‘God has given us many faiths but only one world in which to co-exist. May your work help all of us to cherish our commonalities and feel enlarged by our differences.’
― Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
After celebrating Christmas in Seville, I headed to the quaint town of Córdoba. A brisk but gloriously sunny December morning perfect for embracing my fondness for religious architecture, but I needed another 3-6 layers!
With the Mezquita at the centre of attention, it’s easy to miss the narrow cobblestone streets of the Jewish quarter. I was delighted to learn that the Spain was home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities up until 15thcentury. Much to my surprise Jewish scholar, Maimonides, was born in Córdoba, and it was a good opportunity to learn more about him. There is a welcoming and active Jewish information centre opposite the synagogue. Córdoba is a town of highlights, no more so than the 14thcentury synagogue where evidence of interfaith interactions is represented by exquisite Mudéjar patterns, Hebrew script and painted crucifixes.
Leaving the synagogue, I headed straight to Mass at the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba with my fingers tightly crossed for a Latin service. As it was a Low Mass, Spanish was the order of the day. Although I cannot speak Spanish, the format remains the same and I was able to follow, but language is irrelevant when it comes to spirituality. The Mesquita is a masterpiece! Founded as a Christian church in the 7thcentury, this architectural centrepiece has greatly benefited from both the Islamic period and Reconquista, when it returned to its origins as a place of Christian worship. From the intricacy of the Quranic script decorating the mihrab to the complexity of the stained-glass windows, these elements harmoniously align. The glittering golden Quranic inscriptions were made possible by a present of gold mosaic tiles from Nicephoras II Phocas, the Byzantium Emperor, to Al-Hakim II, much to the delight of this ceramics enthusiast. This 10thcentury prayer niche is, for me, the crowning glory to the Great Mosque of Córdoba. As simplistic as it sounds, this felt incredibly utopian to me as an outsider though, evidently, there was no peaceful revolution. Despite the Mezquita’s Islamic history, it has been a place of Catholic worship since the 13th century. Repeated requests from the Islamic Council of Spain to allow Muslims to pray there have been refused by the Vatican. So, no, not utopia.
The Christian conquest of Córdoba saw the Great Mosque return to its spiritual roots, though it remained architecturally unchanged until the 16th century. The Gothic chapel, which visitors are prohibited from entering, sits at its heart with an enormous organ passionately dispersing sacred tunes to all corners of the structure. However, as a Mass attendee, I was permitted to enter. Despite the cathedral’s size, there are only a few pews for worshippers to use and rather active ‘guards’ protecting the sanctity of the service, ensuring nobody films or photographs. The priests sang beautifully. As the light flooded the pulpit, a moment of utter beauty and spirituality overcame me: Mass in a mosque! Surreal and beautiful. However, one surprising difference I noted was almost everybody, including visiting priests, received communion in their hands. I’m fascinated by how our faiths marry with cultural/regional practices, and am keen to observe Catholicism in other states.
Much like most mosques and, as I discovered, churches (in Spain), non-Mass attendees are required to leave during prayer time. Despite having observed this at mosques across the world (though I could enter during prayer time in Iran), this is a ‘new’ concept to me, one I care little for in churches. In London and Paris, churches stay open during Mass. In Catholic Churches (in the UK), people may still enter to pray or visit during a wedding or baptism. I much prefer this ‘open door’ policy – all welcome at any time. Still, in a building of note, I understand the disruption photography et cetera may cause (plus, of course, the protection of invaluable artworks). Still…
A beautiful town with an immensely rich history. Highly recommended!