"The Mezquita-Cathedral blew me away.  Soon after entering, I had to sit down along one of the sides to take it in.  The irruption of the monumental cathedral into the delicate mosque form is astonishing, and an assault on your visual sense: the effect is both mesmerising and jangling"

Some thoughts following my visit: 5-13 November, 2016

Cordoba 22.11.2015

Read some thoughts following my visit: 5-13 November, 2016

I was not sure what to expect.  My preparation had been cursory, limited to a few newspaper reports and readings in Arab and Spanish history from quite some time ago. This was just a probing visit to see if a longer visit would be required. On my way from Madrid to Cordoba by hi-speed train I thought about possible signs of conflict to look out for: graffiti on walls, self-censorship in official signage and information material, tension regarding dress etc.. During the day I took a public bus from out the outskirts into the centre, visited the castle, Alcazar, and its gardens, visited the Jewish synagogue, the very good Archaeological Museum built over a Roman theatre, al Mezquita-Cathedral, a museum on the Inquisition, walked through the streets of the old and new sections of the city observing the different architectural forms, shops, cafes and public buildings, and walked at sunset across the river and along the opposite bank before returning over the Roman bridge, the Puento Romano.

What came across in general was a clear celebration of the city’s history with its Roman, Visigothic, Arabo-Islamic and Christian past, a clear projection, also, of its multi-faith and multi-cultural present. As a city, it is a very obvious and successful candidate for UNESCO funding and for the ascription to the World Heritage List. I saw little signs of offensive graffiti (of any graffiti in fact – Cordoba is a well-tended city with care taken over the upkeep of its public spaces.) Close to the San Nicolas de la Villa church (check name) which has incorporated a minaret into its main tower, I saw a newly-painted face of a pig with the name “Mahamou” and a target sign beside it. Pretty explosive stuff really, and given how clean all the other public surfaces were, I was surprised it had not been immediately removed.  But this was the only example of offensive graffiti that I saw. There were also few signs of self-censorship or overt restrictions on style and behaviour, almost the opposite in fact. The entrance ticket to the Alcazar, for instance, was a reproduction of the famous portrait by Julio Romero de Torres, Naranjas y Limones, in which a topless woman is cradling oranges and lemons in the crook of her arm below and between her bare breasts. I was also not aware of any tension on the street.  There were quite a few Arabs amongst the crowds of visitors, mostly in walking in pairs or in small family groups, unlike the Chinese, Korean and Japanese tourists who were in large coach parties. Judging by their accents most of the Arabs seemed to be from the Mashriq than from North Africa or the Gulf, which I found surprising – given the proximity of the former and the wealth of the latter. They seemed relaxed and attracted no undue attention.

The castle, Alcazar, was a little disappointing in that the buildings were poorly interpreted with no signage to indicate use or changes in occupation over the years, which were mostly post-Reconquista.  It had been used by the Inquisition for over 300 years but there was no indication of this.  The gardens were very beautiful – formal, rows of orange trees with hedged ornamental shrubs, and with fountains and deep pools containing fishes. Outside the entrance, standing on a prominent corner but slightly incongruously on its own, bearing little relation to anything else in the vicinity and not referring to any site or artefact that I could see, was a large sign with a list of the Umayyad dynasties that had controlled Cordoba during the Arabo-Islamic period, detailing the various branches of the different families.  It was not clear why the sign was there and whether or not it was part of a package of similar signs scattered around the town, which I had not and did not see.

The Mezquita-Cathedral blew me away.  Soon after entering, I had to sit down along one of the sides to take it in.  The irruption of the monumental cathedral into the delicate mosque form is astonishing, and an assault on your visual sense: the effect is both mesmerising and jangling.  You need time to get your visual bearings.  I was there for hours and I would like to go back but after reading much more about how the architects and builders managed it.  It is quite a miraculous feat of engineering to construct a huge, high and heavy nave and chancel inside the fragile and slender structure of the mosque. Putting aside the rupture to your sense of proportion, just how was all that weight spread without huge buttresses or deep foundations?  If there are buttresses and foundations how were they constructed to be so well disguised?

The free leaflet available at the entrance is quite revealing in its insistence on the pre-Arab Christian genesis of the Cathedral, emphasizing, slightly over-anxiously, its continuity with the Visigothic origins of the site. There is no attempt to belittle the Muslim presence and the leaflet is quite emphatic in highlighting the genius of the builders of the Umayyad period. At the same time it makes the unexpected point that the Christian absorption of the mosque into the Cathedral served as a vehicle for its protection and conservation. Whilst contemplating the intersections, the physical joins between old and new, the Muslim and Christian, in the building, I overheard a portion of an explanation by a guide who spoke of the conversion and alteration of the mosque as a symbol of tolerance and co-existence between Muslims and Christians.  Rather than destroying it, the Catholic Church made use of it.  At the same time she also pointed out that by walling in the sides and shutting the skylights, the alterations put the remaining mosque areas in darkness but the newer central chancel area is bathed in light.  A deliberately symbolic intervention, she said.

