The cavernous space of La Mezquita in Córdoba makes me think of Russian dolls. Standing right in the middle of the 8th century mosque is a perfectly formed Renaissance cathedral. What is more, the mosque grew out of an earlier Visigoth church, which was itself built on the remains of a Roman temple.

La Mezquita, Cordoba
The vast spaces of La Mezquita in Cordoba

History of La Mezquita, Córdoba

In an early example of religious tolerance, the Visigoth church of San Vicente in Córdoba was originally shared equally by Moors and Christians. A new mosque was later built on the site, but it bounced back into Christian ownership in the 13th century. The story goes that King Carlos V gave permission for the building of a new Catholic cathedral on the site in 1523, only to express horror at the final result, saying that the architects had “destroyed what was unique in the world”. However, that act of destruction itself created something unique. Even by the standards of southern Spain, with its blend of different cultures, La Mezquita is extraordinary in its fusion of Moorish and Renaissance architecture.

La Mezquita, Cordoba
The cathedral sits at the centre of the old mosque

Architecture of La Mezquita

The interior is a photographer’s dream: long lines of red and white stone arches stretching into the distance; spaces so vast that it felt empty despite the tour groups. I tried to imagine what it must have been like in the early days, packed with thousands of Muslim worshippers. In fact, La Mezquita is so huge that it would almost be possible to overlook the cathedral that rises majestically from the centre.

What makes it unique is not only the intersection of the two traditions, but their interaction. The prayer wall of the mosque still stands, leaving the perpetual mystery of why it faces south, rather than southeast towards Mecca. Christian side chapels have been built in the arched recesses of the mosque walls.

Side chapel in La Mezquita, Cordoba
Chapels have been built into the old arches

My eye was caught by a place where a Renaissance arch rises immediately above a Moorish one, creating a strange but oddly pleasing juxtaposition of styles. Elsewhere, shafts of coloured light from the cathedral’s stained glass illuminate a gloomy stone corner of the old mosque.

Arches in La Mezquita, Cordoba
A Renaissance arch sits above a Moorish one

Córdoba a World Heritage Site

The whole of the historic centre of Córdoba is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a recognition of the city’s long history and cultural mix.

As we left La Mezquita, we walked through the Patio de los Naranjos, the courtyard of the original mosque. Today it was full of people eating their lunchtime sandwiches and enjoying the spring sunshine. But for us it was time to explore the historic streets beyond, where the Moorish and Spanish influences were evident in a different way: the variety of places to shop and eat.

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