian Church, then later a mosque, and now a Roman Catholic Cathedral. The site is not one thing over another but all things simultaneously. You can clearly see the march of time literally on the walls and in the floors when you visit. I appreciate that the Christians did not bulldozer over the whole thing but incorporated a church literally within the mosque’s structure so you can see and engage with both at once.

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Next time: #57. Pyxis of al-Mughira. Umayyad. c. 968 CE. Ivory.

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