A Question of Coexistence

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Biblioteca de la Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid
A Christian consulting an Arabic text during a chess game with a Muslim, in an illumination from the Libro de ajedrez, dados y tables (Book of Chess, Dice, and Tables) of Alfonso X the Learned, 1283; from The Arts of Intimacy

Step into the Great Mosque of Córdoba—the Mezquita—and you find yourself transported to a world in which time appears to stand still and space to be dissolved (see illustration on page 42). Everywhere you look, you are faced by long, receding vistas of columns, some 850 in all, from which rise double tiers of intersecting horseshoe arches of alternating white stone and red brick. The overwhelming impression is one of regularity and uniformity and, above all, timeless serenity.

Yet look a little closer and what at first seemed uniform displays traces of diversity. The marble columns, for instance, are far from being identical. When Abd al-Rahman I, the emir of the Islamic outpost of al-Andalus, embarked on the construction of the Great Mosque in the year 780 of the Christian era, he made use of columns and capitals pillaged from Visigothic and Roman buildings over a vast swath of territory running from North Africa to Narbonne.

If the mosque evoked the great monuments of Umayyad Syria from which Abd al-Rahman had fled when his dynasty was overthrown, it also drew inspiration from the Roman buildings and the local vernacular forms of Visigothic Spain. Indeed, according to tradition it was partly built on the ruins of the demolished Visigothic church of San Vicente, a place of worship that Muslims had shared with Christians until the new construction began. San Vicente itself had been built on the ruins of a Roman temple. Medieval Córdoba, with the Great Mosque at its center, was a place where cultures and civilizations met and intertwined.

Yet however eclectic its architectural forms, the Great Mosque was also a triumphant assertion of the dominance of Islam—a dominance that in the time of Abd al-Rahman I and his Umayyad successors extended to all but the northern fringes of the Iberian peninsula, where the Christians still held out. That dominance had begun when a Berber army crossed the straits of Gibraltar in 711 and overthrew the Visigothic state, the heir to Roman Spain. The conquest was swift, and what became the Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba reached the zenith of its power in the tenth century. Christian visitors were dazzled by the riches and splendor of the caliphate, but these concealed an internal fragility that would lead to power struggles, which in turn were followed by descent into civil war. In 1031 the caliphate fragmented into more than twenty petty states, known as the Taifa kingdoms. With the downfall of the Umayyads the great days of Córdoba were at an end, but its place as a center of Islamic civilization was taken by Toledo, located on what was then the caliphate’s northern frontier with …

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