Alex Blaze

On the Cordoba House, with pictures

Filed By Alex Blaze | August 23, 2010 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Christian beliefs, Manhattan, Muslims, New York, park51, spain

I'm surprised to see people still discussing Park51 in Manhattan - I thought I was late to the party on this tired issue when I posted about it two weeks ago. But then it's really not that surprising, when one breaks down the issue to see what it has to offer everyone:

  1. Conservatives like it because they can be racist in one of the many acceptable ways in the US, confuse the issue, and talk about that instead of the economic downturn because, should they win in November, they intend to deepen and prolong the current recession.
  2. Pundits and journalists like it because it doesn't take any policy knowledge to understand it and it comes with a clean liberal/conservative divide.
  3. Liberals like it because we can call conservatives racist without questioning our own privilege since it's not like most of us are going to feel the consequences one way or the other.

patio-de-los-naranjos.JPGIt's win-win-win, so maybe we'll be talking about this local issue in November. We all know certain people would love that outcome.

What is depressing about this pseudo-debate is that Muslims in America are the most likely to suffer its consequences, which, in this day and age, will probably include violence. Moreover, outside of the organizers of the project, we've barely heard from Muslims themselves what they think about this project. Do they actually want this community center? Would they go to it if it's constructed, especially now that rightwing polemicists like Sean Hannity and Pamela Geller have put a big bulls-eye on it? It's ultimately the decision of the local community, and I hope that our liberal zeal on this issue doesn't impose on others a need to build a community center at that exact spot.

Anyway, that's not what I wanted to post about. What I did want to discuss was the Mezquita, a temple, then church, then mosque, then cathedral in Cordoba, Spain, that Park51 has been compared to because it was originally named the Cordoba House. I was just there last October, so a bit of history and some pictures are after the jump.

map-mezquita.jpgThe Mezquita is one of the architectural gems of Europe, a building that was both Christian and Muslim, with both architectural traditions preserved because they were literally built one on top of the other. It was Roman temple to Janus that became a Visigoth church, St. Vincent of Zaragosa, until Spain was taken over by the Moors and Cordoba became the capital of the Caliphate that controlled more than half of the Iberian peninsula. For over two hundred years the building was expanded to an enormous size of 23,400 square meters, distinguished by 1300 stone columns (many from the original Roman temple) connected by red and yellow/white arches (in several styles from the different periods of reconstruction):


This is the part that conservatives love to mention: a Christian church was turned to a mosque at the site of a Muslim conquest. That's accurate, although it's not unique at all; most cultures construct their own houses of worship on territory they take over. Take, for example, how missionaries were among the first buildings Europeans constructed when they came into a new part of the Americas.

Another example is the Mezquita itself, which was taken from the Pagans and turned Christian, and then taken back over by Christians in the 13th century. It was more than converted into a Christian church or destroyed, as lots of religious buildings in Spain were; the nave of a cathedral was built smack-dab in the middle of the thing. Enlarge the pic before the jump, taken from the orangery and garden just outside, and you can see the lower mosque parts on the outside and the Catholic cathedral part jutting out in the middle.

When I visited the site, it took a few minutes of walking and searching in the arch part to find the church part in the middle. The arch part is fairly dark - the pic above is from Wikipedia and is much brighter than it is for visitors. But the cathedral part in the middle is typical Renaissance church architecture that is found all over Europe and is very bright in comparison to the rest of the building. Here's a picture I took of the church from the first pew:


Then I turned around, and here's the back of the nave, the rest of the pews, and the arches surrounding the whole thing (many of my pictures didn't turn out well that day, but click to enlarge and you can see the arches in the background):


Another highlight of the Mezquita is the mihrab, a niche that normally faces Mecca but instead faces south:


It's hard to see in that photo, but the artwork along the sides has diamonds set in it and the whole thing sparkles in the semi-dark atmosphere. There are also plenty of chapels and frescos and tombs and other markers of Christianity all over the arched part, mixing both faiths even though the mixing wasn't a peaceful one at all; rather, it was two faiths fighting for dominance.

Which is to say that, while it's true that the mosque was built at Cordoba over a Christian church, the opposite happened several centuries later. In fact, when you actually go and see the thing, the most obvious story is the "Christianity taking over Islam" part of the history, not the other way around.

Either way, nowadays it's in a country that's increasingly rejecting Christianity, making the Mezquita neither a church nor a mosque, but a tourist attraction.


The darker pics are by me, the well-lit ones are from Wikipedia.

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How beautiful - it's a shame that humans need to go and ruin everything.

Fascinating. Thanks for that Alex. You go to so many cool places that it's great to see some snapshots and get a quick history lesson too.

Michael Wieben | August 24, 2010 5:03 AM

Alex is absolutely right. It's a pity that they developers felt the need to change the name of the Center. "Cordoba House" reflects history,mixed cultures and, even if only for a few hundred years, tolerance.