Mezquita in Cordoba

Interviewed by Yasuko Iguma for "Geijutu Shincho" Autum, 2004



Q___ There still remain imposing Islamic buildings built from the 8th to 14th centuries in Andalusia in Southern Spain. They are the legacy of Muslims who came to the Iberian Peninsula all the way from the Middle East, aren't they? I would like to know their distinctive features.

A___ Before talking about the Islamic architecture of Spain, let me explain shortly that of the Middle East as its origin.
Although Islam was born early in the 7th century in Arabia, it was in the 8th century that the so-called 'Islamic architecture' appeared. As most people were nomadic in Arabia at that time, building for settlement had not developed much. Even in urban areas there might not have been high-level structures.
The only building of the age that remains in current Arabia is Kaaba in Makka (Mecca). This was a temple dedicated to many polytheistic gods until 630 when Muhammad smashed the idols in accordance with the sole God's revelation. Kaaba means 'cube' in Arabic but the building itself is not as valuable in an architectural point of view.
After the death of Muhammad in 632, Muslim troops conquered all of the Arab areas very quickly and reached the Iberian Peninsula after crossing the strait of Gibraltar in 711. Since the conquered area was too vast, Muslims didn't have enough time to nurture Islamic culture elaborately either in Arabia or in their dominions at the early stage. They had their hands full with the administration and maintenance of public order in their dominions. Having no time to study what was the most suitable building form for Islam compelled them to utilize existing buildings in the regions. It resembles the American force utilizing existing buildings for their base of administration in Iraq.
For instance, Syria and Persia, which Muslim troops had recently conquered, had been ruled before by the Roman Empire or Eastern Christianity, so that Muslims utilized Byzantine churches or chapels converted from Roman temples, at first leaving them intact as their worship spaces or Mosques.

Q___ Did they expel Christians?

A___ No, they made use of the places communally. Muslims coexisted with people of other religions, levying poll taxes on them in indemnification for the freedom of religion. I consider it quite a rational policy. They shared a praying room at different times or days for worship, or separating the space by making a wall or stretching a rope. Afterward in accordance with the diminution of the other religion's followers, they gradually modifyed the places into exclusive Islamic worship facilities.

Q___ Which parts did they use to improve?

A___ Firstly the directions of worship are not compatible each other. Most of Christian churches have their alters at the eastern end, but in Islam all of mosques are directed to Kaaba in Makka. They can coincide haphazardly, but are usually different.
@ Since Muhammad regarded himself as one of the prophets as Moses or Jesus were, he equated Judaism and Christianity with Islam as brother religions, and their followers as the same 'People of the Book.' So, he and believers used to worship in the direction of Jerusalem following the Jews at the beginning.
However, as an antagonism to the preceding religions grew, he changed the direction of worship (qibla) to Makka, his birthplace. This direction has been strictly calculated and maintained until now. Astronomy has develolped so highly in the Islamic society since the ancient time that every mosque in the world has been set in the correct direction.

Elements of a Mosque
Indispensable elements for a mosque

Q___ What are the essential elements for Mosques?

A___ Basically there are four elements. The first is the 'Qibla Wall.' When facing this wall, one can turn toward Makka. Even if there is no roof, the wall is indispensable. Then, a niche called 'Mihrab' is excavated there in order to elucidate that wall is the Qibla wall.
On the right side of the Mihrab is a pulpit called 'Minbar.' It is made of stone or wood, on the steps of which a leader called 'Imam' preaches. Small mosques don't have it though. You may see quite simple ones protruding from stone walls, or magnificent ones with handrails and canopies. The origin is chair-like steps on which Muhammad used to sit when preaching in Madina.
The last important element is 'Minaret,' a tower from which the 'Muazzin' call out to the followers to come to worship. As there were no speakers, he went up 5 times a day to announce the time of worship in his natural voice. Besides these four elements, there are also entrance gates, courtyards, fountains for ablution, roofs to block sunlight, and so on.

