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By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
My heart tingled with emotion and excitement as I stepped into the fabled Great Mosque of Córdoba. Six times I had journeyed to what was once the capital of western Islam to visit its Mezquita-Catedral. Yet for me, the magic of this former religious structure had not diminished with the passing years. Rather, its enchanting aura seemed to increase with every visit. Each time I entered this crowning glory of the European medieval world, I felt moved and inspired. Its haunting and majestic atmosphere would always enmesh my thoughts and elate my very soul.
This time as I walked through its forest of over 800 columns there appeared to be something quite different. Suddenly, it struck me. The darkness which had on our previous visits hidden from sight the inner beauty of the mosque was being penetrated by little rays of light. It was as if a concealed treasure had been uncovered.
As I gazed at the enchanting atmosphere around me, my mind raced back to the days of the Moors when this renowned religious edifice was the pride of Muslim Spain – the most advanced country in the world of that era. Its capital Córdoba, only rivaled by Baghdad, had a population of one million literate inhabitants.
Miles of streets were paved and brightly lit. Sewers carried away the refuse and well-kept parks dotted the city – this at a time when the largest city in Christian Europe had a population of 10,000 with no sewers or lights and only streets of padded earth.
One of the most important cities in the Muslim world, Córdoba overflowed with grand buildings and houses of learning which diffused knowledge to mankind. As befitting a queen of cities and a spring of enlightenment, poets and other men of letters written in glowing terms when describing its splendor. Take the case of an Arab poet from Córdoba who once rhapsodized:
“Do not talk about the court of Baghdad and its glittering magnificence,
Do not praise Persia and China with their beauty and greatness,
For there is no spot on earth like Córdoba.”
The heart of this fabulous city was for centuries is its Great Mosque that was the largest and foremost house of worship in the western Islamic world. Its construction was begun in 785 A.D. by Abd al-Rahman I who was the first Arab to rule independently over most of the Iberian Peninsula. He built the mosque on the site of St. Vincent, a church the Muslims had purchased from Córdoba’s Christian community. In later centuries, succeeding rulers enlarged and beautified the mosque until it evolved into what became known as the jewel of Islam. By the year 1000 A.D., it was considered to be one of the wonders of the medieval world.
The entire area of the mosque, 189 m (620 ft) by 137 m (450 ft) was enclosed with 18 m (59 ft) high-buttressed walls, pierced by 21 horseshoe arches having doors encrusted with shining brass. 1-inch thick plates of lead protected the roof of the mosque and its outside was decorated with exquisite designs.
The mosque was divided into two parts: the courtyard and a prayer chamber. The courtyard had an arcaded path on three sides, while the prayer chamber had 19 arcades from east to west and 31 from north and south. Capitals covered with gold leaf topped its 1,293 columns, made from Jasper, marble, and porphyry. They supported 360 horseshoe ornate arches and piers that carried another row of semi-circular arches. These, added to the rich and elaborate decorations throughout the mosque, made this house of worship the most attractive structure to be found in the world of the Middle Ages.
Over 300 attendants worked around the clock to maintain the mosque. At night, 10,000 pots of oil were utilized to light 2,400 lamps that included 280 huge chandeliers, some carrying 1,000 lights. They were made from brass, copper or silver and covered every nook of the prayer chamber. The reflection of their light on the breath-taking ornamentations, which were the epitome of Moorish architectural art, gave the prayer hall an aura of awe-inspiring splendor.
The mosque was such a wonder of design that it became a model for Andalusian and North African mosques and even influenced the architecture of Christian churches. With its tall, richly colored pillars; carved wooden ceiling, painted in red, yellow and blue; bewildering arabesque designs; luxuriant rugs and its other splendid embellishments, it was a masterpiece of human construction.
Historians have written that its harmony of lines and accuracy of detail were unmatched in any other structure of that age. They go on to assert that when the lamps were lit, especially during Ramadan, the vast throng of worshippers, clad in white robes, would marvel at this unparalleled creation of man.
When the Spaniards of the north in the 13th century occupied Córdoba, they converted the mosque into a Christian house of worship. In the process, they cemented most of the doors and archways, and inside its walls built dozens of chapels. Later over 400 columns were removed and in this space, a cathedral was erected. In addition, the minaret was partially dismantled and a bell-tower was constructed on its base. These changes, brought about throughout the years, have truly turned the building into a mosque-cathedral – the name by which it is known today.
In the last few decades, due to the lessening of intolerance and the thousands of tourists attracted to this Muslim/Christian edifice, its original character has in places been restored. Some of the chapels have been removed, sections of the ceiling renewed with hand-carved cedar and the cement from a number of the front archways has been replaced by tinted glass.
Now when one looks through these renovated arches, the striking mihrab (niche), as it was in the Islamic age, can be seen majestically glimmering in the distance. It is as if this ancient structure is awakening after centuries of slumber.
For hundreds of years the mosque has been converted into a church, yet the aura of its former Muslim magnificence remains. Even though it retains today only a pale ghost of its former grandeur, it nevertheless is still breathtaking to behold.
The Spaniards are restoring much of what had been destroyed in the age of fanaticism. No more are the Moors viewed as conquering heathens. Rather, they are now considered one of the ancestors of the inhabitants of present-day Spain – a vivid component of the history of the country.