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Art Through Time: A Global View

Cosmology and Belief Art: La Mezquita (Great Mosque) (interior)

» Unknown architect(s) (possibly Syrian), Andalucía (Islamic Spain)
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
Period: 500 CE – 1000 CE
Material: Stone, brick, marble, porphyry, jasper, and other materials
Medium: Architecture and Planning
Dimensions: (Columns) H: approx. 13 ft. (3.96 m.) (each)
Location: Córdoba, Spain
Credit: © Pawel Wysocki/Hemis/CORBIS

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.

Expert Perspective:
Kishwar Rizvi, Assistant Professor of Islamic Art, Yale University

“There is a passage in the Qur’an in which God says to the believers that let me show you my signs. And the signs in the material world are considered to be signs of God. And objects of beauty that are created in the religious context of Islam whether it’s architecture, whether it’s calligraphy, whether it’s illumination of pages of the Qur’an hold beauty because they are considered to be signs of God, that anything that is beautiful cannot be beautiful without that signature that connects it to the esoteric, to the spiritual world of Muslims.

There is no formal liturgy in Islam. And the belief is that all Muslims belong to a community of equals. There is no hierarchy, there is no person per se who defines or interprets the religion. And so anybody has access to the greatest mosque in the world and to the most humble space. There is just one requirement for a mosque, which is that it should give you the direction to the Ka’ba in Mecca. That’s the only requirement. And beyond that there really isn’t any prerequisite. Everything else that is added to the mosque—and, of course, we see the most elaborate ones all over the world as well, from Grenada to Egypt to Indonesia even now—but all those other extras really are additional aspects of the religion and that, again, speak to humanity and humanity’s need at a certain moment in time. A mosque really is a place of meeting. It’s a place not just to celebrate your devotion, but also to come together as a community, and I think that’s what really, really brings them together and that’s what really makes them special. And that they are open. And historically mosques, always and even today, historically mosques and shrines have been places of asylum. And I think that’s what’s most compelling about them is it’s not just the space itself, but what it represents to so many people—that it’s a place of safety and a place also of devotion.

I think if there was a mosque that I think really defines the religion, it would be the great mosque in Spain, for a number of reasons. Not only because it’s one of the earliest mosques in Islam, not only because now it’s become a church, that it’s converted, it’s changed, it has this amazing flexibility in it. When you look at this great mosque, what you see are these pillars and there are pillars and pillars and pillars that seem to go on to infinity. And they stand like individuals. There is no hierarchy in them. They stand there as individual devotees, as each person who could stand there as equals. And that mosque has always represented to me, the interior of that mosque, the essential aspect of Islam that is about a community of a gathering, and a gathering in this case of pillars, but that gathering can represent the community of Islam, of people praying together.”

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.

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