THE GREAT MOSQUE
It was the Caliph Abderama I. who laid the foundations of the Mosque at Cordova, toward the end of the eighth century, and the works were carried on with such activity that the whole edifice was completed at the commencement of the ninth; twenty-one years were found sufficient to terminate this gigantic monument ! When we reflect that a thousand years ago, so admirable a work, and one of such colossal proportions, was executed in so short a time by a people who have since fallen into a state of the most savage barbarism, the mind is lost in astonishment, and refuses to believe the pretended doctrines of human progress which are generally received at the present day; we even feel inclined to adopt an opinion diametrically opposite, when we visit those countries which formerly enjoyed a state of civilization which now exists no longer.
I have already regretted, for my own part, and so have others, that the Moors did not remain in possession of Spain, which certainly has only lost by their expulsion. Under their dominion, if we can believe the popular exaggerations so gravely collected and preserved by historians, Cordova contained two hundred thousand houses, eighty thousand palaces, and nine hundred baths, while its suburbs consisted of twelve thousand villages. At present it does not number forty thousand in-habitants, and appears almost deserted.
Abderama wished to make the Mosque of Cordova a place of pilgrimage, a western Mecca, the first temple of Islamism, after that in which the body of the prophet reposes. I have not yet seen the Casbah of Mecca, but I doubt whether it equals in magnificence and size the Spanish Mosque. One of the original copies of the Koran and a still more precious relic, a bone of one of Mohammed’s arms used to be preserved there. The lower orders even believe that the Sultan of Constantinople still pays a tribute to the King of Spain, in order that mass may not be said in that part of the building especially dedicated to the prophet. This chapel is ironically called by the devout, the Zancarron, a term of contempt which signifies, “Ass’s jaw-bone, carrion.”
The Mosque of Cordova is pierced with seven doors, which have nothing ornamental about them. Indeed its mode of construction prevents their being so, and does not allow of the majestic portals imperiously required by the unvarying plan of Roman-Catholic cathedrals. There is nothing in its external appearance to prepare your mind for the admirable spectacle which awaits you. We will pass, if you please, through the “patio de los naranjeros,” an immense and magnificent court-yard planted with monster orange-trees, that were contemporaries of the Moorish kings, and surrounded by long arched galleries, paved with marble flags. On one side rises a very mediocre spire, which is a clumsy imitation of the Giralda, as we were afterward enabled to see, at Seville. There is said to be an immense cistern under the pavement of the courtyard. In the time of the Ommyades, you entered at once from the “patio de los naranjeros” into the mosque itself, for the frightful wall which now breaks the perspective on this side, was not built until later.
I can best convey an idea of this strange edifice, by saying that it resembles a large esplanade enclosed by walls and planted with columns in quincuncial order. The esplanade is four hundred and twenty feet broad, and four hundred and forty long. The number of the columns amounts to eight hundred and sixty, which is, it is said, only half the number in the first mosque.
The impression produced on you when you en-ter this ancient sanctuary of the Moslem faith can not be defined, and has nothing whatever in common with that generally caused by architecture; you seem rather to be walking about in a roofed forest than in a building. On whatever side you turn, your eye is lost in alleys of columns crossing each other and stretching away out of sight, like marble vegetation that has shot up spontaneously from the soil; the mysterious half-light which reigns in this lofty wood increases the illusion still more. There are nineteen transepts and thirty-six naves, but the span of the transepts is much less than that of the naves. Each nave and transept is formed between rows of superimposed arches, some of which cross and combine with one another as if they were made of ribbon.
The columns, each of which is hewn out of one solid block, are hardly more than ten or twelve feet up to the capitals, which are Arabic Corinthian, full of force and elegance, and reminding you rather of the African palm than the Greek acanthus. They are composed of rare marbles, porphyry, jasper, green and violet breccia, and other precious substances; there are some even of antique origin, and are said to be the remains of an old temple of Janus. Thus the rites of three religions have been celebrated on the spot.
Of these three religions, one has for ever disappeared, with the civilization it represented, in the gulf of the past; the second has been driven out of Europe, where it has now but a precarious footing, to take refuge with the barbarism of the East; and the third, after having reached its apogee, has been undermined by the spirit of inquiry, and is growing weaker every day, even in those countries where it once reigned as absolute sovereign. Perhaps the old mosque built by Abderama may still last long enough to see a fourth religion installed under the shade of its arches, and a new God, or rather a new prophetfor God never changescelebrated with other forms and other songs of praise.
In the time of the Caliphs, eight hundred silver lamps, filled with aromatic oils, illuminated these long naves, caused the porphyry and polished jasper of the columns to sparkle, spangled with light the gilt stars of the ceiling, and showed, in the shade, the crystal mosaics and the verses of the Koran wreathed with arabesques and flowers. Among their lamps were the bells of Saint Jago de Compostella, which the Moors had won in battle; turned upside down, and suspended to the roof by silver chains, they illuminated the temple of Allah and his Prophet, and were, no doubt, greatly astonished at being changed from Catholic bells into Mohammedan lamps. At that period, the eye could wander in perfect liberty under the long colonnades, and, from the extremity of the temple, look at the orange-trees in blossom and the gushing of the “patio,” inundated by a torrent of light, rendered still more dazzling by the half-day inside.
Unfortunately, this magnificent view is at present destroyed by the Roman-Catholic church, which is a heavy, massive building squeezed into the very heart of the Arabian mosque. A number of retablos, chapels, and sacristies crowd the place and destroy its general symmetry. This parasitical church, this enormous stone mushroom, this architectural wart on the back of the Arabian edifice, was erected after the designs of Herman Riuz. As a building it is not destitute of merit, and would be admired anywhere else, but it is ever to be regretted that it occupies the place it does. It was built, in spite of the resistance of the “ayuntamiento,” by the chapter, in virtue of an order cunningly obtained from the Emperor Charles V., who had not seen the mosque. Having visited it, some years later, he said, “Had I known this, I should never have permitted you to touch the old building; you have put what can be seen anywhere in the place of what is seen nowhere.”