Mosques II: Ummavi Mosque Cordoba (785-961)

This is the third installation of Mosque Form and Function, the second post was about the First Royal Mosque of Damascus.

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In 750 CE, the ninety year Ummavi (Umayyad) rule in Syria came to a tragic end.  It was a blood bath the entire family of Ummavi Khalifa, Marwan II was put to sword and the Khilafat moved east to Iraq for the next 500 hundred years.  However, a young Ummavi prince, Abd al-Rahman managed to escape the slaughter of his family and sought refuge among Berber tribesmen in North Africa. It is said that his mother was a Berber.

The young and ambitious Prince Abd al-Rahman had two distinct advantages, one that he was from one of the noblest families of Mecca and the second was that he was an Ummavi prince with Berber blood lines. In 755, with a band of loyal Arab troops and Berber tribesmen he defeated the muslim governor of Andalusia or Vandalusia and established his own kingdom in Spain thousands of miles away from Baghdad, the new capital of the Abbasid Khilafat.

Abd al-Rahman chose Cordoba as his capital and in 785 he started to build the Great Mosque of Cordoba on the north bank of Guadalquivir, which one day would rival the first Royal Ummavi  Mosque in Damascus. According to Arab sources, Abd al-Rahman purchased half of the Visigothic Church for Muslims to use as a place of worship. Later on as the Muslim population grew Abd al-Rahman bought the remaining half of the church in 784 and the construction of the new Central or Jami Mosque began.  The original mosque was only 5,000 square meters and had 130 pillars.  It was expanded several times by successive rulers until it became almost five times the size of the original mosque.  However, every expansion built upon the existing plan and respected the form and symmetry of the original layout.

In 1236, 451 years later Cordoba fell to King Ferdinand III of Castile and the Great Mosque of Cordoba was converted into a Cathedral.  For the next 300 hundred years the mosque remained in use as a church with few changes to its structure.  In the early 16th century the Bishop and Canons of the Church proposed the demolition of the mosque to make room for a new Cathedral.  However, the proposal for the destruction of the old mosque aroused opposition in the city, which led to an odd compromise endorsed by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  The decision was to open the roof of the mosque and insert an entire Gothic church into the very heart of it. The result is an odd admixture of two very different buildings in one.  The soaring heights of the church towers are visible above the low sprawling structure of the mosque.

An aerial photograph of the mosque and the church.

An aerial photograph of the mosque and the church.

It took two hundred years to complete the church and it shows different architectural styles and tastes ranging from late Renaissance to Spanish Baroque. Locally the mosque is called Mezquita Cathedral where three services take place every day.

The Gothic Chapel in the middle of the mosque.

The Gothic Chapel in the middle of the mosque.

At one time it was the largest mosque in the Western Islam, its 600 columns covered an area of 3.5 acres.  Never before such a large space have been covered by a roof using a multitude of columns topped with a double arch, one horse shoe and the other semi-circular to raise the ceiling to a majestic height.  The ribbed roof is essentially a row of inverted aqueducts placed side by side supported by columns with double arches.  This Roman method of building aqueducts is ingeniously applied here to cover a large area with a roof.  The inside of the mosque seems dark but that is because most of the door openings from the garden and two side streets were closed off to provide spaces for small side chapels for catholic saints.  At one time this prayer hall would have been a much more open, well lighted and airy space.

Wikimedia-Commons

Wikimedia-Commons

The horse shoe arch with a colored band of brick and stone, employed so extensively by Moorish builders was first used by Visigoths in their churches prior to the arrival of Muslims. However, the Muslim builders perfected the horse shoe arch to an art form and it was later used in many non muslim buildings like the Synagogue of Toledo (1075) in Spain. Later horseshoe arch would travel south to north Africa where it would be used in the construction of the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia.

The mosque is rectangular in plan with an open court-yard which was planted with date palms and orange tress. There was a fountain pool in the middle to provide water for the ritual washing before the  prayer.  The courtyard is surrounded by a covered arcade on three sides providing a shelter during inclement weather or just a place to chat and catch up after the prayer.

Open Courtyard with water fountain

Open Courtyard with water fountain

The outside walls of the mosque are built with bage limestone towers interspersed with bays for doors and windows.  The walls are massive and are topped with merlons giving the whole facade an air of a defensive fortification.

Mezquita Cathedral or the Great Mosque of Cordoba is a masterpiece. The builders of the mosque not only incorporated Roman and Visigoth methods of construction but improved upon them leaving behind a legacy of great architecture.

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