The Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba is one of Spain’s finest Islamic buildings — a top sight to visit in Andalucia.
The Mezquita is the top attraction to see in Córdoba and one of the most important Moorish monuments in Andalusia and Spain. Despite now being a consecrated Roman Catholic cathedral, the highlight remains the thousand-year-old prayer hall of the great mosque of Córdoba. The Mezquita is famous for its over 800 original Moorish red-and-white horseshoe-shaped arches topped by a second Roman arch to add height and lightness to what was the second-largest mosque in the world. A large Renaissance-Baroque cathedral was erected in the center of the prayer hall and is still used daily for Roman Catholic masses.
“Mezquita” is Spanish (from Arabic) for mosque but it is commonly used to refer to the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, which is now a Christian church only and not a mosque. Officially, the name is Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion) but that is rarely used outside religious administration circles. Local churchgoers simply tend to go to the mosque (Mezquita) for mass.
See Tips on Visiting the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba for opening hours, tickets, tours and how to see the Mezquita for free and Seeing the Mezquita on Day Trips and Stopovers for visiting from, or en route to, other Spanish cities.
Building History of the Mezquita Mosque in Córdoba
The Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral was mostly constructed between the 8th and 17th centuries. The oldest part dates from 786 when Córdoban Emir Abd al Rahman I built a large mosque over the remains of a Visigoth church. During the preceding half-century, the Muslim and Christian populations shared a building here until the Christian side was bought out.
The Mosque was extended further in three major projects until it reached its current proportions around the year 1000. At the time it was the second-largest mosque in the world and could accommodate over 20,000. At this stage, Córdoba had a population of around 250,000 and around 3,000 mosques. It was the most important city in Western Europe — a cultural, political, and economic center to rival Damascus and Baghdad.
Building History of the Mezquita-Cathedral in Córdoba
However, Córdoba’s power and influence declined from the early 11th century. The new capital at Medina Azahara was destroyed in 1010. The once-powerful caliphate dissolved into smaller warring units that made easy pickings for a more powerful enemy. Córdoba was reconquered on 29 June 1236 by Fernando III of Castile. (Granada in comparison stayed Moorish two-and-a-half centuries longer.)
The grand mosque of Córdoba was immediately consecrated as a Roman Catholic church. The basic structure was largely left unaltered with the eventually around 40 Christian chapels mostly built into the sides of the building. A Gothic nave was later incorporated into a section of the mosque but the main alteration only came in the 16th century when Charles V gave permission for a large Renaissance cathedral to be built in the heart of the Mezquita. Between 1523 and 1766, a large cathedral transept and choir were erected with Renaissance and Baroque abundance.
The Renaissance and Baroque additions have been debated ever since. The artistic quality is not in doubt but the location inside the magnificent prayer hall is often seen as barbaric vandalism. However, it probably contributed to the survival of 70% of the original mosque — none of the other several thousand mosques of the Caliphate survived in Córdoba or nearby cities.
Floor Plan Layout of the Mezquita in Córdoba
The layout of the Mezquita is a relatively simple rectangle with the prayer hall almost a square. The total complex measures around 180 m by 130 m with the enclosed courtyard occupying nearly a third of the site towards the northern side.
At 23,400 square meters, it was the largest mosque in Europe and the second-largest mosque in the world after the Great Mosque of Mecca. It is roughly the same size as the cathedral complex in Seville — the world’s largest Gothic church.
Access is now mostly via a rectangular courtyard (Patio de los Naranjos), which covers the full width of the complex and nearly a third of its length. The Mezquita-Cathedral building is a further rectangular building with a relatively low roof but with the later Cathedral at the center towering over the rest of the prayer hall.
In contrast to most mosques, the qibla is not facing Mecca but rather more south — at around 150° rather than the correct 112°. The exact reason is not entirely clear: it could have been that the builders simply used the same direction that would have been correct in Damascus or that it simply fitted in better with existing buildings in the vicinity. As a result, the later cathedral also failed to have the more traditional east-west layout of Roman Catholic cathedrals.
The mosque was open towards the courtyard but it was walled off in the Christian period, which partly explains why the Mezquita is fairly dark inside even on a sunny day. Pre-Christian era skylights were added to newer parts of the Mosque deeper into the building. Also, the only entrances now are from the courtyard but the mosque had several further doors on the sides — these magnificent archways may still be admired from the streets.
The hypostyle prayer hall had 1,293 columns at its completion of which 856 survived. Originally, decorations were restrained with the noticeable exception of the mihrab and cupola at the far end. The ceiling was decorated but mostly flat — some of the original planks are on display in the gallery of the courtyard.
Extra height was gained by placing a Roman arch on top of a Moorish horseshoe-shaped arch — however, compared to churches the mosque had a relatively low overall height of just over 12 m.
