A complex return to Cordoba

Double arcades in La Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain

Remember a few months ago when every other religion story was about the mosque to be built in Manhattan near Ground Zero? What happened with that whole thing? Anyway, the original name for that mosque project was Cordoba, after the city in Spain that once was ruled by Muslims. Proponents of the mosque said the name was in reference to good Middle Ages relations between Muslims and Christians who lived in Cordoba. But others thought that even if the relations were good by comparison to contemporaries, the time period referenced involved some painful religious oppression of Christians.

Last week, the New York Times had a great "journal" article "Name Debate Echoes an Old Clash of Faiths" about modern Cordoba and its cathedral. It's a really interesting and well written read and the piece includes many different Muslim and Christian perspectives. Here's how it begins:

The great mosque of Cordoba was begun by the Muslim caliphs in the eighth century, its forest of pillars and red-and-white striped arches meant to convey a powerful sense of the infinite. With the Christian reconquest of Spain in the 13th century, it was consecrated as a cathedral.

Today, signs throughout this whitewashed Andalusian city refer to the monument, a Unesco World Heritage site, as the "mosque-cathedral" of Cordoba. But that terminology is now in question. Last month, the bishop of Cordoba began a provocative appeal for the city to stop referring to the monument as a mosque so as not to "confuse" visitors.

For now, the matter is largely semantic because the mayor says the city will not change its signs. But the debate goes far beyond signs. It is the latest chapter in the rich history of the most emblematic monument in Christian-Muslim relations in Europe -- and a tussle over the legacy of "Al Andalus," when part of Spain, under the Muslim caliphs, was a place of complex coexistence among Muslims, Christians and Jews.

The "confusion" is later explained as some Muslims trying to pray in the cathedral and related acts. But it's that first paragraph that I found intriguing. It's not wrong -- the great mosque of Cordoba was begun by Muslim caliphs in the eighth century. And when the Christians got Spain back in the 13th century, it was consecrated as a cathedral.

But what's missing? The same thing that seems to be missing in most stories about Cordoba. And that's the Cathedral of St. Vincent. It was the church that was taken over by Muslims in order to build the great mosque. From Reinhart Dozy's book Spanish Islam: A History of the Muslims in Spain):

All the churches in that city had been destroyed except the cathedral, dedicated to S. Vincent, but the possession of this fane had been guaranteed to the Christians by treaty. For several years the treaty was observed; but when the population of Cordoba was increased by the arrival of Syrian Arabs, the mosques did not provide sufficient accommodation for the new-comers, and the Syrians considered that it would be well for them to adopt the plan which had been carried out at Damascus, Emesa, and other towns in their own country, of appropriating half of the cathedral and using it as a mosque. The Government having approved of the scheme, the Christians were compelled to hand over half of the edifice. This was clearly an act of spoliation, as well as an infraction of the treaty. Some years later 'Abd-er-Rahman I requested the Christians to sell him the other half. This they firmly refused to do, pointing out that if they did so they would not possess a single place of worship. 'Abd-er-Rahman, however, insisted, and a bargain was struck, by which the Christians ceded their cathedral for a hundred thousand dinars, but obtained permission to rebuild the churches which had been destroyed. 'Abd-er-Rahman on this occasion acted equitably, but such was not always the case . . .

More here. Now, I don't mean to say that the architecture of the mosque builders isn't amazing or the reason why it's such a tourist attraction. It's just a bit of a historical disservice to fail to note that the mosque was built on St. Vincent's.

Anyway, the piece really is good on the whole. It has comments from the bishop and others in the diocese, the local Muslim community (which has diverse views on the matter), a mention of Osama bin Laden's views, etc. etc.

But there is that one gap and it's an important one. Facts matter. History matters. That's why the word "Cordoba" is so symbolic -- for millions and millions of believers.

Please respect our Commenting Policy