Mezquita de Cordoba

Dear readers,

Assalamu alaikum, peace be with you,

I cannot move to sharing other snippets from our rihla, without posting on the Mezquita de Cordoba. I had read and heard a great deal about it, and for me, it was a dream come true to be able to stand inside and wander through that magnificent pattern of palm-tree columns.

La mezquita’ as the locals still chose to call it, is the Cathedral of Cordoba. Recently (since a few years ago), signage has begun to read ‘Mezquita-Cathedral’, though for centuries since it was turned into a cathedral, it was still simply called ‘la mezquita’. The locals would say “I’m going to the mezquita for mass”! It used to be the ‘jamia masjid of Cordoba’ (the grand mosque of Cordoba. The word ‘jamia’ comes from ‘jumu’ah’ or Friday..as related in previous posts..the word for Friday comes from the word for gathering as it is when Muslims gather for a communal prayer. Therefore the largest mosque in a city is usually called the ‘jamia’ mosque. It often tends also to be the grandest, and so in English a more appropriate translation has become ‘grand mosque’, though perhaps ‘main mosque’ is more apt). The mosque, in the style of the great Umayyad mosqe of Damascus (God grant it is safe, and this needy abd [=slave] the chance one day to visit!] was built on where there used to be a Visigothic Catholic Church (from ~600 CE to 800 CE) that used to be an ancient Roman temple. I am not sure if any part of the original Church remains, but you can see some of the foundation of the ancient Roman temple. Perhaps the temple was used as a Church ? I do not know. What I do know, and I did some research on this, is that AbdurRahman-I who was the first caliph of Al-Andalucia bought the property for a huge sum of money (~ 100,000 dirhams possibly) from the Catholic church and then built his mosque. He bought it after a few years of sharing the property (paying rent of course) and thereafter upon needing more space for the growing Muslim population.

The original was expanded by successive caliphs to become the huge complex of close to 1000 pilars. Mosques in the Muslim world have always been more than places of worship. It’s the ‘family hang-out’, the ‘classroom and university’. Actually in the Islamic Golden Age, great teachers were born out of the mosque-circles. Usually a speaker/teacher would lean on a pillar after the salah (=prescribed 5 times a day ritual worship, I’ve described the term elsewhere) and give a talk. People would sit to listen, if the talk is good, more people join…and so a teacher’s fame spreads. Even today the mosque in Al-Azhar in Cairo (the second oldest University in the world) serves the same purpose. If you go there, you will see these circles by a pillar. In those days anyone on the street could wander in and sit down to listen. Even today you can do this, very few Muslims do have the interest to however. In them days, people would come in droves and soon a speaker would be addressing hundreds.

The pillars in the Mezquita de Cordoba have this double arch structure – so evocative of the branches of a date-palm. Others have said more eloquent things about it, so I will limit myself here. Only to add, an engineered effect of all the pillars is the feeling one gets of eternity….of a seemingly never-ending path of tall trees. This is very typical of Islamic art – you will often find repeated patterns, some intricate and elaborate. Often on nature themes. A reminder of the eternal life to come, of paradise, which was our home, and of God the almighty, who is limitless and eternal. Eternal is a poor word according to Muslim theologians, as it still talks upon the frame-work of time. And we believe God, is beyond time, being The Creator, and the Creator is not like the creation. ” …laisaka mithlihi shai =There is nothing like unto Him” (Quran 42:11). So we say, to try to capture this idea better; God is beginninglessly eternal and will be forever, endlessly (the Arabic captures this better).

After the reconqista, the mosque was converted to a church. It would have been torn down (hence why none of the Jamia masajid of other Andalucian cities remain) except the local people were so fond of it, they protested. The Catholic authorities could not therefore, and instead built a cathedral in the middle of it. The cathedral itself is quite grand. But I must be honest – the two art-forms just do not go well together. The overall effect is rather strange and unnerving. I found it very jarring to my artistic sensibilities. I was not the only one, apparently the pope of the time, when he came to visit it having being invited to see the accomplishment by the local Catholics on completion, is reported to have said something along the same lines. However it is a good thing this was done, as it is probably what saved the structure from destruction, particularly during the Inquisition. Wa Allah a’lam (=and God knows best)!

Here are pictures. Please read the captions.

A model of the mosque before the Cathedral was built in it. In the Calahorra museum
A model of the mosque before the Cathedral was built in it. In the Calahorra museum
A picture of the inside of the model - what the old mosque would have been like
A picture of the inside of the model – what the old mosque would have been like

 

columns and columns
columns and columns

 

The effect is amazing...my camera could not do it justice. It's quite dark inside now, as there is only a small entrance and not the many archways that open to the courtyard in the original design
The effect is amazing…my camera could not do it justice. It’s quite dark inside now, as there is only a small entrance and not the many archways that open to the courtyard in the original design

 

The original mihrab (=prayer niche), a staple in any mosque design, it gives the direction to Mekkah and usually is designed with great acoustics, so that the Imam's recitation as he leads the prayer from inside, is heard by all the congregation.
The original mihrab (=prayer niche), a staple in any mosque design, it gives the direction to Mekkah and usually is designed with great acoustics, so that the Imam’s recitation as he leads the prayer from inside, is heard by all the congregation.

