Almost eight centuries have passed since the Catholic king Ferdinand III of Castile conquered Cordoba, once the luminous capital of the western Islamic Caliphate, and consecrated the grand mosque to the Virgin Mary. The echoes of that event of so long ago continue to reverberate even today. This time, the dispute is not between Muslims and Christians, rather it’s about the management of the mosque-cathedral by the Cordoba diocese that owns it and collects all the revue generated from visitors, estimated to be 11.5 million last year, while paying no taxes. The church is not subject to any accountability of how the money is spent, but claims that it spends a large sum on maintenance and upkeep of the site.
The controversy transcends the issue of money and taxes. According to Raphael Minder, correspondent of Washington Post based in Spain, some 370,000 residents of Andalusia recently signed a petition alleging that the Catholic Church was attempting to change the identity of the historic monument by referring to it in its official documents only as a cathedral, contrary to the established practice of describing it as Mesquite (Mosque)-Cathedral. Their contention is rooted in the fact that thirty years ago, when UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site, it recognized its status specifically as a mosque and a symbol of universal religious harmony. The dispute, however, is unlikely to be resolved any time soon by the Andalusian parliament. While the grip of the religious establishment on the Spanish people has much loosened in the recent times, the Church still exercises significant influence.
Muslims throughout the centuries have retained a surreal level of nostalgia and enduring love for the Cordoba Mosque. Allama Iqbal, who visited it in 1933 and prayed there after securing special permission, found it a transcendent, emotional experience. Some of his emotions subsequently found expression in his epic poem; Masgid-e-Qurtaba. Some zealous Muslims occasionally defy the law and instructions of the guards and attempt to pray in the mosque as happened in 2010 when some Austrian Muslims were arrested for doing so. In 2006, the Spanish Muslim community lobbied the then Pope Benedict XVI for permission to pray alongside Christians in the mosques to promote interfaith dialogue, but the request was declined by both the Spanish clergy and the Pope, citing the example of Saudi Arabia where no Christian churches can be built and even open Christian worship is prohibited.
The fortunes of the Cordoba mosque were closely tied to the ebb and flow of Muslim power in Spain. Much of the history of this period has been drawn from the work of Algerian historian, al Muqqari (1578-1632), chronicled in his landmark book, History of the Maghrib, written more than a century after the extinction of the Muslim rule. Originally built on the site of a Gothic church, the foundation stone of the mosque was laid by Emir Abd al-Rahman I in 786. He wanted to replicate the magnificence of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, his ancestral home, for which he felt great longing. The church was initially shared by Muslims and Christians for worship, but later the other half was purchased by the Emir from the Christian community who were also permitted to build and repair their churches freely in the city. According to legend, the Emir moved his residence near the construction site of the mosque, visited it daily and worked like an ordinary laborer on the project.
Abd al-Rahman I did not live long enough to see the completion of his mosque; however, his successors, Abd al-Rahman II (822-852) and III (912-961), Al-Haquem II (961-976) and Al-Mansur (978-1002), made numerous extensions and vast improvements in the building in response to the expanding needs of the population of the capital city. To a modern visitor, the most striking feature of the mosque is the ingenious use of double columns made of marble, jasper and granite that support the two-tiered, symmetrical arches made of stone and red brick. The blending of several architectural styles generates a dazzling visual effect. The prayer hall originally was illuminated with exquisite brass lamps, made from the melting of church bells collected, presumably as booty, during various battles. The mosque is now entered from a graceful patio full of lemon and orange trees, which used to have a water tank for performing ablutions. For centuries, the mosque served as the centerpiece of life for the people of Cordoba, who prayed here as well as discussed weighty issues of science and religion.
Ferdinand III, after his conquest, established many convents and monasteries to fully Christianize Cordoba, but he left the mosque largely unchanged. However, when the Muslim Emirate of Granada was liquidated in 1492, the Bishop of Cordoba decided to have a cathedral constructed in the middle of the building. Although the move was opposed by many people of Cordoba, King Charles V of Spain granted permission for the construction to proceed without ever visiting the mosque. The cathedral housed inside the mosque, however, looked inharmonious with the overall architectural style and setting of the mosque. It is said that Charles V, while passing through Cordoba on his wedding trip, came to visit the mosque for the first time. He was horrified by the sight of the cathedral and is reported to have remarked: “What you have made here can be found in many places, but what you have destroyed is to be found nowhere else in the world.”
Cordoba’s decline followed a series of internecine wars of succession in Al-Andalus that ended the Caliphate in 1031, resulting in the emergence of petty states (Taifa Kingdoms), none able to withstand the Christian onslaught from the North. The city, meanwhile, was often pillaged and sacked by marauding, unruly invaders from North Africa. A temporary respite from threats of a Christian takeover was bought by the intervention of the rulers of Berber Almoravids (Al-Mur?bi??n) and Almohad (al-Muwa??idun) dynasties of Morocco, who annexed the Taifa kingdoms.
The inevitable end came in July 1212, when the Almohad armies suffered a devastating defeat at Las Navas, some seventy miles east of Cordoba, by a Christian coalition force, under Alfonso VIII, king of Castile, essentially sealing the fate of Muslim power in the Iberian Peninsula. Subsequently, Alfonso’s grandson, Ferdinand III of Castile, captured Cordoba, Seville and other major cities of Al Andalus, except for the Emirate of Granada that managed to survive for another 250 years.
The sun finally set on a glorious period of Spanish history when Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand II and Isabella I, conquered Granada on January 2, 1492 and forced Abu Abdullah, the last Muslim king, out of Alhambra Palace and into exile and ignominy.