The first Christian additions were chapels set into the side of the building — around 40 in total. Around two-thirds into the prayer hall, some columns were replaced by Gothic vaulting to add a cathedral nave — now the Villaviciosa Chapel.
However, the unmissable Christian addition is the huge Renaissance-Baroque transept and choir in the form of a Latin cross at the heart of the former mosque.
Visiting the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba
The Original Mosque in Córdoba
The entrance to the Mezquita Cathedral from the courtyard of the orange trees is directly into the oldest part of the original mosque (786-88). The mosque of Abd Al-Rahman I with eleven naves facing south, rather than directly towards Mecca. This part of the Mezquita is fairly dark, largely due to the wall built during the Christian Era to seal off the church interior from the courtyard.
The forest of pillars and horseshoe-shaped arches greeting visitors upon entry emphasize the simplicity and beauty of the historic mosque. Of the originally 1,293 columns of jasper, onyx, marble, granite, and porphyry, 856 survived. The ones in the oldest parts of the mosque were recycled from Roman temples and public buildings but later ones were produced locally.
The Mezquita is justifiably famous for these beautiful double arches: on top of each Moorish horseshoe-shaped arches is a second Roman arch. This gave additional height to the ceiling in a graceful way that conveys a sense of transparency and lightness. In the older parts of the building, the alternating colors used in the arches were different stones and brick but later additions had the colors simply painted on. (The Kaiserdom of Charlemagne in Aachen, which was built in the same period, also use this decorating technique on the arches.)
Near the entrance is a glass floor area where it is possible to see some archaeological finds of the original Visigoth church. After the Islamic conquest, Christians and Muslims shared the building until the Christian side was bought out prior to the construction of the mosque.
The Enlarged Mosque of Córdoba
The first enlargement (833-48) of the Mezquita added eight naves — the later Christian choir occupies a large part of this enlargement. The most notable element from this phase is the capitals worked with a local boring technique.
The second enlargement (962-6) added 11 sections and the artistic highlight of the mosque — the mihrab and the cupola. This section reflects Córdoba at the height of its powers.
Gothic Nave in the Mezquita of Córdoba
The original Gothic main nave of the cathedral was installed here. Somewhat surprisingly, this was only done two centuries after church services started inside smaller chapels in the Mezquita. Several columns were removed and Gothic vaulting was installed that soars to around 19 m.
Towards the center of the building is the Royal Chapel ordered earlier by Enrique II in 1371 for the tombs of Kings Alfonso XI and Fernando IV. Their remains have since been moved elsewhere but the chapel remains closed with the Mudejar stucco work in need of restoration.
In the corner of the building is an exhibition section with some archaeological finds from the old Basilica. Christian symbols were often scrubbed off for reuse in Islamic structures.
Mihrab in the Mezquita of Córdoba
The absolute artistic highlight of the Mezquita is the maqsura and mihrab placed at the center of the qibla wall during the period Al Hakam II (962-76) — it became off-center following the final expansion of the mosque. The space in front of the Mihrab used by the caliph is beautifully decorated with multifoil arches with interwoven ribs that compete with the magnificent cupola in beauty.
The Caliph requested help from the emperor in Constantinople to create the Maqsurah and Mihrab in the mosaic style of the Byzantine tradition. Emperor Nicephorus II not only sent top artisans but also a tonne of small golden tiles. Their decorations are a masterpiece of stylized plant motifs and verses from the Koran in Arabic. So beautiful that the church never attempted to erase their presence despite the obvious Islamic message.
Treasury of the Mezquita in Córdoba
Next to the Mihrab is the treasury with the usual display of Roman Catholic Church service paraphernalia — it is not particularly interesting or of particular historic significance. The large monstrance by Enrique de Arfe is the best-known piece but at 2.63 m tall it is not as impressive as his monstrance in Seville, although the artistic quality of both is superb. (The treasury is not open during the early morning.)
The Incarnation, hung outside the treasury, is an interesting painting by Pedro de Córdoba. It is a study in perspective and shows two events in the same painting but from different distances. The perspectives are best experienced from a distance and at different angles but take a close-up look for some amazing details.
Largest Mosque in Europe
The mosque reached its final proportions as the largest mosque in Europe with the third and final enlargement (991-4) by Amanzor. Eight full-length naves were added to increase the mosque floor area by almost 50%.
Artistically, this part is the least accomplished. It was clearly a choice of size over quality — for example, the red and white on the horseshoe arches are simply painted on rather than using alternating colored stones and brick, and the enlargement spoiled the symmetry of the building.
In the far corner is the Parish Church of the Tabernacle – it is often used for smaller services. Admission is from the street, so no sneaking into the Mezquita is possible afterward. Services here also do not influence the opening hours of the rest of the building.
This area also has several further Christian artworks. The reliefs near to and at the back of the high altar are particularly interesting.
