I couldn’t help but think about what George Orwell and Winston Churchill said about history as I visited the Mezquita, the mosque-cathedral and major attraction in Córdoba. Orwell famously wrote, “Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past.” His words correlate to the oft-quoted words of Churchill, who said that “History is written by the victors.” The message we learn from Orwell and Churchill is that history can be a function of power, and the Mezquita demonstrates this wonderfully.
Built in the eighth century, Córdoba’s Mezquita is known for being one the the largest (former) mosques in the world, and among the best specimens of medieval Islamic architecture. The building’s official name today is the “Holy Church Cathedral of Córdoba” (Santa Iglesia Catedral de Córdoba), and it continues to operate as a Catholic church which it became in the thirteenth century following the reconquista of the city. What’s remarkable about the Mezquita is that visitors can see layers of cultural influence in the architecture.
The original mosque portion of the building is a spellbinding maze, where horseshoe arches and columns seemingly cascade into infinity. The atmosphere is mysterious, somber, and, despite its impressive size, strangely unimposing. Pay attention to the columns and their capitals and you will see that 1) they are Greco-Roman in design, and 2) they are of different materials, shapes, sizes, and colors. The columns and capitals are spolia, architectural elements taken from old buildings and reused in new ones. In this case, the Muslim builders of the mosque took advantage of the abundance of Roman ruins in Córdoba (Córdoba was the capital of Hispania Baetica).
Elsewhere, finely crafted sebka – polylobed and interlacing arches – decorate the mosque. The sebka is best near the mihrab, a small room in mosques that indicates the direction in which Muslims must pray.
Following the reconquista of Cordoba, however, the Catholics imposed a distinctly Gothic order on top of the Islamic design. Most Gothic cathedrals are in the shape of a cross. In the image above, taken from wikimedia commons, you can see the cruciform design on the cathedral in the middle of the mosque. Of course, with the cruciform shape come pointed arches, flying buttresses, and stained glass windows, normal trappings of the worthiest of Gothic cathedrals.
Inside, the Catholics continued their architectural revisions. Atop the horseshoe arches are Gothic pointed arches that lead to the ribbed vaulting of the Cathedral’s nave. The central nave soars as natural light floods its ornate decorations. The Cathedral’s romanesque dome crowns proudly.
If the symbolism of the Gothic cathedral’s cruciform shape wasn’t noticed, the use of Catholic icons and crucifixes will grab your attention. There is a strange juxtaposition here, a strange expression of power; instead of demolishing the old structure and starting anew, the Catholics kept most of the old mosque in tact, only updating it with features essential to any Gothic cathedral. A colleague of mine humorously likened this practice to dogs marking the same territory.
Territorialism continues. A few years back, over one hundred Muslim tourists visited the mosque-cathedral; eight threw down their prayer mats, during Semana Santa no less (link and link), and began to pray. Islamic prayers are officially banned in the mosque-cathedral. Naturally, a scuffle ensued between the tourists and the security guards, and the Muslims were ejected from the building and arrested. From the Muslims’ point of view, there is nostalgia for the lost city of Córdoba, and they should be able to pray in a building originally constructed as a mosque.
The Catholics, on the other hand, have a relatively new response to the argument to “retake” Andalusia and Córdoba; archaeological research from the 1930s revealed that a basilica was erected on the site of the mosque around the year 550, before the Moorish invasions of the Iberian Peninsula. Citing mosaics found under the floor of the mosque-cathedral, the argument is that the site has Christian origins, not Islamic. While I am not qualified to doubt the legitimacy of this new information, it is clear to me that this new history has now taken on an ideological function to support the Catholic Church’s claim to the site. One can only wonder if this archaeological research would have the same effect under a different power structure.
The eight Muslim tourists were recently acquitted, but the ban against Muslim prayers in the cathedral remains. But in the context of Cordoba, the west continues to see Muslims suspiciously, especially since the 2004 call by Osama Bin Laden for Muslims to take back Andalucía from the Catholics. And some cite Islamic organizations like the Cordoba Initiative as justifications for their suspicions.
As Foucault reminds us, because expressions and relations of power are everywhere, even cultural artifacts are not immune to power. More importantly, as the new information regarding the basilica demonstrates, power is often related to and reinforced by knowledge. The mosque-cathedral is an excellent example of how power operates, and is perfect in revealing the many layers of cultural influence in Spain’s south.
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