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Construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba Mezquita

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This is a study on the Córdoba Mezquita Mosque, which is the third largest mosque ever constructed and one of the finest. The mosque is unique in that it has within its walls a Christian cathedral and its unique and monumental pillars are a source of amazement, particularly considering that it was built in the 7th century. On this research, I summarize on when the mosque got built, who made it, the materials and labor force employed as well as the culture prevalent during the time. I often track the mosque ‘s transition through the centuries to the present day.

The Mezquita Mosque of Cordoba Spain is one of the most beautiful mosques ever built. It is the third-largest mosque in the world and also one of the oldest because it contains a Christian cathedral that was built inside it after the Moors got expelled in 1236. The graceful Moorish architecture combined with the triumphant Baroque cathedral memorializes in stone the conflict between Christianity and Islam that wracked Spain for 700 years. The Mezquita mosque was built in 785 and enlarged four times during the following 200 years; the cathedral was added in the 16th century. (Brockman, 2011, pg. 330)

Construction of the Great Mosque of Cordoba Mezquita

Abd ar-Rahman I established the Mezquita Mosque in 19785. Rahman, I was the sole survivor of a tribe known as the Umayyads who fled Syria. I, the first Muslims who came to Córdoba before Rahman, shared the Mezquita with the Christians. Rahman, I bought out the Christians and started what would become a dynasty of Muslim rule over Spain in the 7th century. After Rahman I died, he was followed by Abd ar-Rahmann II (822-52), who in the ninth century vastly expanded the mosque, and under Abd ar-Rahman III (912-61), Cordoba grew to become Europe’s largest and most prosperous city. Improvements on the Mosque under his son Al-Hakim II (961-76) persisted. The latter increased its size and employed Greek contractors to construct the new Mihrab (huge doorway used as the Mezquita entrance), which is still standing today. On the mosque, the final scale change came under Al-Mansour (977–1002). (The Ward, pg. 151)

The Mosque of the Mezquita is a patchwork of all the cultures that occupied Córdoba. None, however, could bring themselves to destroy the mosque, so each culture added their personal touches. (Ward, pg. 151) 

Cordoba was probably a sophisticated centre of the arts from the time of ‘Abd al-Rahman I. Chronicles suggest his keen interest in Syrian culture, which is confirmed by aspects of the Mezquita. (Bloom, J.M., and Blair, S., 2009, pg. 506) 

The mosque began as the Christian Visigothic church of St. Vincent around 600, which was in turn built on the ruins of a Roman temple. It was bought by the local emir in 784 and it began replacing it with the mosque. It got enlarged and embellished over the next two hundred years. (Brockman, 2011, pg. 331) 

The Mezquita’s architectural significance lies in its being a structurally speaking, groundbreaking structure for its time. It had been defying precedents. Only the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus had vertical, navelike designs. Still, the Mezquita mosque’s goal was to create an endlessly open, politically horizontal, and perfect space where the spirit could wander freely and easily interact with God. For the desert itself, the first room of Islamic prayer (usually the open yard of a desert home) was turned into a representation of 14,400 square meters. On the argamasa, a floor made of flat, reddish slaked lime and sand, the men prayed side by side. They were shaded from the sun by a flat roof, painted with gold and multicoloured motifs. The orange patio, where water gurgled over the ablution fountains, was the oasis. The terracotta and white striped arches suggested a hallucinogenic forest of date palms and upheld the roof with more than 1,000 columns, 1293 to be exact (of which 856 remain). (Ham, from 2010, pg 204)

