Exploring Cordoba’s Mezquita: the Mosque that Became a Cathedral

The cavernous space of La Mezquita in Cordoba makes me think of Russian dolls. Standing right in the middle of the 8th century mosque is a perfectly formed Renaissance cathedral. What is more, the mosque grew out of an earlier Visigoth church, which was itself built on the remains of a Roman temple.

Arches of Seville's La Mezquita

The vast spaces of La Mezquita

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The combination of Moorish and Renaissance styles creates a unique work of architecture
  • The whole of Cordoba’s historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Good for: anyone who enjoys history or architecture.

History of La Mezquita

Side chapel

Chapels have been built into the old arches

In an early example of religious tolerance, the Visigoth church of San Vicente was originally shared equally by Moors and Christians. A new mosque was later built on the site, but it bounced back into Christian ownership in the 13th century. The story goes that King Carlos V gave permission for the building of a new Catholic cathedral on the site in 1523, only to express horror at the final result, saying that the architects had “destroyed what was unique in the world.” However, that act of destruction itself created something unique. Even by the standards of southern Spain, where Moorish and European styles so often co-exist, La Mezquita is extraordinary.

Architecture

La Mezquita's Cathedral

The cathedral sits at the centre of the old mosque

The interior is a photographer’s dream: long lines of red and white stone arches stretching into the distance; spaces so vast that it feels empty despite the tour groups. I try to imagine what it must have been like in the early days, packed with thousands of Muslim worshippers. La Mezquita is so huge that it would almost be possible to overlook the cathedral that rises majestically from the centre.

Contrasting architectural styles

A renaissance arch sits above a Moorish one

What makes it unique is not only the intersection of the two traditions, but their interaction. The prayer wall of the mosque still stands, leaving the perpetual mystery of why it faces south, rather than southeast towards Mecca. Christian side chapels have been built in the arched recesses of the mosque walls. My eye is caught by a place where a Renaissance arch rises immediately above a Moorish one, creating a strange but oddly pleasing juxtaposition of styles. Elsewhere, shafts of coloured light from the cathedral’s stained glass illuminate a gloomy stone corner of the old mosque.

Leaving La Mezquita, I walk through the Patio de los Naranjos, the courtyard of the original mosque. Today it is full of people eating their lunchtime sandwiches and enjoying the spring sunshine. For me, it is time to explore the historic streets beyond, where the Moorish and Spanish influences are evident in a different way: the variety of places to shop and eat.

Practicalities

  • You may wish to stay overnight in Cordoba to explore the historic centre in more depth. Alternatively, it is easy to take a day trip by train from Seville (journey time is around an hour in each direction)
  • There is a charge for entrance to La Mezquita. It is also possible to pre-book a night-time tour.

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