Q___ Can we go into a Mihrab?

A___ Yes, everyone can go in, except in some regions. As it is often embellished gorgeously, you may have a feeling of hesitation to go closer, but it is simply a device to indicate the direction to Makka. Its function is completely different from 'apse' in a Christian church where sacred rituals are performed.


Q___ What is the first piece of Islamic architecture in Spain?

A___ Among the existing buildings, Cordoba's Mezquita (* mosque) is the oldest. The first part of the mosque was constructed in 786 and enlarged later. Although it is Umayyad royalty who ordered its construction, masons and carpenters were Berbers coming from North Africa or Visigoths settled in the Iberian Peninsula. You can see that most of arches in this mosque are of horseshoe shape. That form was inherited from Visigoth Christian churches built prior to the advent of Islam. Besides, early Islamic buildings used to reuse the materials of previous buildings.
(* An Islamic worship space is referred to as 'Masjid' in Arabic, which changed into 'Mezquita,' when it came to Spain. Then spreading to Northern Europe, it has been corrupted to French 'Mosquée' or English 'Mosque.')

Q___ Did the columns under the arcades in Cordoba's Mosque come from Christian churches too?

A___ Yes, in addition to that, many Roman columns anterior to Christianity were used. The arch structure itself is traced back to about the 40th century B.C.E. in Mesopotamia, and it was diversified especially in Islamic architecture. An arch is, so to speak, a curved beam piling stones or bricks in a radial manner. It is easier to span a horizontal wooden beam, but from lack of wood in desert areas where Islam came into existence, the arch structure with bricks made of clay was highly developed.

Various arches
Various arch-forms in Islamic Architecture

Q___ What variety of arches are there?

A___ The simplest one is a 'semicircular arch.' Then a 'pointed arch' is the shape of an almond that the overlapped parts of two circles make. There is also a 'horseshoe arch.' It was Englishmen who saw it as a 'horseshoe,' while Frenchmen referred to it as an 'arc outrepassé' instead of a horseshoe. It might be 'over-extended arch' in a literal translation. As a curve drawn by a pair of compasses goes beyond a semicircle, it is called so.
Another one is a 'four centered arch' combining four circular arcs. An arch consisting of many small circles is referred to as 'multi-lobed arch.' Although the most frequently used arch in Spanish Islamic architecture is the horseshoe arch, multi-lobed arches are also seen in the Cordoba's Mezquita.

Q___ Why are the arches of Cordoba's Mezquita two-tiered?

A___ Because they reused columns taken from Roman temples or Visigoth churches and after being cut to make them all of uniform height, those columns became quite short. The mosque needed enough ceiling height to accommodate a number of followers for congregational worship. The available columns were so short that they placed the arcades one on top of another.
Instead of the usual manner where the upper part of the arcade is walled up, they placed two tiers of arcades in leaving the interspace vacant. The resulting perspective is overwhelming. If there had been long enough columns from the inception, those beautiful two-tiered arcades would not have been created. It was not generated simply by aesthetic intention but by a rational reason. Creating a surrealistic space only composed of indispensable components: that is the magnificent character of Islamic architecture.

Arcade of Cordoba
Arcade of Cordoba's Mezquita

Q___ The arches striped in red and white are very impressive, aren't they?

A___ Making arches by piling whitish stones and reddish brown bricks alternately produced a striped effect. Compared with the method using quarried stones entirely, it was much less laborious and expensive to combine them with bricks. And they didn't coat the surface of the bricks and left them natural, that might have been the intention to get a color effect.
Such striped arches as well as glass mosaics are Byzantine arts that Umayyads, who had ruled Arabian empire from Syria in the 7th century, brought to the Iberian Peninsula. This manner spread north to France and influenced the famous Romanesque church, Ste Madeleine in Vézelay.


Q___ Do most Islamic buildings in Spain belong to the Umayyad age?

