Postcard from Cordoba, Spain: Mezquita Catedral

The Cathedral of Cordoba is dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, yet even the city’s Catholics tend to refer to it simply as La Mezquita, the Mosque.

A Roman temple once stood on this site, but it was torn down with its building materials recycled for construction of a Visigoth church. The Moorish conquest in the 8th century resulted in another teardown and recycling of materials, particularly columns.

Cordoba became the headquarters of the independent Caliphate in Spain, and a golden age of construction burst forth to create a capital to rival the splendor of Damascus and Constantinople. This meant the mosque must be enormous.

The interior boasts approximately 850 granite jasper and marble columns. As the handsome columns were too short to attain the desired height, the arches they supported were topped with a second tier of arches, all in a striking pattern alternating red brick and white stone. A shell-shaped ceiling carved from one block of marble crowns the gilded Mihrab, the original center for prayer, at the heart of the Mezquita.

King Ferdinand III (1199-1252) reclaimed Cordoba from the Moorish rulers in 1236, and the mosque immediately was consecrated as a Christian place of worship. The original Gothic altar inserted in the middle of the former mosque was expanded and modified to reflect later and Renaissance and Baroque styles. The architectural encasement of the original minaret masks its origins. A full Renaissance nave popped up above the existing roofline during the reign of King Charles V (1500-1558). Some say the king was displeased with the resulting intrusive architectural assault upon the stunning structure.

Lawrence Boheme offers a tale involving a 1,000-mile round trip for the bells of Santiago de Compostela to symbolize the historical rivalry between the Spain’s Christians and Muslims at this site:

At the height of Muslim power, during the Omega Caliphate at the end of the 10th century, the fearsome warlord Al-Mansur led a bloody raid through northern Spain, going as far into Christian territory as Santiago de Compostela. On the loose in the great pilgrims’ city, the Moor had the audacity of riding his horse into the cathedral and letting it drink from the font of holy water, outraging the Christian townsfolk; then, even more insultingly, he had the church’s bells carried 500 miles south to Cordoba, where they were melted down to make lamps to illuminate the Great Mosque.

When, two and a half centuries later, in 1236, the Castillian King Ferdinand the Third (“The Saint”) reconquered Cordoba, his first action, to avenge the humiliation caused by Al-Mansur, was to have the lamps carried back to the shrine of Saint James, where they were melted down to make a new set of bells.