The Great Mosque of Cordoba: A Masterpiece of Religious Architecture

Essay on topic "The Great Mosque: A Masterpiece of Religious Architecture" | Free Sample


The Great Mosque of Cordoba is considered to be one of the most significant and monumental expressions of Islamic rule in Spain. It does not only represent the Muslim faith but is also an ancestor of other mosques in al-Andalus. The building is a visual reflection of symbols of the Muslim culture. Even the patronage of the main mosque of Cordoba was claimed to have symbolic meaning. Being included to the World Heritage list in 1984, the Great Mosque along with the surrounding historic territories maintains its integrity and neatness. The aim of this paper is to focus on the history of the Great Mosque of Cordoba to prove that this architectural masterpiece has gradually obtained its significance due to the changes that it had to witness.


According to the legend, the initial mosque’s building was the biggest church which was divided into two parts after the Cordoba’s conquest. Muslims shared it with Christians as all churches were destroyed at that time in Cordoba. In order to avoid the influence of Christianity, ‘Abd al-Rahman I, the last of the Umayyad dynasty, purchased the second half and allowed the construction of a church outside the city walls (Dodds, 1992). The mosque’s architectural importance is achieved by the amalgamation of old, reused structures along with new combinations, e.g. a system of double-tiered arcades with horseshoe arches supported by slender pilasters on marble columns (Khoury, 1996). All these combinations praised the Umayyad dynasty not only in the history of Spain but in the world history as well.

The original building of the 7th century underwent several re-makings over 200 years due to the ideas of different caliphs aimed at modernizing architectural structures, thus including more and more unique construction and design decisions to create an inimitable masterpiece in the world architecture. It comprises a large hypostyle prayer hall, a courtyard, a fountain in the middle of it, a covered walkway around the courtyard, and a minaret.

The prayer hall’s mihrab (the prayer niche) with the qibla (a wall facing the direction of Mecca) is an important place as Islam demands to identify the direction during the praying. The structure of the prayer hall consists of ten arcades of twelve horseshoe arches each to support the roof with enough space among the aisles. It may confuse the viewers by the combination of the arches and voussoirs creating “a three-dimensional maze in the middle aisle, which is a little wider than the others” (Dodds, 1992). This seeming chaos of decoration is an attempt to create a new architectural language within an aniconic culture. The use of the horseshoe arch is also an example of the indigenous church-building tradition, and it is often compared to San Juan de Banos’ Visigothic church. Moreover, the idea of doubled arches was proven not to be as unique as it was thought. In Merida, for instance, there exists an aqueduct which “alternating brick and stone masonry recalls of the alternating voussoirs of the mosque” (Dodds, 1992). The Great Mosque’s capitals were initially spoilt without any meaning to inhibit their use in the Muslim context. The roof’s elevation by means of indigenous construction solutions evokes ‘Abd al-Rahman’s attempt to recreate the Great Mosque of Damascus’ mighty there. At least the columns arcade creates such an effect. Maybe due to being nostalgic for his homeland, the attempts of bringing some specific features to Cordoba made an association with the dynasty’s glorious past combined with architectural tendencies dictated by new surrounding and culture. This was viewed as a dialogue with the centers of Islam: the Syrian past and Abbasid Baghdad of the present. ‘Abd al-Rahman I managed to create a symbolic visualization of his seized authority, claiming himself the last survivor of the Umayyad dynasty in remote lands.

The extension to the mosque was introduced later by ‘Abd al-Rahman’s descendant, ‘Abd al-Rahman II. The new columns and capitals for elongated prayer hall were expressly made. However, the proportional correspondence of new architectural forms with the old ones was preserved. The mosque’s expansion by ‘Abd al-Rahman II Nasir is an example of creating a complete unique monument of historical importance. Practically, all these vigorous configurations were completed by the son of ‘Abd al-Rahman II, Muhammad, who included into the mosque’s expansion the “maqsura,” a separate and reserved prayer place for emir, again with a horseshoe arch within a rectangular above the separate entrance door. Some minor configurations were done by Muhammad’s descendants, and they included a treasury and a sabat, which is a covered passage leading from the palace to a door of the mosque. Initially, the sabat was claimed to be built to enable the ruler to enter the mosque without distracting people from praying by his presence. However, the existence of the sabat was due to the prince Abdallah’s growing isolation, the wish to enter the mosque privately, perhaps even avoiding the eye contact with people. Secondly, due to his desire to make some costly improvements to the mosque by creating something very special and useful for the ruler: the sabat became what was exactly needed (Dodds, 1992).

However, the next mosque’s patron, a self-declared caliph ‘Abd al-Rhman III, renovated the courtyard, changing piers and columns in a sequence similar to the one of the Great Mosque of Damascus in order “to show its links with the Umayyad world as a source of Islamic identity and caliphal authority as well” (Dodds, 1992). The facade between the prayer room and the courtyard was also restored. The historical and mythical accounts have been preserved through centuries as reminders of the Umayyad’s great and glorious past. The features of these accounts are “the articulate carriers of the meaning” (Khoury, 1996). Being decorated with mosaics provided by the Byzantine emperor along with the craftsmen and materials, this is another attempt to adhere to the dynasty’s past through architectural decisions; an artistic and religious visibility in the capital to the inheritance of their ancestors from Damascus (Fierro, 2005).

