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PHOTO/ The Cathedral of Cordoba

The Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain, a World Heritage Site, transformed a mosque into a monument of ongoing Christian worship, preserving Islamic architecture while adding Christian elements.

Interior of the Cathedral of Cordoba  (photo by Sharon Mollerus) Interior of the Cathedral of Cordoba (photo by Sharon Mollerus)

The Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain, a World Heritage Site, contains layers of history starting with a pagan temple, subsequently a Visigoth Church, then a mosque, and finally a Catholic Cathedral. The original Visigoth church of San Vincente was dedicated in the 6th century to the martyrs of the city from Roman times, including Faustus and Januarius. The apostolic founder of Cordoba is unknown, although the apostles St. James the Greater and St. Paul were evangelizing cities in Spain and are believed to have sent disciples there. Remnants of the tiled floor and of carved monuments from Visigoth times are on display.

After the Islamic conquest of the area, the church was destroyed in 785 to be replaced by a mosque. While incorporating the traditional courtyard and hall of prayer, the builders used materials from the destroyed church and Roman buildings and incorporated Hispanic-Roman architectural traditions, particularly with the famous 856 double arches consisting of a lower horseshoe arch and an upper semi-circular arch each.

Until Cordoba was re-conquered in 1236 by King Ferdinand II, the mosque underwent a series of renovations. A minaret was added to the courtyard for the call to prayer. The beautiful mihrab (the room where the imam leads prayer) was built with the help of Byzantine artists and architects. More arches were placed in a large expansion of the mosque.

When the Christians took over the mosque, instead of destroying the structure, they incorporated it into a church. The Eucharist was once more celebrated from the day of the re-conquest and continuously since then. The mihrab was transformed, and statues, chapels and engravings were added. The Villaviciosa Chapel, with Gothic elements, was then built in the 15th century. In 1523, the Gothic-Renaissance style Capilla Mayor was constructed in the center of the Church, including an altar and a choir with elaborate stalls built in the 18th century.

Controversy has recently surrounded the Cathedral built on the previous mosque. Muslim protesters from Austria staged a demonstration during a Good Friday service last year during which two security guards were seriously injured. A campaign on the part of some Muslims demands a place for worship within the cathedral.  Cordoba's Bishop Demetrio Fernández emphasizes that the Cathedral is a place of worship and has been so daily since its consecration in 1236. Art historians agree that the original Islamic structure was in fact preserved by being integrated into the Cathedral.