Europe’s first great mosque

Abd Al-Rahman, the half-Berber Umayyad prince, was firmly in control of the Iberian peninsula by the time Charlemagne became King of the Franks. He ruled until his death at age 58, which was long past the average life-expectancy of the time. The previously loosely-administered territory of Andalusia became a tightly-controlled kingdom where rebellion was not tolerated.

Abd al-Rahman’s last act to establish a legacy began to make Cordoba into a city of wonders in the time of his sons and grandsons. The mosque of Cordoba had been a primitive cathedral divided in two, for the use of Christians and Muslims. The emir bought out the Christian half and leveled the building site in 785.

There’s no question that Abd al-Rahman was openly competing with the new Abbasid capital, Baghdad. Baghdad was built in a few years by a massive workforce; the remodeling of Cordoba was on the same scale and speed. In one year, the mosque was complete. It’s still standing; it is the oldest Muslim structure in Europe.

The mosque’s building plan was simple. It traced a square with an open courtyard full of orange trees on one side, and a great hall for prayer on the other. The square was as nearly perfect as measurement of that time permitted. The hall was very large and open; its roof was supported by rows and rows of columns and arches.

D. L. Lewis, in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, says that the mosque was made entirely of stones cut for other purposes during Roman and Visigothic times. Marble and granite were mixed with some rare imported porphyry, probably brought from Egypt in Roman times. The pillars were all of Roman regulation height, topped with Roman capitals that didn’t always match each other.  But the Muslim architects made the roof much higher by placing a second tier of arches on top of the first, doubling the possible height. It’s an amazing feat to take columns and blocks cut for other buildings and use them with such precision.

The horseshoe-shaped arches were not much for load-bearing, but they were pretty. The arches were made of alternating slabs of sandstone and brick: red and white. The inner great prayer hall was a dizzying display of red and white arches in a forest of columns that mounted forty feet high. Over the next centuries, the original square expanded in all directions with rebuilding and remodeling. (Wikimedia Commons has a cute graphic showing each stage of remodeling.)

Arabic script (probably the newly reformed kind coming out of Baghdad) was carved into the stonework all around the mosque. Arabic’s flowing letters are not the easiest script to learn to read, but they are undeniably artistic. By the time Abd al-Rahman built the Great Mosque, Arabic had been ascendant for a hundred years. The translation project in Baghdad was soon copied in Cordoba. Arabic became an international academic language simply because it was the target into which everything was translated. Without a long written tradition of its own, it became the medium of everyone else’s written traditions. Anyone who mastered spoken and written Arabic could learn anything he wanted: Greek philosophy, Indian mathematics, Persian poetry, or Hebrew theology.

Arabic had no effect on the northern kingdoms of England, France and Germany, but it was the dominant language of the Mediterranean. It was spoken as a native language in Sicily and Malta, in addition to nearly all of Iberia. The language still spoken in Malta is a patois of Arabic blended with Latin and Italian. In medieval times, all serious scholars learned Arabic and even Christians and Jews wrote some treatises in Arabic. The Roman Catholic Church, far from being all-powerful, was seriously threatened as a cultural institution. Both Cordoba and Baghdad, on the other hand, were competitively ascendant.


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