The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century
By Nuha N. N. Khoury
Muqarnas, Vol. 13 (1996)
Introduction: The Great Mosque of Cordoba is universally recognized as one of the most singular monuments of medieval architecture. Celebrated for its harmony, balance, dramatic use of light and decoration, and its overall unity and aesthetic sensitivity, the monument belongs to an established functional type, the hypostyle mosque, but amounts to more than a mere variant of this type. Its amalgamation of old, reused, and original architectural elements in new inventive combinations, its system of double tiered arcades with superimposed horseshoe arches supported by slender pilasters on marble columns, and the originality of its overall compositional effect are all factors that enhance its value to the history of western Islamic architecture in particular and Mediterranean architecture in general. The mosque’s architectural importance is matched by its historical significance. As the premier monument of al-Andalus, the Cordoba mosque embodies the history of the Iberian peninsula from its Islamic takeover in 711 through successive stages of Umayyad and post-Umayyad dominion and beyond. Following the fall of Cordoba in 1236, the mosque was preserved as the repository of Castillian Spain’s signs of victory, and became a source of aesthetic and architectural inspiration that was eventually transported to the New World. In Islamic medieval writings of the same era and later, the Great Mosque of Cordoba was transformed from an Umayyad monument into the primary cultural and religious relic of al-Andalus, an Islamic land lost to Islam. While the mosque’s Muslim historians made it the concrete visual representation of a distinct creative culture, its geo-political position in the history of medieval Spain made it the symbol of a national personality forged out of the interaction of two at times ideologically opposed worlds.
A similar plurality of identity informs the Cordoba mosque’s creative and material culture. As the primary artifact of an Umayyad dynasty that had fled from Syria to Spain in 756, the monument belongs to at least two architectural and cultural traditions, and its architectural vocabulary at once points to local Spanish and Syrian Umayyad sources. The totality of its final composition, however, is morphologically and aesthetically distinct: a unique reformulation of preexisting architectural details (horseshoe arches, double-tiered arcades, alternating stone and brick voussoirs) within a novel arrangement of universal forms (hypostyle halls, axial naves, domed spaces). The Cordoba mosque can therefore be situated at different junctures within a larger architectural history. Its connections to the past make it the culmination of an older Umayyad tradition, while its particular creative location in al-Andalus makes it the point of inception for a new tradition with different subsequent histories in Spain and North Africa.