Question: Where in the world was a grove of brick palm trees “planted” indoors to point the way toward Paradise?
Answer: The Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain
In the eighth century, when Muslims and Christians shared Cordoba peacefully, both initially used the ruins of an old Roman-turned-Visigoth temple for religious services. Caliph Abd ar-Rahman I purchased half of the old church to use only for Muslim prayers; a few years later, he bought the other half, and began a series of expansions that would yield the Mezquita, one of the world’s most beautiful and influential mosques.
The interior was a departure from the style of the earlier great mosques, which emphasized lofty domes; the Mezquita had a flat ceiling supported by more than 1,200 double-high arches. Alternating bands of red brick and white stone fan out on each arch to mimic the curved shape. Shorter arches top taller ones, which sit on dark bases, adding not only height but an optical illusion of depth of field. The combined effect of the stripes and suggestion of distance was intended to make the interior resemble fields of date palm trees sweeping toward an unseen horizon. This was meant to invoke paradise, because dates, mentioned more than any other fruit in the Koran, were symbols of the sacred and heavenly. For that same reason, date palm trees appear in many Islamic logos (including the flag of Saudi Arabia) even today.
Despite the Islamic influence that created most of what you see today at Mezquita, the shifting tide of religious power means that Christianity reasserted itself in the 16th century, with a cathedral that was built smack dab in the middle of the mosque. Since then, 50 small chapels have been built, tucked in among Islamic doorways and arches. The sprawling complex now covers 250,000 square feet, making it one of the ten largest mosques by size in the world, but with a big caveat: Despite being officially named The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, the UNESCO World Heritage Site no longer allows Muslim prayers, only Catholic mass. For now, the era of religious coexistence is as distant as the imagined horizon beyond the date palm arches.
8 Things to Look for at the Mezquita
- Court of the Oranges: The spot where supplicants did their ablutions before prayer, this courtyard of cypress, palm, and orange trees is entered by a 14th-century Mudejar-style arch.
- Bell Tower: Built as a minaret for the call to prayer in the tenth century, this 150-foot tower was the model for minarets around the world—until 16th-century Christians encased it in a thick outer shell and crowned it with bells.
- Prayer Hall: The arcaded main hall boasts a stunning 856 columns made of onyx, marble, granite, jasper, and porphyry, some of it salvaged from the Roman ruins that first occupied the site.
- Mihrab: At the south end of the wall facing Mecca sits the mihrab, where the congregation gathers for prayer; decorated with gold cubes, its heart is a scallop shell that was designed to amplify the voice of the Imam.
- Maksura: Flanking the mihrab are two bays known as the maksura, where the ruling caliphs and their attendants could pray away from the riff raff; its multiple domes are formed from crisscrossing arches illuminated with natural light.
- The Cathedral: In the 16th century, King Carlos ordered the creation of a new cathedral at the heart of the mosque but hated the results, so construction started over several times, not ending until 1766. The end result boasts Baroque-influenced features, mahogany stalls, and a marble and jasper altar wall.
- The Choir: The Baroque choir features elaborately carved wooden stalls, reliefs of Biblical scenes, and intricate decoration from floor to ceiling, nearly three stories high.
- The Door of Forgiveness: Actually two doors—one from the street leading through a covered chamber to a second that opens into the Garden of Oranges—this portal blends Christian-era friezes of saints with Islamic arches and geometrical design, the perfect encapsulation of the Mezquita’s multiple identities.
Immerse yourself in a world where Islamic and Catholic traditions have yielded some of the most memorably architecture on earth during your Iberian Voyage: Lisbon to Barcelona.