8 Wonders & Mysteries of the Great Mosque of Cordoba

By Halal Trip | 22, Jan, 2024
8 Wonders & Mysteries of the Great Mosque of Cordoba

The Great Mosque of Cordoba has been, since its construction began in 785, the most relevant building in Hispanic-Muslim art and a cultural reference in the Western world.

More than 1200 years later, it continues to stand prominently in the historic heart of Cordoba, attracting visitors from around the world.

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In 1984, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to this organization, "the Great Mosque of Cordoba represents a unique artistic achievement due to its size and the sheer boldness of the height of its ceilings. It is an irreplaceable testimony of the Caliphate of Cordoba and is the most emblematic monument of Islamic religious architecture. It was a very unusual type of mosque that bears witness to the presence of Islam in the West. The Great Mosque of Cordoba was also very influential on Western Islamic art since the 8th century, just as in the Neo-Moorish style in the 19th century. Concerning architecture, it has represented a testing ground for building techniques that have influenced both Arabic and Christian cultures alike since the 8th century."

These were the reasons that led UNESCO to include Cordoba's mosque on the World Heritage List, a declaration that was expanded to include its surrounding area in 1994.

Many scholars and experts from around the world have analyzed and directed their knowledge toward what is considered the most important Islamic monument in the West: art historians, architects, archaeologists, mathematicians, etc. But it harbors some mysteries that have not yet been clarified. The Great Mosque of Cordoba holds numerous wonders and curiosities that further enhance its value. Here are eight of the most surprising.


1. The Second Largest Mosque in the World
2ND LARGEST MOSQUE - Grand Mosque of Cordoba


This was the case when its construction was completed in 988, after successive expansions. At that time, there was only one large mosque in the world: the Masjidil Haram or Holy Mosque of Mecca. The Mosque of Cordoba covered an area of 23,400 m2 and could accommodate 40,000 people.


2. The Forest of Columns
FOREST OF COLUMNS Grand Mosque of Cordoba


The so-called "forest of columns" is the most emblematic feature of the mosque. A set of 856 columns made of marble, jasper, and granite (originally reaching 1293) support double arches with red and white stripes, resembling a forest of date palms. These double arches, a novelty in Islamic art, may have been inspired by Roman aqueducts. The columns form 11 longitudinal and 12 transverse naves.


3. Mix of Cultures, Civilizations, and Styles


In the mosque, you can see traces of Hispanic-Roman, Visigothic, Syrian, Persian, Byzantine, and Mudejar influences. Considering the area that was later built as a cathedral, there is also a succession of styles: Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. It's challenging to find such a mixture elsewhere in the world.


4. The Patio That Didn't Always Have Orange Trees

Image Credit: EYEEM on FREEPIK

The construction of the Patio de los Naranjos (orange tree courtyard) began under the rule of Abderramán I, and the original trees were olive, laurel, and cypress. It served as the place for ablutions and an outdoor portico where prayers were conducted and classes and even trials were held. The central fountain now has Baroque decoration, and the trees were replaced by a hundred orange trees.


5. A Hidden Minaret


In 929, Abderraman III declared the Caliphate to consolidate his power in the Mediterranean region and assert the independence of Al-Andalus from the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. The first intervention on the mosque during this period involved expanding the courtyard and constructing a new minaret to replace the older one. The new minaret became the tallest in the Western Islamic world, serving as the inaugural visual symbol of the Caliphate of Cordoba. The present bell tower dates back to the late 16th century and was built around the remnants of the minaret erected by Abderraman III. Some remnants are still visible inside the bell tower today.


6. A Misaligned Qibla with the Kaaba
CATHEDRAL INSIDE Grand Mosque of Cordoba


This is one of the most controversial aspects and has given rise to contradictory theories and speculations. However, it is not a unique feature of the Great Mosque of Cordoba; it happens in other ancient medieval mosques as well. In the case of the Mosque of Cordoba, various reasons have been suggested, most of which have been proven baseless. For example, there was a claim that the mosque was built on a previous Visigothic church (itself constructed on a Roman temple) and retained its orientation, which led to the misalignment of the Qibla. However, recent archaeological work has disproven the existence of this church at the location.

The most plausible explanation is this: Muslims from Iraq, Syria, and Iran were not familiar with mathematical geography (latitude and longitude), mathematical methods (trigonometry formulas), and mathematical astronomy until the 9th century (a century after the construction of the mosque of Cordoba began). Before that date, sacred geography used segments of the Kaaba's perimeter to associate them with their corresponding sectors of the surrounding world. But this method of calculation could lead to errors, especially in more distant places. From recently analyzed medieval Arabic texts, it is concluded that when astronomers alerted Caliph Al-Hakam II (961–976) that the qibla's orientation was incorrect, he consulted the ulema, who advised him to maintain the original qibla, to follow tradition, and to avoid innovation.


7. A Cathedral Inside a Mosque
Cathedral Inside Grand Mosque of Cordoba

Image Credit: vichie81 on FREEPIK

Many cathedrals in Spanish cities that were once important cities in Al Andalus are built on what were once their main mosques. This is the case, for example, with the cathedrals of Seville, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, and more. The case of the Cathedral of Córdoba is different because it was not built "on top of" the old mosque but inside it (altering the fabulous original perspective). However, the Renaissance cross-shaped church that can be seen today within the mosque was not built until 1523. Since 1238, when Christians conquered Cordoba and consecrated the mosque as a cathedral, they have continued to use the original structure with few changes.


8. The Emperor's Lament
Grand Mosque of Cordoba


When Christian kings settled in Cordoba, they were amazed by the Great Mosque. Contrary to the opinion of bishops and priests, they insisted on preserving its architectural beauty. However, that desire was not always respected. The famous phrase exclaimed by Emperor Charles V in the 16th century when he saw the transformation of some areas is well known: "You have destroyed what was unique in the world, and you have put in its place what can be seen everywhere."

Despite that initial displeasure, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is now one of the artistic gems of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

You can find more information about other essential attractions in Cordoba in the guide "Andalusia for Muslim Travelers", published by Turespaña, the Spain Tourism Board.

By Noor González

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