Mass was celebrated in a chapel erected in the mosque as early as in 1236, 250 years before Reconquista.  It would be interesting to learn about this period and if Christian worship was phased in gradually or otherwise. Also, the previous Visigothic church was apparently shared spatially with Muslims. I need to find out more.  A comparison with contemporary developments in al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the Ibrahimiyya mosque in Hebron can be made. The south-east corner is referred to as the Tabernacle and the guide referred to it in her homily on co-existence as a template for also Jewish participation but there was no information on it in the literature.

An article in Foreign Policy refers to increasing Catholic Church sensitivities regarding the Islamic history of the site.[1]  Concerns over the growing number of Muslims in Andalusia (1.8 million in all of Spain) are creating concerns that Muslims may wish to pray in the mosque area and there are reports of harassment by Cathedral “guards” who trail Muslim visitors around the interior. The name Mosque-Cathedral has been dropped from the official literature and website. A Muslim takeover of the site has been simulated in a right wing video for electioneering purposes. My visit to Cordoba was 9 days after the Da’esh attack in Paris and security issues were high in many people’s minds.  However, I did not witness any security-related tensions during my visit, especially in the Mezquita-Cathedral.  I saw a small number of Arabs and Muslims sightseeing, and they spent more time at the famous mihrab of al-Hakam II, which is quite spectacularly ornate, but there was no obvious monitoring of their activities. I can imagine, nevertheless, that it would be very tempting for a Muslim to want to pray because from the moment you enter the external courtyard, it does feel like a mosque!

Other sites I visited included the Galeria de la Inquisicion which was a rather tacky display of grotesque torture instruments.  The anti-clerical commentary and interpretation was interesting but the lurid and sexualised illustrations of young girls being strung up, stretched, clamped and worse was a bit uncomfortable.  The Museum of Archaeology was a highly intelligent overview of the material evidence of settlement and other human activity in Cordoba from the Palaeolithic time to the Middle Ages. The digital reconstruction of the Roman theatre based on the remains one could see in front of one’s eyes was particularly fascinating. The Umayyad period appeared to be given its due (which is very different to the National (but presumably Maronite-controlled) Museum in Beirut!) in which a single room devoted to the millennium of Islamic history, amongst the floors and galleries exhibiting Greek, Roman and Phoenician artefacts.) The synagogue was an understated architectural marvel with beautiful internal facades and stucco work which is in need of better interpretation of its context in the city.  There was little there which gave you a picture of the significance of the Jewish community over the ages.

Some further miscellaneous observations of my trip include: In the souvenir shop close to the synagogue they were selling various classical Jewish attires for young boys, kippot, shawls etc. but I only saw one T-shirt with the Star of David on it. There was little information about contemporary Cordoba and the official signage – street maps, plaques, street names, etc. – seem to come from a range of provenances – Tourist board, Chamber of Commerce, UNESCO. It was a bit confusing. At a very superficial level, street names seem to be mostly Christianized (Iberianised?), but I need to look more closely at this. I saw few shops with Arab-derived names.  There was an al-Minara café beside the opposite bank of the river to the Mezquita-Cathedral.  I did not see a working mosque but I presume there must be a couple. The cuisine on display in cafes and restaurants and the music being played in retail outlets in general did not indicate a specific Moorish or Arab origin – unlike in Granada where this seems more prevalent.  This may also reflect the fact that the tourist trade on the day of my visit (a Sunday) did not seem particularly Middle Eastern but more East Asian, North American and European.

In terms of ideas for my book and project – what did I learn? A lot. I think I could possibly even start with Cordoba – describing the magnificence of the Mezquita-Cathedral with quotations from artists, poets and scholars and a discussion of the ingenuity of its builders and engineers. This could lead into a discussion on the whole transformation from a Muslim to a Christian site and whether it is a symbol of conquest and triumph or of tolerance and co-existence.  Then I could move into a comparison with Jerusalem and how all the ingredients of a fully-fledged religious dispute are present – in fact even more so than in Jerusalem as you have in Cordoba a huge Christian monument erupting out of ancient Muslim one, while in Jerusalem you have Jewish radicals nibbling around the periphery and undecided where the Soloman’s Temple or the Holy of Holies is.  I could look at how shifts in demography are accompanied and reinforced by shifts in political power and, how looking at al-Aqsa, the legitimacy of the current arrangements in Cordoba could be undermined.  In this way some of the main themes of the project could be delineated and illustrated.

[1] Calderwell, Eric, “The Reconquista of the Mosque of Cordoba”, Foreign Policy ( April, 2015)


Read some thoughts following my visit: 5-13 November, 2016

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