Great Mosque Of Cordoba Essay Contest

An organisation of Spanish Muslims has asked Pope Benedict XVI for permission to worship alongside Christians in the former Great Mosque of Córdoba, an elegant vestige of Moorish rule that was turned into a cathedral in the 13th century.

In a letter sent on Christmas Day to the Pope's ambassador in Spain, the Spanish Islamic Board requested that the world heritage site - known for its red and white arches and often filled with more tourists than worshippers - be opened for prayer by all religions as a model of tolerance and a way to foster inter-faith dialogue.

It was timed to capitalise on the Pope's recent goodwill gestures to defuse Muslim anger after he quoted disparaging remarks by a 14th-century Christian emperor about the Prophet Muhammad, said the president of the Islamic Board of Spain, Mansur Escudero.

"We invite you to create a new example, to send a message of hope to the world," says the letter, which was published yesterday on the Spanish Muslim website Webislam. "Do not fear. Together we can show the violent, the intolerant, the anti-semites, the Islam-phobes and also those who believe that only Islam has a right to remain in the world, that prayer is the strongest weapon imaginable."

Mr Escudero told the Guardian: "I believe there is a new climate of understanding. He is rectifying his position, and this is the right moment to make the bid. It would be a message of humanism that could have positive repercussions."

The letter refers to the Pope's visit last month to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, where he removed his shoes and prayed beside the city's Grand Mufti, Mustafa Cagrici. "Our proposal does not fit within a framework of false dialogue, as the Spanish Catholic Bishops' Conference claims, but it is inspired by the optimism caused by the image of Your Holiness in the Blue Mosque saying a prayer shoulder to shoulder in Islamic style."

The Spanish Muslims, the letter says, do not intend to take control of the building or "recover a nostalgic Al Andalus", the name for the large part of modern Spain that was under Islamic rule from the 8th century for about seven centuries.

Rather, they seek to restore the "spirit of Al Andalus", as Mr Escudero put it, when Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in relative harmony.

This is not the first time the organisation, made up mainly of Spanish Catholics who converted to Islam, has broached the subject with the Vatican. In 2004, the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue rejected a similar request, leaving the decision to Spanish church authorities, who oppose Muslim prayer at the cathedral.

The former mosque, built in the 8th century on the site of Visigoth church and a Roman temple, was once the second largest in the world. It was the jewel of the Muslim caliphs who ruled Córdoba when this small provincial capital was an international centre of scholarship. The mosque was expanded by successive rulers until the 13th-century Christian reconquest, when it became a cathedral.

Today the dark paintings of saints contrast with the stark rows of marble columns installed by caliphs. The mihrab, a stucco-decked prayer niche in the wall facing Mecca, is usually flanked by tour groups with video cameras. Any member of Spain's growing Muslim community who kneels to prayer before the mihrab will be scolded by a church security guard.

"It's scandalous," Mr Escudero said.

Will his letter reach the Pope's inbox? He is certain that it will. The Pope's ambassador in Spain has confirmed receipt and emailed it to the Vatican, he said.

The ability to criticise itself is one of Europe's greatest virtues. At times, however, it is coupled with a fatal tendency to be politically correct. Take, for instance, a recent online petition that was drafted in Spain in late 2013 by historians, lawyers and journalists, was signed by 91,000 people and caused a great stir.

The petition calls for La Mezquita, the cathedral in Cordoba, to be placed under state control. It claims that the current Bishop of Cordoba is co-opting the building "legally, economically and symbolically". Construction of the building began in the year 785 by Emir Abd al Rahman I. It became the main mosque for the city, which was then under Moorish rule. By 1009, it had been extended to make it the world's third-largest mosque. Then in 1236, it was consecrated as a cathedral during the Christian Reconquista.

The bishop, the petition says, is quietly removing Islamic symbols and has excised the word "mosque" from the official brochure of the "Mezquita Catedral". The entrance fees, which were recently raised drastically, allegedly go to the Catholic Church alone. All these factors, say the petitioners, disregard the fact that UNESCO made the Mezquita a world heritage site in 1986 because it considered the building a "symbol of harmony between different civilisations and religions".

A region of architectural palimpsests

That's a convincing argument, at least with regard to tolerance within early Islam. The emir's architects had no qualms about using nine hundred ancient pillars from ruined temples and early Christian basilicas from Roman Cordoba for the building, although they would have been considered "heathen" at the time. Some of them originated in St Vincent's Church, the predecessor to the mosque, which had served both Christians and Muslims before the Christian owners sold it to make way for the mosque.