Transept and Choir of the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral
It is of course impossible to overlook the transept and the choir enclosure that were added to the center of the Mezquita in the 16th and 17th centuries in a rather heavy-handed style, although even its critics have to admit it could have been a lot worse. Whether it should be seen as a wanton act of barbaric vandalism or, as the official brochure has it, “adds a beautiful complexity to the extraordinary building” is debatable. Charles V possibly put it best when he remarked they could have built it anywhere, and almost anywhere else it would have received all the praise without the criticism. As a Renaissance-Baroque cathedral, it is rather accomplished with artistic skill of a superlative level.
The Renaissance transept was commissioned by Bishop Alonso Menrique despite strong and long-standing local opposition. He obtained permission from the young Emperor Charles V. Whether Charles V ever remarked when he actually saw the project that they have destroyed something unique to build something that could have been done anywhere is controversial. He destroyed part of the Alhambra to build his own Renaissance palace and in his campaign against north Africa — so beautifully captured on tapestries in the Real Alcazar in Seville — hardly showed love or understanding for Islamic culture.
The main construction work was done between 1523 to 1606. The original concept was by Hernan Ruiz I, who used mostly Gothic vaulting following the original naves and aisles of the mosque.
His son, Renaissance star architect Hernan Ruiz II (the Younger), who also did the magnificent Chapter House and Giraldo Bell Tower capping at Seville Cathedral, took the work into a more Renaissance direction. He raised the transept and added eight flying buttresses. (His son, Hernan Ruiz III did the capping of the bellower)
The Mannerist dome of the transept and choir vault was done by Juan de Ochoa from 1599 to 1607. Baroque was the design style by the time work started on the main altar in 1618. The vaulting above the choir is similarly Baroque, as are the very impressive choir stalls commissioned from Pedro Duque Cornejo in 1748. The two pulpits are by Michel de Verdiguier in mahogany, marble, and jasper.
The two organs are partly still the originals from the 17th and 18th centuries. They are played from a central console. They may often be heard during the morning mass but the organist is often at practice too during the final minutes of the free sightseeing in the morning.
The enormous size of the original mosque prayer hall somewhat contributes to the Renaissance-Baroque enclosure seeming smaller than it actually is. The Latin cross layout measures a not-insignificant 75 m by 37.5 m. Somewhat surprisingly, this chancel area is completely separate from the Gothic nave with no attempt made of any integration of the two main Christian additions to the Mezquita.
The daily mass at 9:30 (noon and 13:30 on Sunday) is said in this chancel.
Bell Tower of the Mezquita in Córdoba
The Mezquita’s bell tower received its present Palladian appearance only in 1664. It was originally the minaret of the mosque but in contrast to Seville Cathedral, where the magnificent base of the minaret survived, here almost nothing of the original minaret can be seen from the outside, while many details are seen when ascending by stairs.
The original minaret had a double staircase that met only at the top and the bottom. Following a windstorm, repairs were necessary and a design by Hernan Ruiz III was used to add a new section on top of the minaret around 1600. A second gallery with bells was later added.
The weight of these additions led to structural damage to the minaret base and after the mid-17th century, the complete lower section of the minaret was encased and a new Baroque top was added by Gaspar de la Pena. The tower is topped by a giant statue of St Raphael — the guardian of Córdoba.
When climbing the bell tower, visitors go up to both galleries with bells for fantastic views of the Mezquita, the courtyard of the orange trees, the Guadalquivir valley, and the center of Córdoba. The view of the Mezquita roof helps to understand how the transept and the Gothic nave were added to tower over the lower roof sections of the original mosque. Several of the smaller skylights date from the Islamic period.
At 54 m the bell tower is the highest structure in the city.
Exterior of the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba
The main entrance to the courtyard is the Puerta del Perdon (Pardon Gate), which is a 14th-century Mudejar construction but further entrances are nowadays used to give access to the shady area of the galleries. The courtyard was originally used for ritual ablutions prior to visiting the mosque but the current layout and orange trees are from the Christian period.
In contrast, the direct entrances from the street to the mosque that are now permanently closed, are mostly the Moorish originals. They are in various states of conservation with the oldest those facing Calle de Torrijos. The doorway closest to the entrance to the courtyard, Puerta de San Sebastian (Door of St Sebastian) dates from 855 and is considered the oldest remains of Muslim architectural decoration in Spain and has the oldest Arabic inscriptions in the Mezquita.
On the same street, the final doorway before the river, the fairly plain and small Door of the Sabat was linked by a raised walkway to the palace to allow the caliph to easily reach the mosque for prayers. Several other entrances are highly decorated and maintained their original appearance but sometimes with a Spanish royal coat of arms added.
See Tips on Visiting the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral for opening hours, tickets and tours and See the Mezquita on Day Trips and Stopovers for visiting from, or en route to, other Spanish cities.