I visited Cordoba on a quiet Sunday afternoon, when it gave little evidence of having been the most populace city in the world during the 10th century when it served as home base for Caliph al Hakam II. Its current residents seemed to be all quietly at home, although there was a bustling center of activity in the tourist quarter, centered around the famous Mezquita. Although its still known as “the Great Mosque,” the building now serves as the regional Cathedral and has since 1236 when Ferdinand III oversaw the reconquest of the area and converted the building to a christian site. The current tenants don’t seem to be inclined to play well or share their toys with others; the local diocese and the Vatican have repeatedly refused requests by Muslims to be allowed to pray at the Mosque/Cathedral. The Christian conversion has at least this in its defense – it probably preserved the building from total destruction during the peak of the Spanish Inquisition.
My disapproval of that small mindedness not withstanding, I was appropriately blown away by the stunning renaissance nave at the center of the mosque – both for its intrinsic beauty and for the mesmerizing strangeness of the contrast. Entering the building, it gives the impression of infinitely repeating arches – rather like the CG creation of Moria for the Peter Jackson Fellowship of the Rings. The iconic red and white striped arches pull the eye around the space, repeating into seeming infinity. It’s dark, muted, slightly oppressive and feels quiet despite the throngs of fellow tourists. As you move further into the space there are intrusions of light from above – small chapel interventions added by the Christian occupiers and then suddenly a high, bright riot of airy space that feels transported out of the English countryside – Ely or Canterbury. The contrast is hard to process and I found myself wandering back and forth between the two spaces, trying to feel a sense of place in one and then the other.