The ayaath above the mihrab are the last lines from Surah Hashr. They are often recited in prayer.

He is Allah, than Whom there is La ilaha illa Huwa (=none has the right to be worshipped but He) the All-Knower of the unseen and the seen (open). He is the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. (59:22)

He is Allah than Whom there is La ilaha illa Huwa (=none has the right to be worshipped but He) the King, the Holy, the One Free from all defects, the Giver of security, the Watcher over His creatures, the All-Mighty, the Compeller, the Supreme. Glory be to Allah! (High is He) above all that they associate as partners with Him. (59:23)

He is Allah, the Creator, the Inventor of all things, the Bestower of forms. To Him belong the Best Names . All that is in the heavens and the earth glorify Him. And He is the All-Mighty, the All-Wise. (59:24)

 

The top of the mihrab
The top of the mihrab
The rather strange juxtaposition of two very different art-forms. This was one of the more graceful pictures I could take
The rather strange juxtaposition of two very different art-forms. This was one of the more graceful pictures I could take

 

One of the many gates from the outside. It's walled up though
One of the many gates from the outside. It’s walled up though

The above gives you a size of the structure. It was huge, at one time the second largest mosque in the Muslim world.

I will end by saying how many a great thinker and scholar must have sat and leaned on those pillars, how many rapt-eyed students at his or her feet. The space still seems to carry echoes of their lost voices.

Ending with a prayer for peace and understanding and truth told, no matter the cost

Peace be with you all.

Madina al-Zahra and Cordoba

Assalamu alaikum (peace be with you)

Alhamdulillah (=thanks and praise be to God) for the peace and security to continue these posts. We visited Cordoba, a city established by Abdul Rahman I -the Umayyad prince who was the first ruler of Al-Andalus. His story is the stuff of romance. His family, the Umayyad rulers in Damascus were killed by the Abbasids who then established their own dynasty. He escaped and made his way to Spain, where he established his own caliphate that began as an emirate of ruling Berber Muslims in Morocco but then became an independent state.

The Umayyads were the first in Islamic history to establish an aristocracy, the advent of which, saw an end to the time of the rule of the first ‘four rightly guided caliphs’. This was predicted to happen by our beloved prophet (peace and blessings of God be on him). Muslims consider the time of the first four caliphates the true caliphate whereas since then there have been bad and good leaders. On this note, it must be said, that the model of leadership brought by Islam is what Sheikh Quick aptly termed a ‘meritocrasy’ and though an aristocracy is not preferred, where there is absent of rule of law otherwise, it is allowed. Having said that, it was the young prince Abdul Rahman I who was destined to found the Muslim Andalucian kingdom and continue the Umayyad line.

We stayed in a neighborhood in the city called ‘Arrusafa’. It was where AR-I built his palace, though no trace of that structure remains. The name Arrusafa is the name of a part of Damascus, beloved to AR-I, so you can see how he named this location the same, out of home-sickness. Quite remarkable the name stays to this day! This was in the year 711 AD, about 80 years after the death of the prophet (peace be on him).

Many things are told about the caliph AR-I and his rule. He was known as a just and wise ruler. This post will be too long were I to speak in detail about him, but here is one note that I particularly liked. Every child in his realm, whether Christian, Jew or Muslim would get a free education in reading, writing and math (the proverbial three ‘R’s! -hmm, wonder where that came from eh?;) ) and if a child wanted to study more, the doors were open. This love of education is a hallmark of Muslim civilization. As we believe that to know God, you must learn about His creation. The Quran repeatedly enjoins us to learn, study, think! So it is nothing new but something I deeply love about this way of life. One other thing to mention, there was no forced conversion as that is forbidden in the religion (“There is no compulsion in faith” – Quran 2:256). A proof of this is the great Jewish scholars that were produced in the Andalucian kingdom. The historians will speak more accurately about this than I can.

Cordoba became a great jewel in the crown of human civilization. The achievements of its people and its rulers must be given their due recognition no matter what faith or creed one belongs to. History is a common human treasure and it must be given its right. Cordoba was written of by Christian visitors from the North as ‘the ornament of the world’! It had street lighting and running water, great libraries and hospitals, synagogues and churches and of course great mosques. All this a couple of centuries before the battle of Hastings mind you.

