Granada’s Alhambra and Córdoba’s Mezquita were leading contenders for my most anticipated experience in Spain. The Alhambra, the fortress and palace of the last Moorish emirate in Spain, is the Numero Uno tourist attraction in España. La Mezquita, a cathedral built over a mosque, is a close second.
You know about my experience with the crowds at the Alhambra (Tales of the Alhambra). I was a tired and cranky person by the time we descended the hill. So I entered La Mezquita warily. I have to say the minaret at the entrance to the outer courtyard was not very promising. It had been enclosed in a chunky cathedral bell tower. Then we entered the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Oranges). Okay, a bunch of orange trees with a fountain in the center. It was only through the self-guided audio tour that I was reminded that what appears as an ordinary fountain in a cathedral courtyard was originally the requisite means of ablution for those about to enter the mosque for prayers.
But when I stepped into the mosque/cathedral and took in the rows upon rows upon rows of Moorish arches, I was blown away. My source of awe at stepping into La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona (Holy Cathedral!) was the uncharacteristic (for a cathedral) Modernisme architecture. The source at La Mezquita was the achingly gorgeous ancient Moorish architecture. Two artistic styles, lightyears apart, and both made me swoon. In one geometrically perfect spot I could see an infinity of arches extending into the darkness in front of me, and an infinity of columns disappearing to my right. I didn’t want to move.
But I had to explore this incredible space. I wandered for a half hour, and all I saw was mosque – endless rows of columns and arches like the olive trees planted on the hillsides of Andalucía. At one time this mosque held 9500 worshippers.
As I spiraled my way in toward the center of this open space, I was shocked to come across a solid marble wall – the cathedral, built smack-dab in the middle of the mosque. After the Reyes Católicos (Catholic monarchy) kicked the Moors out of Spain, the mosque was converted into a cathedral. To their credit, they didn’t tear down the mosque and rebuild on its foundation, but this obstruction in the center of that seemingly endless space is an architectural travesty! It left me deeply unsettled.
I remembered James Michener had written about his visit to La Mezquita in his book Iberia, which was so instrumental to my trip to Spain. Seeking consolation, I turned to his words. He had more knowledge of and appreciation for art and architecture than I will ever have. Like me he was totally blown away by the vastness of the mosque and the beauty of the architecture and was completely surprised by “running into” a full-sized cathedral in the middle of it all. As he pointed out, building a cathedral over – or even inside – a mosque was commonplace back in the day. The Visigoths built over Roman temples, the Moors built over Visigoth churches and the Christians built over mosques. It’s the natural progression of history. That the Christian monarchs left so much of the mosque intact indicated their appreciation for what they inherited.
I love Michener’s interpretation of the juxtaposition of the cathedral within the mosque:
…[Spain] is a Christian country but one with suppressed Muslim influences that crop out of unforeseen points; it is a victorious country that expelled the defeated Muslims from all places except the human heart; it is a land which tried to extirpate all memory of the Muslims but which lived on to mourn their passing; and it is a civilization which believed that it triumphed when it won the last battle but which knows that it lost in fields like poetry, dancing, philosophy, architecture and agriculture. To me Córdoba’s mosque was the most mournful building in Spain…
Thank you, James.