Big and Small: The Mosques of Cordoba
We spent nearly 10 days among the three major cities that at various times comprised the Golden Ages of Islamic Spain, in the southern Spanish region known as Andalusia. As we walked through the various historical sites that still remain today from Islamic Spain, observing what was and what is now, we felt a mix of emotions. There were moments of hope, bittersweet, and sad moments as we lamented what could have been the great Andalusian empire had it lasted longer, and how it all came crashing down with civil conflict and the Reconquista.
With each city, there was a different ambiance. Each city carried its own identity of its Muslim past, and its reaction to it. Shortly after our arrival in Madrid, we took a train down to Cordoba, a small city with a population of just over 325,000. We stayed at an Airbnb in a quiet, largely local, family neighborhood about a 20 minute walk from the Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba, also known as the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
After arriving, getting settled and eating dinner, we decided to go check out the Great Mosque at night. At this point it was closed, but the night life of the old town gravitates to the side streets and open squares nearby the Great Mosque. As you walk down the narrow streets heading closer the centuries-old mosque, you can begin to see the minaret-turned-bell tower of the Great Mosque. Almost entirely redesigned from its original structure, the tower stands significantly taller than any other structure in the city.
At night, people gather around the outside of the Great Mosque, hanging out, tourists taking photos with busy restaurants open nearby. We decided to try a nearby Moroccan-style tea house, Teteria Petra, on one of the side streets. As we ventured down an empty side street, we came across a stone sign with Arabic writing on it. It read “The Andalusian Mosque”, along with more text explaining its affiliations with an Andalusian university. We went inside. To our right was a small bathroom to make wudu, and to our left was a very tiny prayer area with a beautiful mihrab and a few pillars.
We made our wudu and prayed. Although we had researched mosques in Cordoba prior to our arrival, this had never come up in our research, and we aren’t entirely sure why. But it was a pleasant surprise and a beautiful gem only minutes from the Great Mosque. To the corner of the prayer area we saw a tiny window which peaked into another room. It was the tea house we originally set out for. We had our drinks in the beautifully designed tea house and called it a night.
Early next morning we arrived at the Great Mosque to finally see it on the inside. The museum allows free entry everyday from 8:30 am to 9:30 am, except Sundays. Otherwise, tickets are only a couple of euros, but ticket lines can be long and on warmer days, patrons are left waiting out in the sun. Although there was a long line upon arrival, within 10 minutes, everyone was inside the mosque, as there are no ticket checks.
We spent the entire hour inside admiring the world renown Islamic architecture that we’ve seen in many photos and videos across books, documentaries and tourism guides. The iconic red and white arches even more beautiful in person, adorn what used to be the massive prayer hall that held over 20,000 worshipers or more. We walked all the way to the front where one could admire the gorgeous decoration of the horseshoe mihrab, a style that would become popular across North Africa until today. The tiny mosque we saw the night before resembled a similar style as the one we saw here, and this style would be a theme we see across most mosques and Islamic sites in Andalusia.
Fugitive Umayyad prince Abdulrahman I established a state with control over most of Iberia, with Cordoba as its capital. He ordered the construction of this mosque back in 784 and over the centuries was expanded to what we see today. Following the Reconquista, a cathedral was built right in the middle of the existing mosque, which still offers services and prayers until now. Muslims are strictly prohibited from praying in the mosque today and several campaigns to push for permission to pray in the mosque, have all been rejected by the Vatican and Spanish authorities.
As we walked through the halls of the mosque, we notice on one side, there are large, ornate displays of various events in Christianity and Jesus’s life. There were tall, large displays, several meters tall, some with explanations of the display, and some without. I could not help but think that these displays took away from the beauty of the arches and the magnitude of the prayer halls; almost as though intentionally doing so. The displays, although ornate and lavishly decorated, did not follow the theme of the building and almost seemed forced in there.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba is up there as one of the greatest architectural marvels that I have come across in my lifetime. It is a testament to the beauty of Andalusia. I can only hope that one day the Muslims of Spain will be able to once again call the adhan from its minaret, and pray there as a shared space alongside the Catholics who pray there today. This collaboration of Christians and Muslims sharing the same space for worship would be the best tribute to honor the traditions of the Muslims who once ruled this peninsula.