A___ Older ones do. Talking about a historical issue, after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, his successors ('khalifa') commanded believers for a good while; the age of Orthodox Caliphate. Then the Umayyad family staged a coup d'état in 661 to establish the Umayyad dynasty. Syria, the base of the Umayyad family, had been a region of Byzantine Empire, namely the area of Western Christianity at that time. Umayyad turned Damascus, the second largest city after Constantinople in the empire, into the capital of the Arabian Empire. That's why the Umayyad succeeded Byzantine culture.
The Muslims who ruled Cordoba from 756 to 1031 were the Umayyad people who came to the Iberian Peninsula to escape from Syria after Abbasid family's coup d'état in 750. Since Cordoba's Mezquita was constructed by the Umayyads, it was considerably influenced by Byzantine architecture. For instance, the mosaic ornament around the mihrab was made of mosaic pieces gifted by the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, that are colored with glass tesserae more brilliant than stones with a base of gold foil. Islamic architecture of Umayyads' Spain thus succeeded the bright Byzantine arts.

Islam in Spain
Islamic Architecture in Spain

Q___ How long did the Umayyad dynasty survive?

A___ The late Umayyad dynasty built by the princes escaping from the Middle East survived until the 11th century. On the other hand in the Middle East, most of the areas centered in current Iraq were governed by the Abbasid dynasty from 750 to 1258. They originally were oriental desert's people but settled in Baghdad as a capital. As they developed the culture of earth in contrast to that of stone of Umayyad, they constructed buildings with adobe (sun-dried bricks) and burnt bricks.
It caused significant difference in architecture: in the regions conquered by Umayyads, buildings have a Byzantine appearance, and in the regions conquered by Abbasids, they are oriental brick structures. The culture of Abbasid came to Spain later nevertheless.

Q___ The cathedral of Seville is well known for its tower of the Giralda an impressive 50m. Was it originally a minaret belonging to a mosque built after the collapse of the Umayyad?

A___ Yes, this minaret was constructed by the Almohads who were Berbers from North Africa and governed Andalusia in the 12th century. It was built of bricks like Abbasid buildings.
Interestingly, as Muslims converted bell towers of Christian churches into minarets in early times, they built new minarets in a square shape following the style of Christian bell towers. But a minaret is a slender tower that a Muezzin goes up the inside stairs to call followers to worships from the top. It doesn't need to be big, and a spiral staircase is more economical to construct, so round minarets became the main current.
However, in the North Africa and Andalusia far from the Middle East, the tradition of square minarets has remained since the 8th century Umayyad. La Giralda as a square minaret belongs to such a cultural sphere of Western Islam.


Q___ Why does Islamic architecture have a plain appearance?

A___ In a word, it doesn't attach importance to the exterior view. Primarily, the ésprit of Islam is simplicity and fortitude without ostentation, it is even possible to say practicality only. That's the teaching of Muhammad. although decorations increased as time went by, lavish adornment is actually not suitable for Islam. Instead of outer plainness of facade, interior space of the worship room or courtyard is elegantly ordered, that is the spirit of Islam.

Q___ Are there fixed forms or definite patterns for mosque designs?

A___ There are roughly four representative types, from both historical and geographical order.
Firstly 'Arabian type': its origin goes back to the age of Muhammad. Also referred to as the 'Hypostyle type' because of the rows of columns with a flat roof. Since it is the most principal, the largest in number of mosques are of this type.
Muhammad moved to Madina (Medina), 300 km north of Makka, escaping from persecution and built his house. The followers came to the courtyard of his house for congregational worship. In order to avoid the burning sun, they erected columns of palm trees and covered the ground with a roof of palm leaves on the north side, i.e. Jerusalem's side, at first. When the Qibla (the direction of worship) was changed, they roofed on the south side, i.e. Makka's side.
This simple and flat building with hypostyle halls surrounding a courtyard was the first mosque and became the prototype of Arabian type mosques. Since this type requires neithter much labor nor money, mosques of the Arabian type were built numerously in Andalusia too. The Mezquita in Cordoba is classified as the Arabian type.

