Cordoba was an old Roman town and the Roman bridge still links the two halves of the city. To the north of the Roman bridge stands Cordoba’s famous Friday mosque, one of the architectural wonders of the world. The mosque was started by emir Abdul al-Rahman “The Immigrant”, one of the most interesting of Spain’s rulers. At the age of 19 he narrowly escaped the massacre of his family following the overthrow of the Ummayad dynasty by the rival Abbasid family. In his vivid and poetic memoirs, Abdul al-Rahman wrote how he escaped with his younger brother through the garden of his Damascus estate, carrying his four year old son in his arms while behind him he could hear the assassins murdering his mother and sisters. He survived by diving into a river and swimming to the other side but he lost hold of his son who was swept away. His brother, who could not swim well, paused at river edge and was hacked to pieces. For the next four years the young prince avoided the assassins sent to find him as he made his way across the Islamic world to Morocco. There he found shelter amongst the Berbers before crossing over to Spain in 756. For the next ten years he fought with rebellious emirs and the assassins the caliph continued to send to kill him before he finally brought order to Al-Andalus. The kingdom he forged would become an economic and cultural powerhouse and survive him by over a hundred years.
For the first 50 years after the conquest, Muslims and Christians had shared Cordoba’s old Visigoth cathedral; the Muslims using it on Friday and the Christians using it on Sunday. In 770, Al-Rahman decided Cordoba to build a dedicated Friday mosque so bought the old cathedral and had it demolished. Largely conventional in design, the mosque features an outer courtyard with fountains and a grove of citrus trees, a minaret and a columned hall. All of the columns used in the construction were recycled from Roman ruins but proved too short. The builders compensated by superimposing a pair of arches over each column. The double arches in alternating bands of red and white stone are the mosques most outstanding feature and give the impression of a forest of palm trees. Over the years Al-Rahman’s successors extended the mosque, almost trebling it size.
When the Christians took Cordoba in the early 13th century they too were impressed by the Great Mosque. It was converted into a cathedral and chapels were built around the outer arcades. One corner of the mosque was enclosed and the columns and arches covered in frescoes, which sit surprisingly harmoniously with the original design.
It wasn’t until the 16th century when the archbishop had a late gothic style cathedral built in the centre of the mosque that substantial changes were made. The archbishop wrote to Emperor Charles V (who was both King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna) to tell him that with the completion of the cathedral Muslim heresy had finally been erased from Cordoba. If he thought this would have ingratiated himself with the Emperor, he was sadly mistaken. Charles wrote back curtly that he had “replaced something that is unique with something that is commonplace.” Such censure saved what remains of the mosque.