Islamic Influence in Spain

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Part 1 – The Great Mosque of Córdoba.

by John

Tariq surveyed the bleak landscape from his ship as he approached the shore. He was surrounded by a Muslim army, which had swept across North Africa, conquering all before it. Now he was crossing the Straits of Gibraltar. Little did he know, but he was the start of a movement that would dominate Spain for the next seven centuries and change its architecture, people and language forever.

A painting of Tariq, sword about to be drawn.

Tariq: the general who lead the Muslim armies into Spain.

The Arabic/Islamic influence in Andalucía is undisputed and unavoidable and indeed is one of the main draws for tourists. The very name comes from the Arabic “al-Andalus” and there can be little doubting the origin of the name Algeciras.

A Little History

After the death of Muhammad, the Muslim armies, under the rule of the Rashidoun, drove the Sassawd Persians out of Mesopotamia and then conquered the Byzantine provinces before sweeping on through North Africa.

In 711, a Muslim army landed at Algeciras under the Muslim general Tariq who, according to one historian, burned his ships behind him, stating:

Oh my warriors, whither would you flee? Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy. You have left now only the hope of your courage and your constancy.

The Visigoth king of “Corduba”, Rodrigo, sent forces to Cádiz but they were routed by the Muslims and Tariq occupied Córdoba shortly afterwards.

Capital of al-Andalus.

Five years later, Córdoba, or “Qurtuba”, became capital of al-Andalus. In 755, Abd ar-Rahman, supposedly the only survivor of the Umayyid dynasty after their defeat by the Abbasids, arrived in Córdoba after fleeing Damascus, united the various discontented factions and defeated the Abbasid governor, who was weakened from 15 years of civil wars. He then proclaimed himself “Emir of al-Andalus”. As well as gaining control of all but the north of Spain, he started the building of the “Mezquita” – the Grand Mosque.

The Córdoban Emirate

The Córdoban Emirate declared itself independent of the Caliphate of Baghdad (to where power transferred from Damascus following the Abbasids victory over the Umayyads) and began to rival it in culture and power. Successive Emirs completed and extended the mosque, increased agricultural production by installing irrigation and promoted culture and learning.

The Height of Islamic Power

The zenith of Islamic power was reached under ar-Rahman III. This very self confident gentleman declared himself Caliph, meaning “supreme leader of Islam” thus not just declaring independence from Baghdad but challenging its supremacy.

Under his rule, Córdoba became the largest, richest and most culturally advanced city in Europe and yet he decided that he needed a new and finer city to rule from and so built Medina Azahara 8 km west of Córdoba.

The Great Mosque

From the outside the building looks more like a fort than a religious building. It’s Islamic origins are obvious in the design of the arches and the decoration around the many doors. When it was in use as a Mosque, all these doors would have been open and the building would have been light and airy.

The walls of the great mosque: seemingly built more for protection than for decoration

Forbidding walls line the exterior.

You enter the Mosque via “el Patio de los Naranjos” – the patio of the orange trees. Originally this was the place for ritual cleansing prior to praying in the Mosque. The “Moors” planted it with palm trees to provide shade but these were replaced with orange trees by the Christians. (Ironically, naranjo is a word of Arabic origin).

The patio still has an ambiance of peace and restfulness, in spite of the fact that there were a very large number of tourists sitting and standing around and the fact it is not crowded is a testament to the vast amount of space within it.

It is dominated by the tower, which was built over the minaret of Abd-ar-Rahman III and which is crowned by a sculpture of St. Raphael, the patron saint of Córdoba.

A tower juts into the blue Spanish sky.

The tower built over Rahman’s minaret.

Inside the Mosque

The first thing that strikes you when you enter the Mosque is the huge number of red and white striped arches and their supporting columns. These have been variously described as seeming like a continuation of the orange trees in the patio or as palm trees in the desert. Practically, they were needed to support the roof.

The red and white arches that support the roof.

The interior of the mosque: lined by red and white arches

The columns came from a variety of sources, many from Roman buildings in Córdoba but also from existing Visigoth and other buildings, which accounts for their different colours and materials. To gain further height, the famous red and white striped arches were built on top of the pillars, the effect being achieved by alternating brick and stone: a new and unique feature of the time.

The Maksura

The maksura was the space reserved for the Caliph, his family and senior members of court to pray. It contains the mihrab, which ind
icates the direction in which the faithful should face to pray.It also served to amplify the voice of the prayer leader. As might be expected, this is the most beautifully decorated part of the building. There are three bays, each with a dome with skylights, making it bright and emphasising the floral motive mosaics and the inscriptions from the Qur’an in gold, purple, green , blue and red.

An Anomaly Within an Enigma

The building is often described nowadays as the Mosque-Cathedral, for the simple reason that the Catholic hierarchy could not resist stamping their authority on the building after the reconquista and not only built a cathedral in the middle of the Mosque but covered the outside walls with dozens of chapels.

