By Robin Graham
It’s as well to know what it is you’re walking into.
You certainly wouldn’t want to rely on the leaflet you pick up at the door – a propaganda-style apologetic courtesy of the Catholic Church. You shove it, crumpled, into a pocket and step into the oldest part.
784 A.D., the one hundred and sixty eighth year of Islam. The last Umayyad, a fugitive prince, has taken the city. A church stands here, where he will build his mosque. There will be outcry – desecration and so on, but it’s all a little rich. He pays a good price and the church takes the money. Besides, they themselves had built on a sacred Roman site.
As your eyes adjust to the dim light there’s no wow moment. No spectacle. This space is more seductive than that, slower moving. Barber shop colours on the double arches overhead stretch away into the darkness, holding up the high ceiling. You can’t make out the other end of the place as you start out towards it.
The year 822. His son succeeds him and extends to accommodate the city’s exploding population. The forest of columns and arches spreads backwards, a holy grove of ossified palms. Red, onyx, white, jasper. Geometry is preserved.
As you move away from the entrance the light grows dimmer. The numerous great doors are kept closed these days but would have been open, allowing the light into this sacred but also judicial and educational place from every direction. This isn’t the effete Alhambra, no pleasure palace. It was the engine room of a great power, a living monument to empire and faith.You near the qibla (direction that should be faced when a Muslim prays) wall.
962 A.D., the second caliph (administrator), son of the great Abd Al Rahman III who made Cordoba the contested capital of Islam, builds his bit. He installs an ornate mihrab on the qibla wall, the prayer niche that in a mosque should face towards Mecca but that here betrays Ummayad regret for their beloved Syria. It faces in the direction that Mecca would be if the mosque were in their homeland.
You stand in front of the niche, gaping at the exquisite decoration. There would have been a royal enclosure here – a troublesome addition in an otherwise egalitarian space. Wonderful yes, but the beginnings also of a decadence that would distance ruler from citizen in Al Andalus. An early signal of the caliphate’s decline. To your left is everything that Almanzor, the scheming vizier who presided over the caliphate’s destruction, built. And in the middle of it all, the great anomaly.
1526. Spain is Christian. Charles V has come to inspect the cathedral nave whose construction he has signed off on. It is situated right in the middle of the mosque and completely disrupts the buildings geometries and proportions. He is responsible for it, and he is appalled.
“You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.”
Making your way towards the tourist exit you probably pass the spot, or perhaps it was nearer the mihrab, where in the year 2010 a couple of security guards were seriously injured. They had spotted some Muslims attempting to pray in this, one of the great mosques, and had attempted to stop them. The Vatican still denies a petition by Spain’s Islamic Council to allow people to pray there.
It’s an interesting place.
Robin Graham is based in Tarifa, Spain. See more of his work at www.alotofwind.com.