The next type is the 'Persian type' in historical order. Persia came under the control of Islam in the 9th century. However, the control from Baghdad became weak in the 12th century, traditional styles from before the advent of Islam revived in architecture too. Its typical element is 'Iwan' that is a half exterior space behind a large opening of a pointed arch bordered by a square frame. Its ceiling forms as a barrel vault or half dome and is embellished in various ways. That is a tradition of king's audience halls of ancient Persian palace architecture before Islam. Four iwans face each other around the courtyard, so it is called the 'Four Iwans type' too.

Four Types of Mosques
Four Representative Mosque Types

Q___ Speaking of the image of general Islamic architecture, I recall a vast dome structure instead of a flat roof building.

A___ That is the 'Turkish type,' the third type of mosque emerging after the 15th century. Turkey is the coldest region in the Islamic world and has a lot of rainfall too. Even snow falls in the plateau of Anatolia. That's why Turks covered courtyards with roofs to avoid inclement weather, or left the courtyard untouched and shifted the main space into an inner worship room by covering it by a large domed roof.
This ottoman dome had an evident model: the great dome of Saint Sophia soaring in Constantinople (current Istanbul). Since Ottoman Turkey conquered Constantinople in 1453 and made it their capital, Ottoman architects made it their largest objective to surpass physically and aesthetically, setting it as the model of their mosques. By the way, the mosque near Yoyogi-Uehara in Tokyo belongs to this Turkish type.

The last 'Indian type' is a little bit different from the other three. That is to say Arabian and Persian type mosques that were brought to India in the 13th century altered by adopting the character of Indian traditional architecture such as Hindu or Jaina temples, in other words, plastic buildings inversely putting importance on the exterior view. Cloisters encircle a courtyard like the Arabian type, nevertheless the massive worship hall roofed by the Persian type domes stands imposingly on the Makka side, as if it were an independent building in a square.
I call such a self-display building making prominently its form 'Sculptural architecture.' On the other hand, Arabian, Persian, and Turkish type mosques are inward-looking, that is, introverted buildings focusing on enveloping interior spaces or courtyards. The Turkish type mosque, in particular, shapes up as an enormous space covered by a thin stone membrane. I call it 'Membranous architecture' or 'Enclosing architecture.'

What is contrary to that is Japanese 'Framework architecture' or 'Trabeated architecture.' Japanese traditional houses are made as frameworks of columns and beams and demarcated not by walls but by sliding doors. Outer space (garden) is continuous to inner space (rooms). As nature is so gentle and tender in Japan that it's quite comfortable to link interior and exterior together continuously.
However, it's opposite in the desert area in the Middle East. The outside is dreadful with strong sun and sandstorm and so on. In order to shut out the outer threat of nature, one must assume a denial attitude against the outside, enclosing human teritory to keep the inside comfortable by erecting a protective membrane with a veil or a wall.


Q___ Islamic ornamentation is fascinating. What kinds of ornaments are there?

A___ There are principally three categories, whatever they may be mosaics, stucco, woodcarvings, or stone carvings. That is, geometric pattern, foliage or floral pattern, and calligraphy as art of writing.
Since idol worship is strictly inhibited, there are no figurative sculptures or paintings of creatures. Strictly speaking, there were figural arts in the early stage including Umayyad Mosque in Damascus that has mosaics depicting landscapes of trees and buildings, nevertheless no humans or God figures.

Anyway, they are all plain ornamentation. Surface of building is partitioned geometrically in portions, in which ornamentation never protrudes from its fixed demarcation and concludes itself in an architectural element. Relieves are always low in contrast to Christian sculptures in the round on church walls. Islamic architecture is, so to speak, an art of constitution of plain panels with few projections and retreats.

Q___ Does it embody the stoic teachings of Islam?

