AP®︎/College Art History
The Great Mosque of Córdoba
By Dr. Shadieh Mirmobiny
Great Mosque of Córdoba from the air, Córdoba, Spain, begun 786 and enlarged during the 9th and 10th centuries, (photo: Toni Castillo Quero, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Known locally as Mezquita-Catedral, the Great Mosque of Córdoba is one of the oldest structures still standing from the time Muslims ruled Al-Andalus (Muslim Iberia including most of Spain, Portugal, and a small section of Southern France) in the late 8th century. Córdoba is a two hour train ride south of Madrid, and draws visitors from all over the world.
The buildings on this site are as complex as the extraordinarily rich history they illustrate. Historians believe that there had first been a temple to the Roman god, Janus, on this site. The temple was converted into a church by invading Visigoths who seized Córdoba in 572. Next, the church was converted into a mosque and then completely rebuilt by the descendants of the exiled Umayyads—the first Islamic dynasty who had originally ruled from their capital Damascus (in present-day Syria) from 661 until 750.
A new capital
Following the overthrow of his family (the Umayyads) in Damascus by the incoming Abbasids, Prince Abd al-Rahman I escaped to southern Spain. Once there, he established control over almost all of the Iberian Peninsula and attempted to recreate the grandeur of Damascus in his new capital, Córdoba. He sponsored elaborate building programs, promoted agriculture, and even imported fruit trees and other plants from his former home. Orange trees still stand in the courtyard of the Mosque of Córdoba, a beautiful, if bittersweet reminder of the Umayyad exile.
Hypostyle hall, Great Mosque at Córdoba, Spain, begun 786 and enlarged during the 9th and 10th centuries (photo: wsifrancis, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The hypostyle hall
The building itself was expanded over two hundred years. It is comprised of a large hypostyle prayer hall (hypostyle means, filled with columns), a courtyard with a fountain in the middle, an orange grove, a covered walkway circling the courtyard, and a minaret (a tower used to call the faithful to prayer) that is now encased in a squared, tapered bell tower. The expansive prayer hall seems magnified by its repeated geometry. It is built with recycled ancient Roman columns from which sprout a striking combination of two-tiered, symmetrical arches, formed of stone and red brick.
Mihrab, Great Mosque at Córdoba, Spain (photo: wsifrancis, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The focal point in the prayer hall is the famous horseshoe arched mihrab or prayer niche. A mihrab is used in a mosque to identify the wall that faces Mecca—the birth place of Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia. This is practical as Muslims face toward Mecca during their daily prayers. The mihrab in the Great Mosque of Córdoba is framed by an exquisitely decorated arch behind which is an unusually large space, the size of a small room. Gold tesserae (small pieces of glass with gold and color backing) create a dazzling combination of dark blues, reddish browns, yellows and golds that form intricate calligraphic bands and vegetal motifs that adorn the arch.
The horseshoe arch
The horseshoe-style arch was common in the architecture of the Visigoths, the people that ruled this area after the Roman empire collapsed and before the Umayyads arrived. The horseshoe arch eventually spread across North Africa from Morocco to Egypt and is an easily identified characteristic of Western Islamic architecture (though there are some early examples in the East as well).
Mihrab dome, Great Mosque at Córdoba, Spain (photo: José Luiz, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Above the mihrab, is an equally dazzling dome. It is built of crisscrossing ribs that create pointed arches all lavishly covered with gold mosaic in a radial pattern. This astonishing building technique anticipates later Gothic rib vaulting, though on a more modest scale.
The Great Mosque of Córdoba is a prime example of the Muslim world's ability to brilliantly develop architectural styles based on pre-existing regional traditions. Here is an extraordinary combination of the familiar and the innovative, a formal stylistic vocabulary that can be recognized as “Islamic” even today.
Essay by Dr. Shadieh Mirmobiny
Want to join the conversation?
- Since all other mihrabs point to Mecca, is there a mihrab in Mecca and if so where does it point? Is it just decorative or is there a significant direction? Thanks.(14 votes)
- All mosques in Saudi Arabia point towards Makkah. All mosques in the city of Makkah point towards the Masjid al Haram, which has the Kaaba. Anyone praying in Masjid Al Haram has to face the Kaaba, which is a closed room located in the center of Masjid Al Haram.
About the decorative part, no it's not. It does point towards Kaaba. The Muslims had developed expertise in geometry early on to locate Kaaba accurately.(21 votes)
- I think I read somewhere that the mihrab in this mosque does not face Mecca but faces Damascus. Does anyone know if my information is accurate?(13 votes)
- Yes, that is correct. Most likely it was a statemtent to assert the identity of what remained of the Umayyad dynasty as opposed to the Abbasid in Baghdad(16 votes)
- How could one draw a comparison between this and a religious building such as the Chartres Catherdral? Other than the obvious fact that they're are both religious, are there any architectural similarities? Thanks!(5 votes)
- Consider the space of worship--the divisional areas within the structures are defined. Consider elevations (columns, arches, how does light enter?), as well as decorative elements that "aide" in worship (calligraphy vs. sculptural)(10 votes)
- In time of Abdul Rahman III .. was the mosque used by judges as a court ? were the accused ones put behind bars there in front of the judges and the public waiting for the judge to say whether they r guilty or not ?(4 votes)
- The main hall of the mosque was used for a variety of purposes. It served as a central Prayer hall for personal devotion, the five daily Muslim prayers and the special Friday prayers. It also would have served as a hall for teaching and for Sharia Law cases during the rule of Abd al-Rahman & his successors. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosque%E2%80%93Cathedral_of_C%C3%B3rdoba and
Jan, Read. The Moors in Spain and Portugal. London: Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc, p.56.(9 votes)
- What is the great mosque of cordoba currently used for?(3 votes)
- Does the alternating red and white patterning in the arches, also seen in the Dome of the Rock and Mimar Sinan's mosque in Edirne, have a particular symbolism?(2 votes)
- Not to my knowledge! If you're referring to religious symbolism then no, the colours red and white do not have any "meaning" in Islam :)(5 votes)
- What was life like during this time period?(2 votes)
- So after the maqsura was build, where did the Caliph sit? In relation to the mihrab and the qubba and how does that impact the other faithful that came to worship as they would be then submitting to the Caliph... were there other worshipers?(2 votes)
- The Caliph was just a ruler for the time and was therefore given a higher status than others. The fact that there is a mihrab has nothing to do with whoever is in it, necessarily meaning that it wouldn't be submitting to the Caliph, but to God.(4 votes)
- What was the mosque used for when it was created? For praying or for what activity.(1 vote)
- Religious centers in different religions have different uses and purposes. Probably all are places for prayer. Most are also places for corporate and individual worship, for study and teaching, and for the conduct of the various religious functions related to birth, coming-of-age, marriage, death and such.(3 votes)
- Is it true that much of the tesserae for the mosaics at Cordoba were donated by the Byzantine Emperor along with craftsmen to install them?(2 votes)