And then comes Madina al-Zahra! Madina al-Zahra means ‘The resplendent city’. It was built by Abdur Rahman III who ruled for about 50 years beginning in 912 CE. It took him 12,000 builders and 12 years to build it. It was a custom built city about 6 miles outside the city of Cordoba. It housed the royal family and the court and attendants etc. It was a statement of authority as our tour-guide pointed out – a message to all, that Andalucía had arrived. And indeed it did do that. At that time also the Muslim rule in Baghdad was declining and AR III did declare himself the ruler of the entire Muslim world, it is entirely possible he had the riches and the authority  to be this as well, no small statement indeed.

Ah, but we derive a lesson from this – the caliph was distancing himself from his people. Becoming more exclusive and preferring the pleasures of the world, over the dues owed to the people he ruled. It is the story of history and human folly. It was the beginning of the end. And it is the story playing out time and time again to Muslim rulers…and we see it in today’s news too! We Muslims believe that the mark of the approval of God on any human endeavor is its longevity and that if Allah is not pleased, His blessing removed, no thing will last. So it is with Madina al-Zahra. While Cordoba still stands and Arrusafa is a modern day neighborhood, Madina al-Zahra needed to be dug out by archeologists. Now about 10% of the site is excavated and there is a museum built close by showcasing what life in that city must have been like. Wandering through that 1/10th of the city one gets a feel to what its grandour. I wish I could share that experience with you all, but I cannot here, so please do go visit. Some photos are up on my public facebook page though https://www.facebook.com/joy.manifest

The museum built there is a very interesting structure. It is built entirely underground. The reason for this is to emphasize a subtle yet important message. That the population of Muslim Cordoba is indigenous  to the land. It is ‘part of the earth’. At that time about 80% of the population was Muslim (BTW this is also an index used to prove the lack of forced conversion as where there is forced conversion, 100% of the population will be the enforced religion usually within decades or much less of its enforcement. However here 300 years into the establishment of the kingdom not yet is everyone Muslim) and what is important to note is that these were for the majority, ethnic Spanish Muslims. They were not the dark-skinned black-haired depictions Orientalist painters for some reason seem to love to paint Muslims as, and as is shown in the majority of textbooks. These were very Spanish Muslims. What was nice during this tour was to meet some of those very ethnically Spanish Muslims, who are now reclaiming their history and heritage over 500 years after the Inquisition and the forced erasing of this period from history. But more about that later. For now, it was an important lesson to take home and kudos to the architects of the building for such a subtle yet beautiful message.

And kudos also to the beautiful Spanish people, who are restoring these old sites and reclaiming what is after all, their own heritage!

Please do check out the pictures of Madina al-Zahra on Facebook. And below are some more, from a Museum as we entered the old city of Cordoba. Captions below.

A model of the great masjid of Cordoba and the stages in a person's prayer. The masjid is now a Cathedral and still stands
A model of the great masjid of Cordoba and the stages in a person’s prayer. The masjid is now a Cathedral and still stands

 

A model of a Synagogue in Cordoba. I was struck by how similar to a masjid it is in that it is an empty space. The tile-work is obviously Moorish. The jewish quarter still exists in modern Cordoba
A model of a Synagogue in Cordoba. I was struck by how similar to a masjid it is in that it is an empty space. The tile-work is obviously Moorish. The jewish quarter still exists in modern Cordoba

 

A model of a library/school/university
A model of a library/school/university
The bridge over the river Guadalquivir. Originally built by the Romans, it was fortified by AR-I. Interestingly the names of most rivers in Spain begin with 'guada'. This word comes from the Arabic 'wadi' which means valley. Guadalquiver is from 'Wadi al Akber' = The great valley. The river systems were called by the valleys they carved.
The bridge over the river Guadalquivir. Originally built by the Romans, it was fortified by AR-I. Interestingly the names of most rivers in Spain begin with ‘guada’. This word comes from the Arabic ‘wadi’ which means valley. Guadalquiver is from ‘Wadi al Akber’ = The great valley. The river systems were called by the valleys they carved.
One of the old 'water-wheels' used to irrigate the city. I think the only one still standing. Rather remarkable given it is over a thousand years old
One of the old ‘water-wheels’ used to irrigate the city. I think the only one still standing. Rather remarkable given it is over a thousand years old
The site of the masjid of Madina az-Zahra. Unlike many Muslim cities, where the city is built around the masjid, here the masjid is in a corner of the city almost outside its main design.
The site of the masjid of Madina az-Zahra. Unlike many Muslim cities, where the city is built around the masjid, here the masjid is in a corner of the city almost outside its main design.

Finally, the trailer for a video we watched in the Museum, that recreates life in Madina az-Zahra. Ending with the visit of a delegation from a Christian kingdom in the North. Enjoy!