Why we can all learn a lesson from Córdoba, Spain
There's no city in the world quite like Córdoba. Situated in the south of Spain, Córdoba has all the quaint charm of a muggy summer town. In May, colorful baskets of dainty flowers hang from hooks on whitewashed walls outside homes and businesses. It's easy to get lost in the narrow roads ― roads cars couldn’t possibly fit through and whose houses boast beautifully decorated patios. All the houses are white with bright yellow and baby blue fringes as if the whole city had a color scheme. Strolling through the streets of Córdoba in July, in a daze due to the intense heat, I could have easily surrendered myself to the city’s ambiance alone. However, I wouldn’t be able to truly understand Córdoba without knowing its history. Córdoba’s past is so turbulent that it’s hard to forget.
Córdoba is situated in the south of Spain, also called the Andalucia region. a part of the Roman empire, Andalucia was conquered by the nomadic Visigoths from northern Europe during the Dark Ages. The Moors soon took over, spreading Islam and building lavish mosques throughout the region. After a brief period of Jewish rule, the Reconquista of the 13th century converted Spain to Christianity. The Andalucia region was one of the last strongholds of the Moors before Catholicism reigned.
From these religious upheavals came the Córdoba of today: a blend of Christianity and Islam —much like how Istanbul serves as the crossroads for the world’s three major religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). When in Córdoba last summer, I visited its most famous site: the Mezquita. The outside of the building was deceptively unappealing, standing only 40 feet tall and hidden from view until I stood directly in front of it. Little did I know that this building would change my perspective on the world forever.
Upon walking in, rows of towering red and white striped arches greeted me. They seemed to go on forever, stretching back as far as my eyes could reach. The columns were so wide that I could stand behind one and be completely hidden from view. I recognized these arches — with geometric patterns instead of religious figures — and the wide open spaces between them, as classic to Islamic architecture. To my right, the mihrab — a traditional Islamic prayer room — stood bedazzled in rich gold. Everything pointed to the Mezquita being a mosque.
Half an hour of exploring later, I was astonished to come face-to-face with a grand Christian chapel. It was built in baroque style, with pearl-white marble columns, an extravagantly detailed dome ceiling and a religious nave. It was then that I began to realize how vast the Mezquita actually was. In its height of operation, the Mezquita had 19 doors leading into the complex. After an hour, I looked around and didn’t know what part of the building I was standing in. I couldn’t even find the room with the red and white arches where I’d started. Each section was unique from the rest, and each seemed to embody Christian architecture, Islamic architecture or a blend of both. Right beside the chapel was another section of Islamic arches, but the ceiling was built in the gothic Christian style.
I’d never been in such a strange place before. Everywhere I looked, my eyes found two types of designs: two different colors of columns, two different ceiling heights and two different types of floor tiles. The architectural styles conflicted with each other but coincided at the same time.
Instead of leveling the building and constructing a new place of worship from scratch, the Christians blended their style with the pre-existing Islamic mosque during the Reconquista. A large Christian nave was placed in the center of the building where open space had been before. The Christians built upwards: Elaborate ceilings were added to the tops of the Islamic arches. Some parts are distinctly Islamic, others distinctly Christian. Today, the Mezquita is 70 percent mosque and 30 percent church. But somehow, it works.
My whole life, I’ve seen religions clash around me. My parents are first-generation Indian immigrants. My grandfather fled Bangladesh in his twenties due to the persecution of Hindus by Muslims. I still hear stories of the continuing conflicts between India and Pakistan over the land of Kashmir between them. In the U.S., I’ve grown up surrounded by the clash between Muslims and Christians. Our war with the Islamic world is still raging, both physically in the Middle East and mentally in our effortless stereotyping of Muslims in the U.S.
The Mezquita was the first physical manifestation I’d seen of what I had never thought possible. The world’s largest religions were supporting each other instead of tearing each other down. There would be no baroque ceiling without the support of the red and white arches below. The mosque provided the foundation, but the church made the Mezquita unique. Córdoba is comfortable with its roots and embraces all that has made it unique. While Spain is predominantly Catholic, Córdoba knows that its Islamic influence has shaped the city today.
Still, nothing is perfect. While technically labeled as a Mosque-Cathedral Monument Complex, Muslims are not allowed to pray in the Mezquita today. At one point, Visigothic Christians and Muslims split the building as a place of prayer, but modern religious wars have made this impossible. It makes me wonder: Have we, in recent years, ruined something that used to work? It was certainly possible for both groups to pray at the same site before. The architects of the Mezquita embraced the idea. Why is everything distinct and divided now?
The original intent, however, shouldn’t be lost on us. Places like Córdoba and the Mezquita — while not flawless in modern times — still exist. The U.S. is a melting pot of cultures, but religious tolerance has a long way to go. We — myself included — can’t walk down the streets without labeling people based on their religious beliefs or race. It’s inherent. But that doesn’t make it an excuse. Deep inside me lies a hope that, if Córdoba managed to house two different religions under the same building hundreds of years ago, we can do it now too.