Construction of the Mezquita

It is almost certain that for the first step of the present Mezquita, Rahman I demolished the building which housed the early 8th-century mosque. Built on a straightforward hypostyle design, the 785 mosques of Abd al-Rahman consisted of 11 aisles of 12 bays that ran perpendicular to a walled court, like the great mosque at Damascus. Sets of two-tiered horseshoe arches were defined for each bay, accompanied by alternating red brick and white stone voussoirs, which later became coloured. Therefore the height of the building made the functionality and apparent predictability of the design more complicated. Many of the most innovative elements of this first mosque indicate careful attention to local tradition: both the superimposed arches and the alternating masonry recall the Los Milagros Roman aqueduct at Merida. In contrast, the horseshoe arch was widely used in the architecture of Christian Visigothic. The plan and alternating voussoirs also suggest a local imitation of Syrian Umayyad architecture for some scholars, thus alluding to ‘Abd al-Rahman I “’s lost home. (Bloom, J.M., & Blair, S., 2009, pg. 507)

Rahman, I ordered the mosque construction as a symbol of Cordoba’s claim to being the new centre of Muslim culture. The architecture of the magnificent mosque echoed that of another structure – the mosque of Umayyad dynasty built in Damascus when it had ruled the Muslim empire. But Cordoba’s mosque also incorporated local materials, including pillars salvaged from Roman ruins. By bringing together the old and new, the building celebrated both the Umayyads’ distinguished past in the East and the dynasty’s renewed power under Abd al-Rahman in the west. (Sonneborn, 2006, pg. 26) 

The moor people who, together with animals that assisted in carrying the pillars and other materials, slaved for years to ensure the magnificent mosque was completed built the mosque. The columns used for the Mezquita were a mishmash of stuff put together from the Visigothic cathedral that previously stood on the site, as far away as Constantinople as Córdoba Roman buildings and sites. Predictably this posed a challenge in maintaining a reasonable ceiling height and keeping it high enough to establish the impression of transparency. To create the ceiling arches, imaginative builders came up with the concept of using the tall columns as a foundation and adding the shorter ones atop. Later, extensions of the mosque expanded these lines of arches to cover an area of almost 120 sq meters and create one of the world’s largest mosques. (Ham, pg. 205)

The mosque had numerous pillars, 856 of which are still standing. The red and white peppermint stripes of the posts were created in most part by white stone and redbrick voussoirs. The components are also constructed by onyx, granite, marble, and jasper, filling a total of nineteen aisles. The second row of arches placed above the first almost doubles the ceiling’s height. Some of the more compelling pillars came from the ancient Visigothic basilica. These can be picked out by the impressive capital carvings. Since the components brought in were not of the same size with some being taller than others, they had to be sunk into the base of the mosque. The oldest known pillar on the mosque came from Egypt and dated back to the reign of Amenophis IV. (Prince, 2009, pg. 142) 

In 836, Rahman II extended this mosque by eight bays to the south, maintaining the same elevation, arch type and decorative texture. Muhammad I (852-86) constructed a measure and completed the building’s exterior, restoring the early Bab al-Wuzara or Puerta de S. Esteban, in 855-6. This and subsequent doorways have a blind horseshoe arch inscribed in a rectangular frame above an arched lintel. They are framed with niches and blind arcades that often exhibit such complex arch types as interlaced or poly-lobed arches. Each plane of the composition is covered with a different texture or relief, making the relationship between parts challenging to discern. Rahman III added a massive minaret to the mosque and rebuilt its courtyard. In 961-6, Hakam II expanded the prayer hall by 12 bays, building an elaborately domed Maqsura and adorning the qibla with three doorways lined with mosaic inscriptions and decorations, such as the domes. A domed bay supported on an elaborate interlaced and polylobed arch panel incorporates the mihrab aisle and establishes a basilical space around the mascara approach. (Bloom, J.M., & Blair, S., 2009, pg. 507)