By the time the emirate of Cordoba became a caliphate in the tenth century, the city's population had grown to 500,000. Muslims, Jews and Christians lived there, using and maintaining the Roman bridge (still standing today) – and building their places of worship unhindered. Small wonder then that nineteenth-century art historians theorised that Europe's Gothic architecture had its origins in the pointed arches and vaults of Spain's Moorish mosques and palaces.

It was not only Cordoba's Mezquita that served as a model example, so too did a wealth of other buildings. The best known of them is the Alhambra, built in Granada as a Nasrid palace in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; the most beautiful examples are found not only in Cordoba, but also in Toledo. The latter city's most frequently visited church, Santa Maria la Blanca, started out in 1180 as a synagogue in the Moorish style and was converted to Christian use in 1405 after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Another attraction is the small El Cristo de la Luz, built as a mosque in 999, declared a church in 1085 and extended in the Andalusian Moorish Mudejar style during the twelfth century.

An eyesore amid delicate architectural beauty

Hundreds of years later, such a Moorish-style extension would have been unthinkable. The further the Reconquista progressed, the more fanatical the approach to all traces of Moorish culture became. In 1227, Toledo's main mosque was not even protected from destruction by the fact that it had originally been the court church of the Visigoth kings. Ferdinand III, known as the saintly king, demanded an "untainted" Christian Gothic church and had the mosque demolished. In Cordoba, he was more tolerant: although the Mezquita was Christianised, it remained untouched aside from the installation of a number of small chapels.

Three hundred years later, all forbearance was gone. In 1523, the Bishop of Cordoba laid the foundation stone for a new cathedral in the middle of the mosque courtyards, in spite of protests from the city council. When Emperor Charles V viewed the almost complete church he is said to have commented: "You have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city." Nevertheless, such sentiments did not stop him from building a bunker-like cubic palace inside the Alhambra, an eyesore right in the middle of the delicate fabric of the Moorish courtyards and pavilions.

Denying the country's cultural history

From this perspective, the present Bishop of Cordoba, Demetrio Fernández, seems on a par with his dogged predecessor of 1523. The petitioners have yet to provide evidence of the alleged removal of Islamic symbols. Yet anyone can see that the bishop treats the Mezquita's tradition as a mosque as an insignificant episode in the building's history and has repeatedly stated that the building is "doubtlessly a cathedral".

The fact that the Mezquita, the indelible old name of the cathedral (officially called the "Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption"), is the Spanish word for mosque, changes nothing about the reprehensible nature of attempts to erase memories of its Moorish origins. In fact, it's rather ridiculous: anyone denying Spain's Moorish legacy is denying almost five hundred years of the country's cultural history – and falling back to the fanaticism of the Franco era, which ignored or dismissed as marginal everything Moorish.

A global trend

The petition claims that Cordoba's Mezquita is not the sole property of the Catholic Church (in 2006, Demetrio Fernandez had it entered in the land register is his own name), but a world heritage site for all humanity. This argument will be a decisive factor in the Andalusian regional government's current consultations on the matter.

That the petitioners' zeal is tinged with blue-eyed idealism is evident. The exemplary "harmony between different cultures" of which they rhapsodise is increasingly giving way to narrow-minded confrontation on the international stage. When the two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan — also a world heritage site that had survived unharmed one and a half millennia of Islamic rule as a cross between ancient Greek and regional art — were blown up as the work of "infidels" by mindless Taliban in 2001, the event was considered an exception.

Since then, however, we have seen ancient art in Kabul destroyed — or more frequently stolen and sold off — by Taliban because it was "heathen"; we have heard that American tanks drove over the ruins of Babylon in Iraq; we have witnessed ancient Egyptian treasures from the National Museum being shattered in the Cairo uprisings; and we have heard Muslim fundamentalists calling for the destruction of all ancient Egyptian monuments.

As stable as a shifting sand dune

The voices of well-meaning German architects supporting Egypt's claim for the return of the Nefertiti bust have long since fallen silent. Similarly, the recent demand in the Turkish parliament for the Hagia Sophia to become a mosque again caused little more than embarrassed silence in Europe, a silence in which the Spanish call might also fade away unheard. People are gradually coming to the conclusion that the common civilisational foundation spanning all faiths and ideologies, honoured ceaselessly by UNESCO, has become about as stable as a shifting sand dune.

Dieter Bartetzko

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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