Spain: Visiting The Mosque Of Cordoba

It matters not whether the traveller come from Madrid or Granada, from Valencia or Seville, the Cathedral or Mosque of Cordova will be a surprise to him. It has been described a hundred times, and pictures and views have made it, in a certain sense, familiar; but its originality and beauty are not fully understood until it is seen. It is recognized as the most perfect specimen of the ecclesiastical architecture of the Moors in Spain and the most complete mosque in Europe. It was designed by Abdurrahman to rival the Mosque of Bagdad, and to become a resort for Mohammedan pilgrims equal to the Kaaba of Mecca.

The caliph drew the plans, consecrated his revenues, and worked himself upon the building. The building was begun in 786, and progressed so rapidly that in ten years it was substantially completed by Hashem, the son of its founder. As first built it consisted of eleven aisles, six hundred and forty-two feet in length and nearly three hundred feet in width. Hashem II. added eight more, which in creased the width to four hundred and sixty-two feet.

We entered the low door, and at once the wonders of the place were before us. Nearly a thousand pillars, supporting horseshoe arches, formed aisles and vistas in every direction. Six hundred and forty-two feet in front of us and more than two hundred on the right hand and on the left did this “forest of pillars,” as Gautier called them, rise. The first view was bewildering. It seemed as if one might wander “in endless mazes lost” through the vast building. We were glad to stop and examine one column which, when rubbed, gave forth a sulphurous smell, and to have attention directed to another, which bore marks and indentations which were said to have been made by prisoners of the Inquisition, though it was not quite clear to us how the prisoners and this pillar came together. I have said that there were nearly a thousand columns; to be more exact, there were originally twelve hundred columns. Of these, two hundred, more or less, have been taken away; and there are now eight hundred and fifty, upon which the roof rests, and a, large number which have been built into the walls. We saw the rounded parts of some of these, where the plaster and whitewash had been scraped away. These columns are each of one block, and some of them are of rich and rare stone. The majority were probably quarried not far from Cordova, though tradition declares that they were the spoil of Roman temples, Oriental mosques, and other buildings far and near. A wonderful variety of perspectives is produced by the intersection of the aisles and the horseshoe arches, which are so curiously interwoven as to make an elaborate and beautiful open-work support to the roof. This roof is but thirty-five feet high; and hence the impression of the vastness of the building is due, not to its grandeur or massiveness, but to its extent and the originality of its construction.

We went again and again to the Mosque and spent hours among its columns, delighting our eyes with new vistas, and fresh effects of sunbeams that slanted through the arches, and shadows that dwelt in the chapels and angles of the sanctuary. The chief entrance is through the Puerta del Perdon, Gate of Pardon, the largest and most beautiful of the gateways, and the only one on the northern side which has not been walled up. The walls which enclose the Mosque are from thirty to sixty feet high and six feet thick, and are strengthened by square but tress-towers. Doors plated with bronze and covered with Gothic and Arabic inscriptions close the arch of the Puerta del Perdon. They are sometimes open, and we went in and out through the arch; but the usual entrance is through a narrow passage on the right. This gate leads directly into the Court of Oranges, a patio half as large as Madison Square in New York, divided into three parts, with a fountain and a number of orange-trees in each. There are colonnades of marble pillars around this court, and there are always a number of idlers, women and children, and men who ask to be employed as guides, lounging under the orange-trees.

Entering from the north and going straight on, we came to the choir and the large chapel, which was built within the Mosque in the time of Charles V., from 1521 to 1526. The erection of these made it necessary to remove those portions of the Mosque which occupied the ground, and thus the original beauty of the building was sadly marred. When the monarch, who had given permission to erect these structures, came to Cordova in 1526 and saw the havoc which had been made, he was very indignant, and is said to have exclaimed: “Had I known that the ancient part of the Mosque was to be touched, I would never have allowed it. You have built here what can be built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.”

From the choir we walked onward to the ancient Maksura, said to be the sultan’s place of prayer upon’ Friday, the Mohammedan Sabbath. This is now the chapel Villaviciosa, and is used as a robing-room. In Moorish times, the gold and silver vessels used at the Bairam feast were kept here, with a fine copy of the Koran, so large that it took two men to carry it, so says the historian Edrisi, who described it in the twelfth century. The original Moorish arches are visible here, but most of the decoration is of a later period.

Beyond the Maksura, southwards, is the Holy of Holies, called Mihrab, a six-sided chapel, about thirteen feet in diameter and thirty feet high. Its archway is studded with mosaics as beautiful as anything in St. Sophia. The walls are of marble, and the roof is a marble shell, carved from a single piece; beneath it runs a beautiful arcade, with little brown columns, whose carved capitals are richly gilded. In this sanctuary was once the pulpit of Al Hakem II., made of ivory and choice woods, inlaid with precious stones, and fastened with gold and silver nails. Its value was reckoned at millions of dollars. In the pulpit was kept the copy of the Koran written by the Caliph Othman, and dyed with his blood. The book was placed upon a reading-desk of aloe, in a box covered with cloth of gold, embroidered with pearls and jewels; and at the hour of Azalah it was opened and read by the Imaum. As the pulpit, and book, and lectern of aloe have all vanished, it may be that their value has been growing during the centuries; but incredulity and criticism spoil the pleasure of travel, and so we took the stories as they were given, and only repeat what we have heard. Certainly this Mihrab was the most sacred place, here the Spirit of God was believed to rest, and around this chapel, as at the Kaaba of Mecca, the pilgrims made sevenfold processions on their knees.

It was in 1238 that the Christians took formal possession of the Mosque and built their gloomy chapels in the side aisles. Neglect and whitewash have injured the building, but it is still beautiful, unique, and worth much toil and travel to behold. Some attempts at restoration on the side towards the sanctuary are an encouraging sign in a country where so many monuments of the past have been allowed to decay. Of the church in the centre of the Mosque, the less that is said the better. Its richness and beauty, the magnificence of the high altar and the choir, which compare favorably with any in Spanish cathedrals, only make the outrage which has been committed upon the ancient building more evident. We looked upon all this intrusive grandeur and lavish display with indignation against the Catholic builders and sorrow for the despoiled and injured Moors.

Not far from the Mosque is the picturesque bridge of sixteen arches which crosses the Guadalquivir, said to have been built by Octavius Caesar, but really built by the caliphs of Cordova, upon the ruins of the old one. It has a huge Moorish gateway through a tower which once was joined to the walls of the city and formed a part of its defences. Here we saw more people than we had seen in the whole town; for there were many gayly dressed peasants coming in from the country with loaded beasts, and an equal stream of mules and their drivers was flowing out. The temporary confusion, with its accompanying noise and gesticulations, varied by supplications from a variety of beggars in snuff-colored, ragged cloaks, gave a greater animation to the scene than we had thus far observed in Cordova.