The Building of the Mosque
The Great Mosque in Cordoba is one of the most important monuments in the world. It is almost certainly the most significant Muslim building in the west. But, like many monuments that are occupied over centuries, the final form it took was very different from the initial conception. Building work on it occurred in various stages from AH 169/785-6 AD until AH 337/987-8 AD, under the patronage of a succession of amirs and then the caliphs who succeeded them. The initial building, built by 'Abd al-Rahman I, the founder of the dynasty, who had emigrated to Spain after being usurped by the Abbasids in the Western Mediterranean, was already a considerable size with eleven aisles of twelve bays.
After expansions and alterations under his successors, particularly 'Abd al-Rahman II and III, the caliph al-Hakam II came to the throne. It is reported that his very first act on attaining the caliphate in AH 351/962 AD was to give a mandate for additions to the mosque. The main rationale for these, according to Ibn 'Idhari was that "The press of the crowd in the mosque, because of the large number of faithful, was so great that many fainted and perished". Allowing for some exaggeration, it is probably still based on truth as the city of Cordoba was at a highpoint of its prosperity, and the centre of religious power in the city was the Great Mosque. As well as adding a columned hall as large again as the original structure, the caliph embellished the interior to a considerably greater level than had been seen before. These developments were such that the chronicler 'Abd al-Wahid al-Marrakeshi noted that the local Cordoban populace refused to pray in the mosque until they were told how it had been financed. As well as the building of hugely elaborate arcades, it was his additions that created the magnificent mosaic mihrab that remains to this day the focus of the mosque. His doing so also consciously demonstrated the continuity of his lineage in thereby recalling the patronage of his ancestor al-Walid who had imported Christian mosaicists to embellish the Great Mosque at Damascus.
Twenty years later, under the control of the despotic chief minister al-Mansur, the mosque was again proving to be on the small side, principally as a result of the number of Berbers who had settled in the city. The resultant addition was for the first time an extension of the side of the structure rather than of its length. His additions were not thought to be as opulent as those of al-Hakam II and as a result met with greater local approval. By the end of his work the mosque was the massive structure of nineteen aisles, each with up to thirty-six bays, that basically remains today.
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