Page C1.1 . 18 January 2006                     
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    Postcard from Cordoba

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    The Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, a cathedral within a mosque. Photography by Terri Whitehead.

    Dear ArchitectureWeek,

    The Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain (also known as La Mesquita) is a famous architectural and cultural collage. It is a dizzying blend of Moorish arches and Gothic spires, frequently illuminated by the flashbulbs of hoards of tourists.

    The history of the building is also an amalgam: Between 784-786, the Great Mosque of Cordoba was built on the site of the Visigothic church San Vicente, which itself had been built over the ruins of an early Roman temple. In 1236, with the reconquest of Spain, the mosque was converted to a cathedral and, for nearly 300 years, local Christians worshipped in this striking Islamic structure, objecting to any fundamental changes to its fabric. In the 1600s, however, a Gothic cathedral was constructed — inside the mosque.

    This highly controversial and unconventional architectural move preserved much of the surrounding mosque, but drastically altered the circulation through the spaces, the structure of the building, and the character of the spaces. The interior is much darker than I imagined it would be — a series of little square rooflights pop out the top, like another set of small buildings, visible from a nearby palace tower. The striking red and white arches of the large, low mosque remain in stark contrast to the glorious and pointed gothic interior with its flying buttresses and ornamental ceilings.

    The mosque and cathedral rely on each other for structure, function, and tourist revenue. Many of the interior columns were reclaimed from older Roman ruins and reused here. The adventurous spirit of blending cultures means that Muslims and Catholics respect the same sacred spaces. However, the spirit of acceptance is somewhat less evident now. Guards forcibly eject any Muslims attempting to pray, and architecture students are scolded for sketching.

    The building is more than an architectural anomaly; it is an integral part of the city’s urban fabric and an ornate part of the material culture of Islamic-influenced Andalusia. The Great Mosque of Cordoba deserves its esteemed reputation as one of the architectural wonders of the world.

    On the road in Cordoba, Spain,

    Terri Whitehead


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