History has often seen empires collide and dissipate, even as other kingdoms rush in to rebuild on the settling debris of legacy already past. Some legacies persist, however, as tenacious reminders of the many histories they’ve seen over time. Cordoba, the Andalusian city in southern Spain, is one such place and the Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba, is one such site.
The Crusades had taken their toll on the Iberian peninsula. In 1492, Isabella and Ferdinand (Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon) completed the Reconquista (wars for controlling the Iberian Peninsula), which led to the Church regaining power and the elimination of Muslims and Jews. Isabella and Ferdinand had entered Granada and promised religious freedoms. But all promises were broken. Traces of the purge that followed can still be found in contemporary Spain. Names, sights and even cuisine that emphasised pork (for instance, hanging pork outside homes, to prove that there was nothing Jewish or Muslim about you) have become signature themes about Spanish life. Often, the awareness of these trends is rooted in ignorance about the fear of persecution that started the practice of displaying one’s Christianity.
Spain was purged of its Arab-Islamic-Moor past, but Alhambra, the biggest mosque complex in Europe, survived in Granada. However, perhaps, of far greater interest is the more twisted testament to history — the Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba.
A fully functioning cathedral since 1146, the Mezquita-Catedral started out as a Roman-Visgothic structure, then was made into a mosque in 786, seeing three broad extensions and also the addition of a minaret.
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul also alternated between being a church and a mosque and it has a haunting presence. But the sense of a confluence of cultures that seems bestowed in the Mezquita-Catedral renders it a class apart.
Abd al-Rahman-I, the ruler who got it built, thought of it as a horizontal space, and not a vertical wonder. Those familiar with mosques of its time say the distinction is important. Other structure such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or the Mosque of Damascus are thought of as vertical tributes to the greatness of God. But this was thought of as reimagining the basic concept of a simple Islamic horizontal prayer space.
The gold and red-coloured columns and arches embellishing the insides open into the special place for Ummayads to pray, which wasn’t destroyed even as the mosque centre was turned into a chapel. The space where the Ummayads prayed has a breathtaking ceiling, with inscriptions in deep green that retain the splendour of the times they were crafted in.
The Mezquita-Catedral does not allow salat or namaz, but is a functioning church; though Spanish Muslims last appealed in 2014 to the Vatican to allow prayers, the request was turned down. It was declared a World Heritage site in 1984 and, in 2014, as a Site of Outstanding Universal Value.
The statue of renowned Andalusian polymath Ibn-Rushd or Averroes can be seen sitting contemplatively as you make your way out of the city of Cordoba — another understated nod to the contributions of thinkers of Arab origin in the region. As Greek philosophy disappeared in the so-called ‘dark ages’ shrouding Europe, Cordoba was astir with newer discourse on philosophy, discussions on medicine and much else. When the ‘Enlightenment’ opened up Europe again, a lot of the Greek ideas re-emerged only because of translations that were preserved by the Arab thinkers. However, what Europe got back was not just couriered packages from the past, but a much more advanced and elevated philosophical discourse.
The Mezquita-Catedral offers one such multi-layered way of seeing the world. Visigoth, Roman, Byzantine, Caliphate, Arab, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, all under one roof.