The Mosque that Still Arouses Emotions
By Dr. Syed Amir
Over four decades ago, when I first visited Cordoba, General Franco was firmly in control, civil liberties were non-existent, the influence of the Catholic Church was stifling and the country was one of the poorest in Europe. The advent of democracy was still many years in the future. I was a graduate student in England and had come to spend a few weeks of summer vacation in Andalucía, allured by its famed Islamic monuments built centuries ago by Muslim/Barber conquerors. Much like many Muslims growing up in the subcontinent in those days, I was enthralled by stories of the spectacular rise and calamitous fall of the Islamic civilization in medieval Spain.
My trip was facilitated by a volunteer student work program, popular in Europe, that offered free lodging and board to university students, in exchange for light physical work, such as fruit picking, assistance in construction and agricultural projects. I signed up to work for two weeks at a road construction site at a small, scenic village, Cortes de la Frontera, in southern Andalucía, close to Gibraltar. The camp site offered a stunning view of the Rhonda mountain range. The region was one of the last to fall into Christian hands in 1485, and the village’s layout dated back to the time when it was under Muslim rule.
Our work project was sponsored by the Spanish Government and was aimed mostly at the generation of international goodwill; there were no real expectations that the project would draw significant benefit from our leisurely efforts. Our work day started in the early morning and ended a few hours later, before the hot Andalusian sun made it unpleasant to carry on.
After two weeks on the project, I decided to travel on my own in Andalucía. The closest town was Cordoba, the fabled capital of the Western Islamic Caliphate and site of the majestic mosque that had been the subject of so much historic literature and Muslim nostalgia. Cordoba was a small town when I first visited it, much smaller than it is today. It was difficult to conceive that it was once one of the most advanced metropolises in the world, rivaling Baghdad and Constantinople. In its glory days, it had numerous shops, public baths, libraries, caravansaries and miles of lighted streets.
The golden period of the Islamic Caliphate of Cordoba ended after mere one hundred years (929-1031). During its twilight years, the storied city gave birth to two most celebrated philosophers, physicians of the Middle Ages, one Muslim, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), and the other Jewish, Maimonides (Musa Ibn Maymun). Regrettably, both had to leave their homeland in the face of rising religious zealotry to settle in North Africa. The city of Cordoba only recently has recognized the stature and luminosity of these scholars and has erected statues of both to honor and commemorate their contributions.
On my first day in Cordoba, I set out to visit the mosque in the early morning. Although, unsure of its exact location, I had no difficulty in finding it, as everyone seemed to recognize the name Mezquita-Cathedral (mosque-cathedral). Then, there were only a few visitors inside, and it was possible to spend some quiet time in the serene and unhurried environment, suffused with a mysterious and unexplained glow. Unfortunately, the mosque has not escaped the effects of modern tourist traffic. Considered one of the architectural wonders of the world, it reportedly drew huge number of tourists last year.
The Cordoba mosque has a fascinating history. Its foundation was laid by the first Omayyad ruler Abdur Rahman I around 784 on the site of an old Visigoth church. It is said that the aging Emir himself drew up the plans of the mosque and worked as an ordinary laborer at the site. His ambition was to build a mosque surpassing in beauty and magnificence the Grand Mosque at Damascus, his ancestral city which he had been forced to flee. He died before he could see completion of his mosque. Later rulers, his son, Hisham I, Abdur Rahman II and III, and most importantly, al Hakem, all carried out many extensions and improvements.
At the peak of its grandeur, the mosque, according to the historian al-Maqqari, was illuminated with three hundred brass and gold chandeliers that were never switched off. The building was supported by fifteen hundred sleek, glittering columns, with three entrances exclusive to female worshipers. The courtyard now separated from the prayer halls and full of orange groves was originally intended for ablutions. Ultimately, the fate of the mosque was tied to the supremacy of the Muslim power in Cordoba. Battered and enfeebled by unending internecine conflicts and repeated Berber invasions from North Africa, Cordoba fell to the armies of Christian King Ferdinand III in 1236. The mosque was soon converted into a church.
Even after a lapse of eight centuries, the Cordoba mosque continues to evoke powerful sentiments among Muslims, as it is a living reminder of the splendor of the Islamic civilization that once flourished in the Iberian Peninsula. Famous Muslims have undertaken nostalgic trips to Spain to visit the historic sites. In 1932, Allama Iqbal visited the mosque, and reportedly sought special permission to pray there. Moved by the experience, he later wrote his memorable poem, Masgid-e-Qurtaba.
More recently, it has been embroiled in controversy, as a few visiting Muslims have attempted to covertly pray there. Although named mosque-cathedral, it is in fact a functional, consecrated cathedral, and is not recognized as a mosque by the Spanish ecclesiastical authorities. Last year, much uproar was raised when the Bishop of Cordoba, Demetrio Fernandez, published an article in a Spanish newspaper, arguing that the word mosque should be dropped from its name, since it had not been one for centuries. The present name, he contended, caused confusion
He rationalized his bid by stating that the current Omayyad mosque in Damascus was originally the Basilica of St. John, but today no one would dare to call it a church. Also, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul that served as the cathedral of the Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly a thousand years was converted into a mosque (Aya Sofya) in 1453, following conquest of the city by Sultan Mohammad, the Conqueror. However, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk in 1935 made it a museum, which it remains today.
The Bishop’s polemic was not universally accepted. The Mayor of Cordoba promptly repudiated it, emphasizing that the city had no intention of changing its present designation. Furthermore, a spokesman for local Muslim community, estimated to number 2,500, denied that they intended to seek formal permission to pray in the mosque. Such demands, they believe, would only vitiate the cordial and harmonious inter-religious relations that currently exist.