The breadth of the Mezquita, as with any other mosque, is partly due to Muslim belief that prayers are more efficacious when delivered as close to Mecca as possible – hence the need to accommodate the maximum number of worshippers into the front row. There is also a belief that the architect of the mosque planned the double row of arches, horseshoe below and semicircular above, for its effect; It is more reasonable to agree with those who argue that the average height of the Roman columns, which were brought to the site from many parts, was too small to allow a roof to be placed directly above them. That the columns were not explicitly produced for the Mezquita is evident from the fact that they are of different heights so that some were bedded below pavement level and others had bases of different heights placed beneath them. Tiers of arches were, of course, commonplace in Roman architecture and must have been familiar to the Muslim conquerors before they ever came to Spain, for North Africa had numerous examples of Roman aqueducts. There is also a belief that the conduit of Merida inspired the builders of the mosque in having the arches striped with other brick and stone. However, this belief is absurd as the interpolation of brick courses was well known in the Near East, where it is still said to diminish the damage caused by earthquake shocks and Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock had striped arches some years before the Mezquita was built. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 19) 

The first object that meets the eye in the mosque today is a beautiful Visigothic carved pedestal and stoup, one of the most exquisite relics of the strange Teuton domination of the 6th and 7th centuries. Many of the capitals and some marble latticework in this part of the mosque are of similar origin. One can identify the boundaries of the original mosque of Abd al-Rahman I, built from 785. The extent can be accurately followed by the fact that the floor on the south and east sides slopes down to it in a gentle ramp, a few inches high. All the columns and their capitals are Roman or Visigothic, many of them being superb examples of the Corinthian order; this is the only part of the Mezquita in which the columns have bases. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 19) 

The main entrance to the mosque is through the Gate of Pardon, which leads to the Patio de Los Naranjos, which translates into the “Court of the Orange Trees,” a formal garden where hundreds of sour orange trees, as well as cypress trees and olive trees, grow. A Muslim pilgrim was washed at the fountain before entering the mosque, providing himself with water from a large tank installed underneath the patio. On entering the interior of the Mezquita, a visitor is struck by the sight of aisles of columns topped with candy-striped arches that alternate white brands with red, yellow and green. The feeling in the dim light isn’t loud or distracting, but of long, welcoming corridors. The stone for the columns in Córdoba was taken from the ancient Roman temple and various other Roman ruins. (Brockman, p. 331)

The columns lead the eyes to the walls, along which are chapels with mosaics and tiles in intricate combinations, contrasting with the elegant austerity of the columned aisles. The jewels of these small rooms are the two mihrabs, which are arched indentations in the walls that show the direction of Mecca so that worshippers may face the holy place of Islam. (Brockman, 2011, pg. 331) 

The glory of the Mezquita is its decoration. The eastern gate, for instance, is a scalloped arch flanked by smaller domes. The latticework and intricately carved niches contrast with the tiles of the interior. Since Islam does not permit statues, pictures or other representations, Islamic art has perfected decorative styles using bas-reliefs, floral designs, and elaborate Arabic calligraphy. (Brockman, 2011, pg. 332) 

One of the Visigothic capitals, against the north wall, has a defaced area, where a cross was chipped out by the Moslems. There are ten files of columns leading, with interruptions, to the southern extremity of the mosque; in the ninth from the right, or west, the second column has achieved notoriety. As far back as 1772, Jean Peyron wrote of a column which gave off a foetid smell if it was rubbed with iron. Today the column is half worn through, and even as you are looking at this black spiral Roman shaft, someone will come and rub it with a key, simultaneously bending his head so as not to miss the bouquet of Sulphur. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 20) 

The second part of the Mezquita built by Abd al-Rahman II extends southward for the distance covered by the next seven columns and their arches. It ends at a row of stone piers, where the original cathedral of the 15th century stood. In the left, or east half of this portion is the present choir of the 16th-century cathedral, constructed by the chapter against the wishes of the City Council. Still, at the orders of the young Emperor Charles V. When he saw what had been done to the mosque on his first visit three years later, he said: “You have built what could have been built anywhere and you have destroyed what was unique”. Dozens of writers have castigated the clergy for building the choir and high altar of the cathedral inside the Mezquita; but has anyone asked himself what would have happened to this marvellous building had they not done so? We are bound to admit that if it had survived intact up to the present day, it would be the only Islamic religious building in Spain to have done so; it is inconceivable that it could have stood for seven centuries, immune from pilfering and decay, without the protection of Christian consecration. This argument, valid for Rome’s Pantheon, is equally applicable to the Mezquita. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., pg. 20) 

