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5 / Cosmology and Belief

La Mezquita (Great Mosque) (interior)
La Mezquita (Great Mosque) (interior)
Artist / Origin Unknown architect(s) (possibly Syrian), Andalucía (Islamic Spain)
Region: Europe
Date Umayyad Dynasty, begun ca. 784–86; enlarged in the 9th and 10th centuries
Material Stone, brick, marble, porphyry, jasper, and other materials
Dimensions (Columns) H: approx. 13 ft. (3.96 m.) (each)
Location Córdoba, Spain
Credit © Pawel Wysocki/Hemis/CORBIS

expert perspective

Kishwar RizviAssistant Professor of Islamic Art, Yale University

Additional Resources

Anderson, Glaire D., and Marian Rosser-Owen, eds. Revisiting al-Andalus: Perspectives on the Material Culture of Islamic Iberia and Beyond. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007.

Dodds, Jerrilynn D., ed. Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1982.

Ettinghausen, Richard, and Oleg Grabar. The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650–1250. London and New York: Penguin, 1987.

Khoury, Nuha. “The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century.” Muqarnas 13 (1996): 80–98.

Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals, 2nd ed. Edited by Gregory Castillo. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

La Mezquita (Great Mosque) (interior)

» Unknown architect(s) (possibly Syrian), Andalucía (Islamic Spain)

In 711, a Berber army led by Arab commanders conquered the Spanish in the Iberian Peninsula, laying the foundations of Islamic Spain.

Although its boundaries shifted over time, the territory controlled by the Spanish Muslims, called al-Andalus or Andalucia, maintained significant political power and cultural influence for several centuries.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba was begun between 784 and 786 by order of Abd al-Rahman. He had established the Umayyad Dynasty in Spain in 756, having fled the massacre of his family by the Abbasids in Syria several years earlier. Under his aegis, Córdoba became a great capital rivaling Baghdad, the center of Abbasid power in the East. The structure was built on the site of San Vicente, the oldest church in Córdoba, which had been constructed over the remains of a pagan temple. The Great Mosque was a testament not only to the continuance of Umayyad dominion, but also to the triumph of Islam in the westernmost reaches of the Christian world.

Called La Mezquita in Spanish, The Great Mosque began as a nearly square construction comprised of an outer-courtyard and a covered prayer hall. Its distinguishing feature was its collection of over 500 columns, scavenged from the ruins of Roman and Visigoth structures, and connected by two tiers of arches, horseshoe-shaped on the bottom tier and semi-round on the top. The long, thin columns of varying materials, color, and texture capped by Corinthian capitals had an elegance that complemented the light and airy atmosphere produced by the stacked, alternating red and white striped arches. They also created another effect. Rows upon rows of columns seemed to stretch out indefinitely, creating a space that, in sharp contrast to the medieval cathedral, was distinctly non-hierarchal in nature. No aspect of the architecture demanded greater attention than any other, not even the mihrab, the embellished area that marks the direction of Mecca to which Muslims turn while praying.

In its original form, the Great Mosque was built to hold the entire Muslim community of the city. As that community grew, so did the mosque. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the structure underwent two major expansions. Despite these extensions, the building maintained a remarkably coherent plan and aesthetic. The harmony of the space was disrupted only in the sixteenth century when an enclosed choir area was built within the mosque, which had been converted into a church when Christians reconquered Córdoba in the thirteenth century.

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