The city of Córdoba is located on the north bank of the Guadalquivir River in the southern region of Spain known today as Andalusia.
Though the city is perhaps best known as the capital of a branch of the Umayyad dynasty that ruled the Iberian Peninsula from the middle of the eighth-century until the early eleventh-century, Córdoba was heir to a distinguished history before the advent of Islamic rule in the region.
Originally a Phoenician city, Córdoba was conquered for Rome in 152 BC and eventually became the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior. In the sixth-century the city was conquered by Visigothic forces, and in 711/92 AH by a combined Arab and Berber army. This last conquest paved the way for Abd al-Rahman I, an Umayyad prince from Syria, to establish himself as an independent ruler on the Iberian Peninsula.
During the period of Umayyad rule, which ended in 1035/426 AH, the city's Roman walls and famous bridge were repaired, hydrological infrastructure appropriated and expanded, an impressive number of urban foundations were constructed in the city, and numerous suburbs developed around the original walled Roman/Visigothic city (madina). The rectangular madina was divided into four quarters by the intersection of the Roman cardo and decumanus, forming two major arteries from which others branched, around which development occurred. The decumanus was the main north-south thoroughfare, terminating at the southern end of the madina. This southern section was the city's most important civic space, distinguished by a concentration of government, religious, and commercial institutions. Here travelers entered the city from the rebuilt Roman bridge and would have emerged into an open space from which the city's principal thoroughfares opened, bordered by government buildings to the northwest, including the palace of the Umayyad rulers (no longer extant).
Córdoba's most famous monument, the Great Mosque, is located in this section of the city, where it was once connected to the Umayyad palace with a covered passage over the street (sabat).
Founded by Abd al-Rahman I, the Great Mosque was considered a wonder of the medieval world and was appropriated as the cathedral of Córdoba when the Christian forces of the Castilian crown conquered the city in 1236/633 AH. The most important thoroughfare, al-Rasif, stretched along the river in this southern section of the medina, and was used for public processions. This section of Córdoba boasted a concentration of markets, including the royal market for luxury goods known as al-Qayseriyya, as well as taverns, caravanserais, baths, and inns that catered to the merchants and other travelers that flocked to this cultural capital of the western Mediterranean. Although it is difficult to verify the accounts of the medieval geographers, poets, and authors who wrote admiringly of the city's thousands of mosques, shops, baths, and palaces, Córdoba was perhaps the most important cultural center of the medieval western Mediterranean.
Abd al-Rahman III began construction of Madinat al-Zahra, a planned palatine city 4 kilometers west of Córdoba, that further stimulated development of suburban and country estates in the western zone.
Constructed on a series of rectangular terraces at the foot of the Sierra Morena mountain range, Madinat al-Zahra boasted its own markets, mosques, and population that served the caliph, his administrators, and the army who relocated to the new city from old Córdoba. Madinat al-Zahra was sacked and destroyed in the early eleventh-century, a tumultuous period in Cordoba's history. Excavations ongoing since the early twentieth-century in the official and residential areas of the upper two terraces have revealed a fraction of the palatine city. Its former luxury are reflected in the reception halls, residential quarters, gardens and pavilions located on the city's upper two terraces.
Castejón y Martínez de Arizala, Rafael. Medina Azahara : the palace city of the Caliphs of Cordova. Madrid: Editorial Everest, 1977.
Hillenbrand, R. "The Ornament of the World: Medieval Córdoba as a Cultural Center." In The legacy of Muslim Spain, edited by S. K. Jayyusi and M. Marín. Leiden ; New York: E.J. Brill, 1992.
Munoz Molina, Antonio. Córdoba de los omeyas. 1. ed, Ciudades en la historia. Barcelona, Espana: Planeta, 1991.
