The Great Mosque of Cordoba

(Or, “Would You Mind Taking My Photo?”)

IMG_2647 The Great Mosque of Cordoba/La Catedral de Córdoba is what drew me to Southern Spain, as opposed to any other warm European place. It was the focal point of the trip, the only thing I saw that I really knew anything about, and definitely one of the most impressive and enjoyable attractions I visited.

The Historical Part of the Post

(Click here to skip to the fun part with loads of terrible pictures of me)

Now a Catholic cathedral, the Mosque was originally built in the late 8th century, on the site of a 6th century Visigothic church, which was built on the site of a Roman temple. It was designed to rival the mosques of Damascus, Baghdad, and Jerusalem, and no expense was spared in its construction. The iconic striped arches were created by alternating red and white stones.

IMG_2637 As Cordoba grew in eminence and wealth, more space was required to accommodate the growing Muslim population. The mosque was expanded several times, although subsequent caliphs has smaller budgets, and the original red and white design was mimicked with red paint.

When the Mosque was converted into a cathedral in the 13th century, after the Reconquista, further renovations occurred. Gothic arches were added, leading up to vaulted ceilings. Stained glass windows were installed. Chapels were built along the sides. In a way that makes sense perhaps only when you see it, a cathedral was constructed in the center. The seemingly endless rows of columns sort of hide it though, and because most of the cathedral exists above the ceiling height of the surrounding building, you’ve got to walk right up to it to see it. While the mosque has low ceilings which create a darker space that feels intimate despite its size, the cathedral’s ceiling soars and large windows fill the space with light. The styles are so different, and the spaces so disconnected, that while standing in either the new cathedral or the older remnants of the mosque, it’s hard to believe that the other exists in the same continuous building.

Outside, the minaret was covered by a bell tower, and the raised cathedral in the center of the former mosque required flying buttresses. The original walls stand around a courtyard, originally intended for the ablutions required before entering a mosque.

Despite all the changes, 70% of the original mosque remains, including its focal point: the mihrab. This niche in the wall is theoretically aimed towards the city of Mecca, and Muslims would pray in its direction. This mihrab, however, it aimed south. I’ve read that it was designed this way to symbolize the replacement of the Great Mosque of Damascus, and also that sticking it in the existing southern wall of the Visigothic church was a money-saving strategy. I prefer the first explanation.

So what exists now is a layered testament to the historical forces in Cordoba: varied columns, ceilings, styles, textures, and arch diameters and shapes.


Don’t worry: the history dump is over

In the midst of all of this, I wanted to have my picture taken. Not too tough, right? The place is loaded with tourists who all understand. It should simply be as easy as asking one of them.

As an aside: I don’t consider my photos to be outstanding in any way. I wouldn’t even call them particularly good. Most are taken on my iPhone and the guiding principle is “make sure the most important things make it into the shot.” However, after a month on my own, I’ve accrued a fair collection of other people’s pictures of me, and now I’m really curious as to what other tourists’ photos look like.

Before asking someone to take my picture, I always even try to figure out exactly what shot I want, position myself accordingly, and sort of gesture which angle I’d like the photo to be taken at. This was my intended backdrop:

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So, I asked a young guy to take my photo. I always think it’s easier to disturb people when they’re alone. Thanks to him, I will have no trouble remembering what the floor looked like or what shoes I was wearing:

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You can’t very well leave the Great Mosque of Cordoba without a good photo of yourself, and you can’t offend that guy by simply asking the next person in the area to try again, so I pushed forward with my tour, pretending I hadn’t already explored the entire building, waiting for this guy to move along so I could go back to the spot and try again. This time, I was clear: “I want the photo in this spot, and please aim somewhat upwards to include as much of the arches as possible.” I’m not sure this is an improvement:

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For him, “upwards” meant that he should crouch down and then aim up, even though I told him that wasn’t necessary. And I tried to scoot to his right to indicate that maybe he should move left and re-aim. Didn’t work.

Third try’s a charm? The older French man who spoke uncertain English and had never operated an iPhone seemed, on the surface, like my least promising prospect. But as it turns out, speaking English and understanding iOS are not necessary skills for framing a proper photo. Merci beaucoup, monsieur!

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