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A pearl in the ornament of the world: The Mezquita in Cordoba

by Silke Elzner

There are not many things in the world that have such a lasting impact on me that I cannot help but return one day to see them again. The Mezquita in Cordoba, core of the UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘The Historic Centre of Cordoba’, is indeed such a place. Words cannot describe the beauty of the structure, the impressions that you find yourself confronted with while you wander the sacred halls.

This is truly a unique and outstanding achievement of the human race. A masterpiece so accomplished, so advanced for its time, that even a nun in far away Germany stated around 1,000 AD that it is an “Ornament of the World”.
The Mezquita in Cordoba is richly decorated in Muslim-Christian styles

My return to a place forever engraved on my memory

After 15 years of dreaming of my return I was lucky to re-visit this marvellous structure in the centre of one of my most favourite cities in Spain.

It took me two attempts to get in though; as I learned the hard way, May is not a good time to visit Cordoba. During this month the city is brimming with activity during a string of events that combined attract thousands of tourists each year.

So I declared defeat and returned in early June, equipped with my camera and the wisdom of a middle-aged woman as opposed to my younger self that I was when I first visited a decade and a half ago.
Typical view inside the building

A lasting symbol for the mixed cultural heritage of Spain

If there are just one or two buildings you would like to see in Andalusia, do yourself a favour and put the Mezquita in Cordoba on top of your list. It really is one of those experiences that you will never forget.

The Mezquita is not just overwhelming in scale and proportions. It is also richly decorated in a curious mix of styles, a feast for the eyes. It is a symbol for the co-existence of cultures over centuries here in the south of Spain.

To top it off, it is also a bit of a Kinder Surprise Egg which comes with not just one astonishing building but two, sort of like a two-figure mamushka where it’s hard to decide which of the two parts comes off prettier.

Cordoba, the centre of the western Islamic world

To understand the symbolic importance of the Mezquita in Cordoba one must go back to understanding the history of the city as a whole.

For many hundreds of years Cordoba was the capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba which encompassed a huge part of the Iberian peninsula. In terms of scale, the modern city today has a population of around 300,000 inhabitants. During the peak of Muslim rule you could easily double that number, maybe even triple. Cordoba around the turn of the millennium was indeed one of the greatest cities in the world.

While London and Paris were mere villages with muddy roads and smelly peasants roaming the streets, the light and influence of Cordoba stood strong. It was a centre for medicine and education. Three religions lived here together in a climate of strained tolerance. Jews and Christians may have been second-class citizens of Cordoba but at least the Moorish rulers did not expell or exploit them as it was the fashion in many other communities around the world.

It is in this political climate and with this cultural background that the mezquita’s foundations were laid. It now stands on a site that has a long history of religious and cultural significance, having been used by the Visigoths as a place of worship for many centuries prior. When the first stone was put down and building works began in 784 AD, this was still a shared ground where Christians and Muslims would both pray side by side. To the dismay of Muslims today, the same level of tolerance is no longer offered.
Domed ceiling with gold, black and green hues

A walk in a forest of ancient columns

I entered the building from the pretty Court of Oranges and worked my way around the wondrous halls. I did this anti-clockwise as was suggested in one of my guidebooks. This way I could experience the history of the building a little bit better, as I could explore the different sections of the mosque according to their age. There are four building stages that you can discover as you walk around the huge hall. Each is unique and following the different tastes of the ruling classes who built it.

Most noteworthy and also a symbol of the mosque are of course the 856 columns that are finished with horse-shoe shaped arches with red and white stripes. Older arch sets were made of different coloured stones, but younger versions are just painted in different colours, almost like a cheaper knock-off. The stripes followed a similar pattern that could also be found in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It does seem more poetic, however, to compare the appearance to the palm groves of Syria, as one historic observer once put it.

The columns are amongst the oldest elements of the Mezquita. They are Roman, collected from ancient sites all around the Iberian peninsula and sent to the builders in Cordoba as tributes, gifts or contributions to the construction. Their diversity and range of colours that stem from the different materials used, such as onyx, marble and granite, add an unexpected playfulness to the otherwise sublime atmosphere.

Yet at the same time they divide the space in pleasing and orderly lines, leading the eyes into different directions, adding comfort to the overwhelming scale of the building, and restoring a sense of orientation in the visitor.

The immense importance of the building during the time of its first inception becomes clear not just in the grand scale of the proportions. Also the materials used for building and decoration were precious and carefully selected. Everywhere I could see gold and ivory, silver and copper. One of the most charming parts of the mosque, the gilded arch of the Mihrab door, is probably one of the most beautiful things I have every seen in my life.
The columns were presents from the provinces on the Iberian peninsula

The repurpose of the Mezquita after the fall of the Caliphate

Muslim rule in Cordoba ended in 1236 when the Reconquista also reached this part of the country. Ferdinand III of Castile was now the new owner of this building that for four centuries had been a prayer hall, a school and a court house. He swiftly reconsecrated the building to a Catholic Church. Soon after, noble families from the area started the process of converting the building into a Christian monument. Luckily for us, this change happened not as dramatically as it could have. Even today, many original elements are still intact.

Having said that, there are numerous Christian elements in this building. All of them are no less compelling than the Muslim parts of the Mezquita. Richly decorated family chapels run along the perimeters of the hall, each one of them a masterpiece in their own right. The Royal Chapel is probably the most impressive of them all. Unfortunately, it is closed off from the public, and only the large gaps in the upper parts of the walls enclosing the chapel are hinting at the Mudejar style splendour that it hidden inside this section of the Mezquita.

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A curiosity: The church within the mosque

The most curious feature of the building, however, is the Renaissance cathedral that has been planted right in the centre of the building. King Charles V commissioned the build, who, you may be surprised, was dismayed by the result. As beautiful and stunning as this church may be, Charles V rightfully commented that something as unique as the Mezquita had now been put down by something as ordinary as this church.

And I agree, in parts. While on the one hand I was stunned by the beauty of the Cathedral inside the mosque I was at the same time confused by the lack of sensitivity for the uniqueness of a construction that was once considered one of the most important Moorish buildings in the Western Islamic World.

On the other hand, the addition of a Christian building inside this Muslim shell adds another layer to the magic of this place.

Charles V who ordered the construction of the cathedral was displeased with the result

A symbol and a metaphor for humankind

The Mezquita as it stands today, the Moorish base with the Catholic patchwork of little chapels and the huge cathedral in its centre, is indeed a symbol for the history of Southern Spain. And yet it is more.

It is a metaphor for humankind. The fickle nature of human civilisation, the incredible heights of human achievement, and the universal appreciation of beauty and the love for a shared God all come together in this one singular place.

Need to know

At time of writing, general entry tickets to Mezquita cost EUR 10,00 per adult, children under 10 years are free, until 14 years half price. Guided tours in a group start at EUR 40,00 per person. Note that opening times on Sundays are limited, check before you travel. You will get your ticket at the box office until 30 minutes before closing time. Free entry from 8.30am to 9.30am.

The Mezquita in Cordoba is indeed on of my most favourite places in all of Spain – check out my Andalusia Travel Guide for more ideas on what to see in the region. I will let the pictures now speak for themselves.

Read also: Tips and Ideas for Visiting the South of Spain

The striped columns are said to replicate the palm trees of SyriaGold is one of the major means of ornamentNoteworthy richly decorated ceilingThe elegant curves and shapes within the MezquitaNear the Mihrab doorOne of many altars and shrines in the mosqueThe Royal Chapel can no longer be visitedThe Renaissance Cathedral inside the MosqueRenaissance church inside the Mezquita in CordobaThe Mesquite was world-renown even in the Middle Ages