However, one of his most significant changes was brought by building the mosque tower called the minaret, consisting of a “domed pavilion” and “golden and silver apples” in order to demonstrate its symbolism: strong presence of Islam and development of its own architectural forms called Sunni Muslim in order to manifest a “newly proclaimed caliphate” (Dodds, 1992). The researchers argue on the real purpose of the minaret. The Christian church bell towers were removed by Muslims who claimed that they had a huge negative impact: those who heard the bells were saying dreadful unspeakable things. Consequently, the construction of the minaret was apparently aiming to establish the Islamic dominance over Christianity in the city.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba was provided with the “mark of caliphal dignity,” thus having become the main focus of royal patronage (Dodds, 1992). Again, it was undergoing enormous and significant architectural changes: the arcades were lengthened to quibla’s direction, and a short, wide prayer hall was converted into a longitudinal one. The mihrab was given a room shape with the doors at either sides of it, opening to a treasury and a sabat leading to caliphal palace; qibla wall doors were decorated with mosaics of green and gold glass cubes aimed at reminding the history of the mosque (Dodds, 1992). Still, the point is that all these refurbishments are depicting richness, costliness, and indeed, their price was rather high. The Cordobans even refused to pray in the enlarged mosque until they were told which money were used and where they were taken from. Moreover, all the changes were thought to be meaningful and significant for the ruler but not the umma (the community of faithful). Later, it appeared that they also influenced a number of people converted to Islam. In fact, it was a glorious period, and it is claimed by means of the Christian architectural forms. To be more precise, these were three aisles ending in three separate rooms with a horseshoe shape of the central one adapted in the mosque, which played an important role for a rapid growth of Islamic community at that time. However, it is an unintentional allusion to Christianity, which had been rejected as it showed the language of forms acquired by Muslims from Christians. The additions are more likely to allude to Madinat al-Zahra, its palatial forms, and hypostyle to reveal, support, and prove the power and authority. One more hidden symbolic meaning of these renewals is that the mosque should remain an important historical sight to prove the existence of new caliphate of the Umayyads within the established cultural sphere. Such sphere was mostly predetermined by creation of a unique building, which would contain different styles and recall the past mighty and glory. However, the mosaic decorations of the qibla remind more about the Umayyads past in Damascus as they were not often used in the contemporary Islamic world on the Iberian Peninsula. The symbolism of the mosaic is even stronger if to delve into the history: the negotiations of al-Hakam II with the Byzantine Christian king to get a capable worker remind of what his ancestor did some two hundred years ago.

The innovations in qilba appeared very important due to the citations from Qur’an (Koran). Included into the general ensemble of forms and figures, these writings participated in a visual dialogue; thus, it is a part of a general complex design, and if viewed separately, it bears the direct textual meaning. The inscriptions are even more significant due to the fact that the words of God, which are usually spoken, appear in writing. Moreover, the text may be considered as a means to create an iconography within an aniconic religion (Dodds, 1992). These changes may have occurred as a result of the neighborhood with Christians known for their iconography, and perhaps, it was the Christian community, its culture, and strong presence that influenced such an application of the sacred text.

Al-Hakam II also took advantage of such a novelty by praising himself in the inscriptions in mihrab as a servant of God, “who [stated] to be service to his subjects” (Dodds, 1992). However, this did not raise his popularity as the existing tensions between him and the community could not be lessened by architectural solutions of the Great Mosque. To be precise, his political views and tendencies predetermined the key tensions. His course of patronage was an attempt to accumulate the power and authority and emphasize caliph’s distinction from others. However, through its numerous and sophisticated additions, the mosque revealed the social tensions of that period and populace’s dissatisfaction.


Considering the creation of a translucent monument filled with symbolism of authority and power, the Andalusian Umayyads’ heritage to the Spanish and Islamic cultural history is immense. Their legacy bears an important informative value: firstly, establishment of the architectural symbolic iconography by means of textual representation of the aniconic religion; secondly, depiction of caliphate’s authority and power over the community desires and needs.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba is a visual form of a strong presence and authority of Islam and its influence on other religious groups. Combining features from both the Umayyads’ historical past and influential present, the mosque is a sign of great desire to leave an immortal footprint of the Muslim culture in the history. The significance of the architectural wonder would never be underestimated. For more than ten centuries, it has remained a monument to caliphate’s greatness and desire to rule.

Another sign of the mosque’s significance is that owing to the combination of different religious styles, it may have caused an increase in the number of population converted to Islam. Its magnificence and impressive size could have triggered the process as well.

Without doubt, the Great Mosque of Cordoba can be claimed to be an example of how the society can be built around a monument of both cultural and religious significance. New ideas combined with desire to preserve the past forms of the mighty Umayyad dynasty and improve the present ones turned into the great sight of historical and architectural value, demonstrating new tendencies in decorating and spacing

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