Cathedral interior, with a huge wall decorated with Christian paintings.

The interior of the Cathedral.

I have no intention of getting involved in religious arguments here but I can say that architecturally and aesthetically it is absolutely wrong. It also changes the atmosphere of the building from the original light and airy one to a gloomy half light.

The scale is also wrong, the “cathedral” part is much higher than the Mosque and looks even more out of place outside than it does inside. The lavish Catholic adornments clash with the subtle restraint of the Mosque. Entering the Cathedral part is like going through a space warp as there is an abrupt change of style, design and atmosphere.

Even Kings Get It Wrong

As stated, the Catholic Church was itching to “convert” the Mosque into a Cathedral and eventually, 3 centuries after the Christian take over, King Carlos V gave permission for the construction to take place, much against the will of the town council.

However, when he saw the results, he realised his error and said:

“I didn’t know that it was like this or I would not have permitted this. You have built what you and others might have built anywhere but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.”

Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of this in the leaflet produced by the diocese – in fact, their leaflet is a blatant piece of propaganda. Their leaflet talks about “an ingenious integration,” but to me it is an idiosyncratic intrusion.

The Cathedral

The great mosque/cathedral as viewed from across river.

The Mosque/Cathedral at Cordoba

In spite of it being in the wrong place, the Cathedral has its own merits.

Both the main alter and those of the side chapels are, to my taste at least, over adorned and garish but the carving on the choir stalls is undoubtedly a work of art, if surprisingly dark and gloomy, although the main part is much lighter and brighter than the surrounding mosque has been made by it and by the chapels. The masonry and stone carving is also impressive.

A Place of Pilgrimage and Learning

Under the rule of Abd ar-Rahman III, Córdoba became a place of pilgrimage for Muslims as well as a centre of learning and culture with a University, famous for its library. It was an open society with Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars welcomed.

At this time, Islamic culture, learning and medical knowledge were vastly superior to that of the Christian’s but they were also open to other cultures and ideas. Indeed, the subsequent withdrawal of Islam and the Arab nations and their cultural stagnation over a long period has been blamed on the crusades called for by Pope Urban II.

Visiting Córdoba

I found Córdoba a warm (at times literally) and friendly place to visit. (It’s a good idea to avoid summer if planning a trip as temperatures are not that much lower than Doha’s, often in excess of 40 degrees celsius.)

Although the Mosque is perhaps the main target for visitors, there is much more to see. It is famous for its Festival of Patios in May, when some of the Islamic inspired patios, covered in flowers, are open to the public. Leaflets giving three different routes to follow are available. Many of the “hostales” and hotels have their own patios, some very beautiful. Most of the hostales are modernised, clean and comfortable and quite reasonably priced.

There are also the impressive excavations of the site of Medina Azahara, the largest in Europe and the subject of another article on Islamic Influence in Andalucía.

A Roman bridge marches across the river perched on solid brick columms.

The Roman Road

Before the Muslims arrived Córdoba was Roman and then Visigoth. The pillars of a Roman temple remain, and the site of the Mosque was originally a Visigoth temple. City walls also remain, some Roman, some Muslim, some reconstructed.

The old part of the city is very attractive and there is an interesting “Juderia” showing that that religion was present too before they were driven out or forced to convert by Fernando, Isabel and the Inquisition, the crown seizing all unsold Jewish property.

Many activities and cultural events take place throughout the year and a good jazz cafe (jam sessions on Tuesdays, concerts on Wednesdays and Thursdays). Cordoba is a surprisingly green city and you can walk all the way from the railway station to the Mosque area through a park. The greenness of the surrounding countryside shows that the area has retained or restored much of the fertile agricultural land that first made the area the place of choice for the various civilisations that settled there.

A multitude of eateries add to the attraction of the area. Generally speaking, the further from the Mosque, the cheaper and in some cases better, but there did not seem to be a huge difference in price. Other areas are well worth exploring, though, and just walk around this city is like walking though history.

Part II – Madinat Al-Zahra – The “Shining City”.

Also see Islamic Influence in Andalucia: Part 1

by John Dunworth

Abd ar-Rhaman III surveyed the rich, fertile land of the Guadalquivir valley. He had just left the Great Mosque founded by his ancestor, Abd ar-Rahman I, having given thanks to God for blessing him and his subjects with this land and what they had achieved here. Here, they had founded the Mosque, which he was even now extending further, they had established the University – a seat of great learning – and built beautiful houses and palaces with shady patios against the summer heat.

Even so, he was not satisfied. This is a great city, he thought, and it suited my ancestors well as Emirs of al-Andalus but now I have made myself Caliph of all Islam I need something finer still. As he gazed across the valley, his eyes strayed to the hills opposite. There would be the place, in the foothills, protected from the north by the hills and giving fine views over the river and valley back towards Córdoba, which would give an early warning of any enemy attack.

