I was genuinely fearful that my expectations of the Mezquita might not be matched in reality. The Great Mosque of Córdoba is, after all, supposed to be one of the world’s great architectural achievements, on a par with Agra’s Taj Mahal, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia or the Pantheon in Rome. I need not have worried, the Mezquita is sublime. The salmon pink and white striped arches of its interior are graceful yet simple, creating a sense of space and lightness that is both peaceful and spiritual. It is a building that speaks volumes about the visionaries who created it.
The design was revolutionary for the time, simultaneously a break with Islamic tradition while harking back to the earliest Islamic prayer spaces in traditional desert homes: the dozens of pink and white arches represent date palms. In keeping with the concept that nothing should come between worshipper and God, there are no superfluous frills, just a space that encourages deep contemplation. Even today, after the building has suffered centuries of Christian additions, you get a sense of the unique genius of the building.
The same cannot be said of the great lump of a Cathedral that was added to the centre of the Mezquita in the 16th Century; a piece of cultural vandalism not dissimilar to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues. Nor does the addition of numerous chapels around the walls of the Mezquita do anything but detract from its original glory. The two architectural styles are diametrically opposed. The Islamic, calm, peaceful and reflective; the Catholic, brash, shrill and overwrought, as if competing for a prize it could never hope to attain.
After years of petitioning from the Church, King Charles I, against the wishes of Córdoba’s city council, gave the order to have the centre of the Mezquita torn out and replaced by the Cathedral. It took over 250 years, and numerous changes of architectural style, to complete it; but the magnitude of the cultural destruction was soon understood. Charles I, a man so deeply convinced of his Catholic faith that he is best known for his attempts to stop the spread of the Protestant Reformation, admitted his error.
Charles is quoted as saying, “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.” I couldn’t agree more. At least the majority of the original Mezquita remains and I now finally understand why someone would visit Spain, just to come to Córdoba, just to see the Mezquita.
Córdoba’s Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (the Palace of the Christian Kings) doesn’t make the same mistake. After our visit to the Mezquita, we wandered over towards the Alcázar in an uplifted state. After visiting the wonderful gardens that are the centrepiece of the Alcázar, we were even more uplifted. Built in the 14th Century on top of both Roman and Morrish structures, perhaps its most significant historical moment was the first meeting in 1486 between the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Christopher Columbus. A meeting that would be the catalyst for Spanish colonisation in the Americas.
More infamously, the Alcázar was used as the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition – the tool that was originally utilised by Ferdinand and Isabella to root out Muslims, Jews and other heretics from their new Kingdom. The Inquisition moved in in 1482 and would terrorise and torture their way through the next three centuries from within these walls. Something to remember when you’re admiring the beautiful gardens and panorama over the city from what is now known as ‘Inquisition Tower’.
The buildings of the Alcázar are less interesting than the gardens, but there was a time when this was both a lavish palace for the Caliph of Córdoba and a primary residence for Ferdinand and Isabella. The gardens are terraced and there are ponds, waterfalls and fountains dotted throughout. During Moorish times huge water wheels were constructed on the Rio Guadalquivir to pump water into the gardens and palace. They aren’t used anymore, but a replica of the originals can be seen in the Guadalquivir still.