Near the northern end of this second part, there is a pair of Roman alabaster columns, spirally carved and extremely rare, and then comes the final portion at this west side, the addition of al-Hakam II. This superb creation is as large as the original mosque of Abd al-Rahman I and was added in the latter half of the 10th century, after the failure of awnings in the patio to provide shade for the ever-growing number of worshippers. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 20) 

The chapel of Villaviciosa is remarkable chiefly for the ceiling, which is the original covering of the Mihrab of the first extension of the Mezquita, the contribution of Abd al-Rahman II. The crossed stone ribs of the vault were built in the first half of the ninth century: Christian churches, first the Romanesque and later the gothic, took another two centuries to appreciate and copy the idea. In this chapel, we may be looking at the first example of the solution of a structural problem of the highest importance: how best to cover a building with an arched roof. The chapel’s single wall, on the east side, in the west wall of the royal chapel and formed the retablo or reredos of the original Christian cathedral that was placed inside the mosque in the 15th century, the chapel of Villaviciosa, therefore, representing the sanctuary. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 21) 

Among the many treasures that have disappeared from the mosque is the movable pulpit, or mimbar, which was composed of many rare kinds of wood with inlays of ivory and mother of pearl. Gorgeous as is the effect of this end of the Mezquita today, it must be a pale ghost of its former glory, with panelled and painted ceilings, rugs and hangings, its 2,400 lamps and the candelabras that were brought out on the penultimate day of Ramadan, all glittering with brass, silver and gold. The space in front of the Mihrab and the lateral arches, formerly covered with retablos, is called the Chapel of St Peter, or vulgarly del Alcoran or del Zancarron, suggesting that it was here that the bone of Mohammed’s foot was kept in Muslim days. (Lowe, A., and Seymour-Davies, H., 2000, pg. 24) 

How the Mezquita Would be Built Today, Presumably

Were the Mezquita a modern-day mega-structure, there would be presumably dozens of tower cranes, construction hoists and thousands of workers on the site. Governments would excite the project by playing to the public gallery on how the mega-structure would be immense for tourism and job creation. Some of the best engineers and architects in the world would be involved in the design, logistics and construction of the mega-structures. The whole construction process from the groundbreaking procedure would most likely be recorded on video for television documentaries and future generations. Site engineers, construction companies, architects, government officials and other stakeholders involved in the project would be interviewed for the documentary which might be given a catchy title like “The Making of a Modern Mega-structure”. On completion, the political leader in Spain, or any other host country for the mosque, would grace the occasion and cut the tape to open the mosque officially. Even religious figures would not be left behind, and the leading Muslim leaders would also be there for the occasion.

Nevertheless, it is debatable if Muslim and Christian leaders would be willing to agree and authorize the building of a cathedral and mosque in the same compound in the present times. Terror groups, often Muslim extremists, may also threaten these plans on the assumption that Christians are infiltrating Muslims. In contrast to the use of humans and animals, during the construction of the Mezquita in the 17th century, to carry massive pillars and install them uprightly, heavy machines such as cranes and hoists would be used to send the components in a modern Mezquita Mosque construction.

Due to new technology, the construction in modern times would, probably, be done day and night with the construction site being lit at night by powerful and highly hoisted lights. Additionally, the improved technology would also mean that the construction would be completed in much reduced time than the time taken to complete the initial Mezquita Mosque. However, even though the mosque was built in the 7th century, it is still a marvellous structure that will continue to amaze people in generations to come. As stated earlier, the beauty of the mosque is enhanced by the fact that it was built in an era when there was practically no technology compared to modern times, especially in terms of machinery. 

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