The development of the Mezquita paralleled the new heights of confidence and splendour of ninth- and tenth-century Córdoba. Abd ar-Rahman III provided it with a new minaret (which has not survived but which provided the core for the later belfry), 80m high, topped by three pomegranate-shaped spheres, two of silver and one of gold and each weighing a tonne. But it was his son, al-Hakam II (961–76), to whom he passed on a peaceful and stable empire, who was responsible for the most brilliant expansion. He virtually doubled its extent, demolishing the south wall to add fourteen extra rows of columns, and employed Byzantine craftsmen to construct a new mihrab, or prayer niche; this remains complete and is perhaps the most beautiful example of all Moorish religious architecture.

Al-Hakam had extended the mosque as far to the south as was possible. The final enlargement of the building, under the chamberlain-usurper al-Mansur (977–1002), involved adding seven rows of columns to the whole east side. This spoiled the symmetry of the mosque, depriving the mihrab of its central position, but Arab historians observed that it meant there were now “as many bays as there are days of the year”. They also delighted in describing the rich interior, with its 1293 marble columns, 280 chandeliers and 1445 lamps. Hanging inverted among the lamps were the bells of the pilgrimage cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Al-Mansur made his Christian captives carry them on their shoulders from Galicia – a process that was to be observed in reverse after Córdoba was captured by Fernando el Santo (the Saint) in 1236.

Entering the Mezquita

As in Moorish times, the Mezquita is approached through the Patio de los Naranjos, a classic Islamic ablutions court that preserves its orange trees, although the fountains for ritual purification before prayer are now purely decorative. Originally, when in use for the Friday prayers, all nineteen naves of the mosque were open to this court, allowing the rows of interior columns to appear an extension of the trees with brilliant shafts of sunlight filtering through. Today, all but one of the entrance gates is locked and sealed, and the mood of the building has been distorted from the open and vigorous simplicity of the mosque to the mysterious half-light of a cathedral.

Nonetheless, a first glimpse inside the Mezquita is immensely exciting. “So near the desert in its tentlike forest of supporting pillars,” Jan Morris found it, “so faithful to Mahomet’s tenets of cleanliness, abstinence and regularity.” The mass of supporting pillars was, in fact, an early and sophisticated innovation to gain height. The original architect had at his disposal columns from the old Visigothic cathedral and from numerous Roman buildings; they could bear great weight but were not tall enough, even when arched, to reach the intended height of the ceiling. His solution (which may have been inspired by Roman aqueduct designs) was to place a second row of square columns on the apex of the lower ones, serving as a base for the semicircular arches that support the roof. For extra strength and stability (and perhaps also deliberately to echo the shape of a date palm, much revered by the early Spanish Arabs), the architect introduced another, horseshoe-shaped arch above the lower pillars. A second and purely aesthetic innovation was to alternate brick and stone in the arches, creating the red-and-white-striped pattern that gives a unity and distinctive character to the whole design.

The mihrab

The uniformity was broken only at the culminating point of the mosque – the domed cluster of pillars surrounding the sacred mihrab, erected under al-Hakam II. The mihrab has two functions in Islamic worship: it indicates the direction of Mecca (and hence of prayer) and it amplifies the words of the imam, or prayer leader. At Córdoba, it is also of supreme beauty.

The inner vestibule of the niche (frustratingly fenced off) is quite simple in comparison, with a shell-shaped ceiling carved from a single block of marble. The chambers to either side – decorated with exquisite Byzantine mosaics of gold, rust red, turquoise and green – constitute the maksura, where the caliph and his retinue would pray.

The cathedral

Originally, the whole design of the mosque would have directed worshippers naturally towards the mihrab. Today, though, you almost stumble upon it, for in the centre of the mosque squats a Renaissance cathedral coro. This was built in 1523 – nearly three centuries of enlightened restraint after the Reconquest – and in spite of fierce opposition from the town council. The erection of a coro and capilla mayor, however, had long been the “Christianizing” dream of the cathedral chapter and at last they had found a monarch – predictably Carlos V – who was willing to sanction the work. Carlos, to his credit, realized the mistake (though it did not stop him from destroying parts of the Alhambra and Seville’s Alcázar); on seeing the work completed, he told the chapter, “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.” To the left of the coro stands an earlier and happier Christian addition – the Mudéjar Capilla de Villaviciosa, built by Moorish craftsmen in 1371 (and now partly sealed up). Beside it are the dome and pillars of the earlier mihrab, constructed under Abd ar-Rahman II.

The belfry and outer walls

The belfry, the Torre del Alminar (currently closed), at the corner of the Patio de los Naranjos, is contemporary with the cathedral addition. Close by, the Puerta del Perdón, the main entrance to the patio, was rebuilt in Moorish style in 1377. It’s worth making a tour of the Mezquita’s outer walls before leaving; parts of the original “caliphal” decoration surrounding the portals (in particular, some exquisite lattice work) are stunning.

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