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Old Sunday, January 01, 2012
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Default Monument: The mosque that was Cordoba

Monument: The mosque that was Cordoba



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 vacations in Andalusia, lured by its famed Islamic monuments built centuries ago by Muslim/Berber 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 civilisation in mediaeval Spain.

My trip was facilitated by a volunteer student-work programme, 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 Andalusia, 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.

After two weeks on the project, I decided to travel on my own in Andalusia. 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, rivalling Baghdad and Constantinople. In its glory days, it had thousands of shops, public baths, libraries and caravansaries, none of which is in evidence today.

The golden period of the Islamic Caliphate at Cordoba ended after a mere one hundred years (929-1031). During its twilight years, the legendary city gave birth to two most celebrated philosophers and 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 zeal to settle in North Africa. The city of Cordoba has only recently recognised the stature and luminosity of these scholars and has erected statues of both to honour and commemorate their contributions.

After an overnight stay in Cordoba, I set out to visit the mosque. Although, unsure of its exact location, I had no difficulty in finding it, as everyone seemed to recognise 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 glow. This has changed now.

Considered one of the architectural wonders of the world, the mosque reportedly drew 1.1 million tourists last year.

The 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 labourer 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 the 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.

Over the years, the mosque has evoked powerful sentiments among Muslims, as it is a living reminder of the splendour of the Islamic civilisation 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, Masjid-i-Qurtaba.

More recently, it has been embroiled in controversy, as a few visiting Muslims have attempted to pray there. Although named mosque-cathedral, it is in fact a functional, consecrated cathedral, and is not recognised as a mosque by the Spanish ecclesiastical authorities. Last year, great 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 used as one for centuries. The present name, he contended, caused confusion. He justified 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.

The Bishop’s polemic was not universally accepted, however. The Mayor of Cordoba promptly repudiated it, emphasising that the city had no intention of changing its present designation. Furthermore, a spokesman for the local Muslim community, estimated to number 2,500, denied that they intended to seek formal permission to pray in the mosque. Such demands, they believed, would only vitiate the cordial and harmonious inter-religious relationship that now existed.

By Dr Syed Amir
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