A___ I think so. But there is also a rather distinctly different way of decoration in Islamic architecture. It is 'Muqarnas,' such as the ceiling of the 'two sisters' hall' in the Alhambra. Muqarnas is a three dimensional decoration likened often to stalactites and beehives, completely different from usual plain Islamic ornament. It was developed after the 10th century in the Middle East, and mainly used to embellish a spatial ceiling of dome structure like a web. The more time passed, the more complicated it became.
Actually, it was a structural form in origin. Let's take the Iwans in the Friday Mosque in Isfahan for example. They were made of piled bricks, and the surface was composed of small repeating portions of arches and curved facets demarcated by them. It keeps a balance of stresses on each other up to the limit where bricks don't fall down.
Also in Iran, but in the 17th century, the iwans of the Royal Mosque (currently the Imam's Mosque) were composed of suspended gypsum panels or wooden pieces finished by faience tiles from a true half dome of piled bricks. Thus it became simply a superficial decoration of a pretended structure, which went in more and more intricate passage.

Muqarnas Ornaments
Muqarunas Ornaments in Persia

Q___ But the elaborated ornaments in the Alhambra show almost an unearthly beauty.

A___ The Abbasids embellished walls with various patterns produced simply by the way of piling bricks. It is a natural and sober expression. But as the Persian Seljuks developed faience tiles in the 11th century, they began to cover brick walls with colorful mosaic tiles. The Alhambra was also built with bricks, most of which in the interior were covered by ornamentation of stucco and tiles.
This palace was originally an 11th-century small fort. As a result of multiple enlargements, it became as large as a town with paradise gardens, hammams (bath houses), mausoleums, etc. The central part is the palace quarter, which was constructed by the last Islamic dynasty in Spain, Nasrid (1232 -14920), and completed in 1370.
The brick walls of the interior are finished with high quality white stucco intricately carved all over and ther lower parts are decorated with mosaic tiles in geometrical patterns. The walls facing the Court of Lions especially, are covered with magnificent stucco carvings in the Alhambra. Numerous columns surrounding this patio are also finished in stucco, the color of which has been become yellowish because of sunburn. They don't seem like plastering finish but look as if they are white marble.


Q___ What did Islamic architecture pursue ultimately?

A___ It is the exploration of Paradise, which is depicted in the "Koran" repeatedly. Life in the desert is tough and harsh. Unlike that, the ideal world that should exist celestially is 'Paradise,' like Eden where Adam and Eve resided. It is full of green and flowers blooming, fruits eaten as much as people like, and beautiful girls everywhere. To realize an earthly paradise that is contrastive to an actual tough world, that is the ultimate aspiration for Islamic architecture. So, that bestows great importance on gardens.
Talking about Spain, Cordoba's Mezquita and Seville's Cathedral both have a courtyard. The Alhambra is a complex of palace buildings surrounding courtyards. At the center of the Court of Lions is a fountain to which a waterway flows from each quarter's room. Such a square garden is parted into four quarters by waterways is a principal form of Islamic gardens, being referred to as 'Chahar Bagh' (four quartered garden) in Persian ('Charbagh' in Urdu).

Chahar Bagh
Four Quartered Gardens (Chahar Bagh)

The origin of courtyards was in Persia before the advent of Islam. In order to reside in a desert, it was necessary to encircle a courtyard-type living space by walls and supply water, sometimes through underground conduits made at huge expense and labor from the foot of the mountains.
The most rational way of irrigating gardens was to build waterways in a four-quartered shape. In the age air-conditioners had not yet been produced, the waterways provided a method of air-cooling as well. If there was a surplus, they planted trees and flowers in their gardens.
This 'Chahar Bagh' form was developed in the most refined and ideal form in the easternmost region of Islamic sphere, Kashmir in India, and in the westernmost region, the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.


PLAN OF THE ALHAMBRA (From Jules Goury & Owen Jones:
"Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Details of the Alhambra" 1845)
Left side courtyard is Myrtles' Patio, Right side one is Lion's Patio

© Takeo Kamiya
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