Ruggles, D.F. Gardens. Landscape, and Vision in the Palaces of Islamic Spain. University Park: Penn State Press, 2001.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba was considered a wonder of the medieval world by both Muslims and Christians. Built on a Visigothic site, which was probably the site of an earlier Roman temple, the Great Mosque of Cordoba was begun between 784 and 786 during the reign of 'Abd al-Rahman I, who escaped from Syria to the Iberian Peninsula after his family was massacred by a rival political dynasty.
The mosque's hypostyle plan, consisting of a rectangular prayer hall and an enclosed courtyard, followed a tradition established in the Umayyad and Abbasid mosques of Syria and Iraq. However, the dramatic articulation of the interior of the prayer hall was unprecedented. The system of columns supporting double arcades of piers and arches with alternating red and white voussoirs is an unusual treatment that, structurally, combined striking visual effect with the practical advantage of providing greater height within the hall. Alternating red and white voussoirs are associated with Umayyad monuments such as the Great Mosque of Damascus and the Dome of the Rock. Their use in the Great Mosque of Cordoba manages to create a stunningly original visual composition even as it emphasises 'Abd al-Rahman's connection to the established Umayyad tradition.
Though the mosque was expanded by later rulers (the most significant changes dating from the reigns of 'Abd al-Rahman II between 833-852, al-Hakam II between 961-976, and the vizier al-Mansur from 987), the basic formula of arcades with alternating voussoirs was maintained in each of the additions. The resulting vistas of columns and arcades that stretch into the dim recesses of the prayer hall create a mysterious space that is often described as a forest of stone. The comparison is heightened by rows of trees planted in the courtyard (Patio de las Naranjas or Court of the Oranges), which create a visual continuation of the rows of columns within the prayer hall.
The most lavish interior ornament is concentrated in the maqsura, the prayer space reserved for the ruler, which was commissioned by the caliph al-Hakam II. The maqsura is visually separated from the rest of the prayer hall by screens formed of elaborate intersecting polylobed arcades, an elegant variation on the basic architectural theme set in the earliest incarnation of the mosque. These screens emphasise the special status of the space, which is composed of three domed bays in front of the mihrab. The mihrab was unprecedented for taking the form of an entire room rather than the traditional niche, and for being flanked by two rooms whose entrances are decorated with mosaics in a manner similar to that of the mihrab. The maqsura is lavishly decorated with carved marble, stucco, and elaborate mosaics. These, executed in intricate vegetal scroll forms and Kufic inscriptions, frame the mihrab, the two doors which flank it, and also cover the interiors of the maqsura's three domes. The unusual arrangement of the maqsura space may be read on several levels. It may reflect the appropriation of a tri-apsidal arrangement found in local church architecture (though emptied in its new context of Christian connotations). It has also been interpreted as an ideologically charged iconographic evocation of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina that served to underscore notions of Umayyad religious and political authority.
After conquering Cordoba in 1236, Ferdinand III king of Castile consecrated the Great Mosque as the city's cathedral. The Christian population of Cordoba used the former mosque with relatively minor changes for the next three hundred years. In the early 16th century the Bishop and Canons of the cathedral proposed the construction of a new cathedral, and proposed to demolish the mosque in order to build it. The opposition of the townspeople to the proposed destruction of the building led to the unprecedented decision, endorsed by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to insert an entire Gothic "chapel" into the very heart of the former Great Mosque. The result is an uneasy and controversial juxtaposition: the soaring forms of a Gothic cathedral rise from the very centre of the comparatively low, sprawling prayer hall whose architectural vocabulary is rooted in the forms of classical antiquity.
Creswell, K.A.C.1989. "The Great Mosque of Cordova." A short account of early Muslim architecture. Revised edition by James W. Allan. Aldershot: Scolar Press.
Dodds, Jerrilynn. 1992. "The Great Mosque of Cordoba." Al-Andalus : the art of Islamic Spain. Edited by Jerrilynn D. Dodds. New York: Abrams,11-26.
Ettinghausen, Richard and Oleg Grabar. 1987. The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250. London and N.Y.: Penguin, 127-140.
Khoury, Nuha. 1996. "The meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the tenth century. " Muqarnas 13, 80-98.