The sky shines
 above the remains of the shining city.

Image by FR Antunes

The founding of Madinat al-Zahra.

So it was, in 936, that construction started in the foothills of the Sierra Morena, from which the stone was also extracted. Roads were built to carry the stone from the quarries and to connect the new city to Cordoba. Aquaducts to supply fresh water from springs in the hills and bridges to cross the rivers were constructed. With a recorded 10,000 labourers working on the project, the Caliph and his retinue were able to move there in 946, although construction continued for a further fifteen years until the death of Abd ar-Rahman III.

Madinat al-Zahra was a magnificent city. In addition to the local stone, marble was brought in from Almeria, as well as ivory, ebony and metals, including iron, gold and silver. The best architects were brought from Bagdad and Constantinople. The columns and red and white striped arches echoed the Grand Mosque of Cordoba. There were gardens and fish ponds, areas to hold court and accommodation for guards, court officials and ministers, as well as the Caliph’s palace.

Use was made of the natural slope of the foothills, which was terraced into three levels so that the Alcazar, containing the Royal suite, was built at the highest level, then the areas for holding court and government, at the middle level, the gardens and fish ponds, which can be seen towards the top right of the picture, taken from the upper level. The lowest level held the Mosque. This extensive excavation is one of the most important mediaeval archaeological sites in Europe and one of the largest although only about ten per cent of the total site has so far been uncovered.

The Upper Area – The Alcázar.

Islam in Spain.

Here was the Palace of the Caliph, with the rooms arranged around courtyards. To one side was the guardhouse, from where the soldiers could protect the Caliph and control access to the private rooms. Nearby was the residence of a high ranking official, the “House of Ya’far”. This is relatively well preserved and it can be seen that it was divided into private, service and official areas. To the left of the area shown in the foreground of the picture (the east, geographically) were the servants quarters and kitchen with a preserved oven.

Further east, was the entrance to the Alcázar, a row of arches which gave onto the parade ground. From a balcony, the Caliph could watch his troops parade below or carry out formal ceremonies.

The Central level – the Salón Califal and Gardens.

Throne room

The Salón de Abd ar-Rahman III is one of the most impressive buildings on the site, albeit much restored. This was the Throne Room of the Caliph, and where he would have carried out the affairs of state. The decorations here were lavish to impress the visitors. Only the finest materials were used in its construction and here again were the marble pillars, the characteristic horseshoe shaped arches, the walls covered with stone carved with Islamic designs. (When the other materials were robbed from the site, the thieves obviously had no use for this decoration, for tons of these facing blocks can be find all round the site, as well as in the site Museum.) In the centre of the hall stood a huge bowl of mercury, which, when rocked by a slave, would send reflections flashing around the walls and arches (obviously no H&S officials there then!) This magnificent hall opened up onto the gardens, arranged in the form of a cross. In the centre was another building, described as a pavilion, and around this were the four ponds.

The Lower Level – The Mezquita Aljama.

This was located on the lowest level and was outside the city walls. The Caliph had his own private, covered passageway to access it from within the walls. Its design echoed that of the Great Mosque of Córdoba, complete with red and white striped arches, although unlike its “big sister” it faced Mecca. Sadly, all that remains are the foundations and the lower part of the outer walls, the rest having been stolen to construct other buildings, including the nearby monastery.

Construction on the cheap!

This was the fate of all of Madinat al-Zahra. Its glory was short-lived. The destruction started in 1010 when the berber troops of Sulayman al-Mustain attacked and burnt the city. From then on, it was a ready source of building materials for anyone and everyone and the columns and ashlars were spread far and wide, used in the construction of churches and palaces. This sorry state of affairs was finally put to an end in 1911 when excavation of the site was begun. This still carries on now and there is a vast amount still to do.

Visits to the site

A visit is very much recommended if you are in the area. There are buses to the site from the centre of Córdoba which you book at the tourist information. The visitor centre is excellent and equipped with a cinema and museum. The cinema shows a half hour film in which virtual reality is used to show how the city would have looked. You see the site as it is today and then the walls are extended upwards to show how the building would have looked, even populated with soldiers and other people.

In the excellent museum are some of the better examples of the bas relief decoration and in here is the connection to Doha. A bronze deer is exhibited here – and its twin is in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.

I remembered seeing this in Doha and asked the curator how that had come about. He was very interested to hear I had seen it in Doha but could not tell me how it had come to be there.

Incidentally the visitor centre won the Aga Khan prize for architecture and was opened by the King and Queen of Spain. It is half buried and so does not intrude on the site.

The “Shining City” may not be gleaming any more, but you can still get an idea of how magnificent it once was and some idea of the artistry of the Islamic craftsmen.

The Islamic Museum in Doha

John found a surprising connection with another Islamic building – the Museum Islamic Arts in Qatar. Image by Ammar.


Cordoba attractions map

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