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The Mosque of Cordova

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The Mosque of Cordoba, which was converted into a cathedral when the Moors were expelled but which has, notwithstanding, always remained a Mosque, was built on the ruins of the primitive cathedral not far from the Guadalquiver. Abd-er-Rahman began to build it in the year 785 or 786. "Let us build a Mosque," said he, "which will surpass that of Bagdad, that of Damascus, and that of Jerusalem, which shall be the greatest temple of Islam and become the Mecca of the Occident." The work was begun with ardour; and Christian slaves were made to carry the stones of razed churches for its foundation. Abd-er-Rahman, himself, worked an hour every day; in a few years the Mosque was built, the Caliphs who succeeded Abd-er-Rahman embellished it, and it was completed after a century of continuous labour.

" Here we are," said one of my hosts, as we suddenly stopped before a vast edifice. I thought it was a fortress; but it was the wall that surrounded the Mosque, in which formerly opened twenty large bronze doors surrounded by graceful arabesques and arched windows supported by light columns; it is now covered with a triple coat of plaster.

A trip around the boundary-wall is a nice little walk after dinner: you can judge then of the extent of the building. The principal door of this enclosure is at the north, on the spot where Abd-er-Rahman's minaret rose, from whose summit fluttered the Mohammedan standard; I expected to see the interior of the Mosque at once, and I found myself in a garden full of orange-trees, cypresses, and palms, enclosed on three sides by a very light portico, and shut in on the fourth side by the facade of the Mosque. In the time of the Arabs there was a fountain in the centre for their ablutions, and the faithful gathered under the shade of these trees before entering the temple. I remained there for some moments looking around me and breathing the fresh and perfumed air with a very lively sensation; my heart was beating rapidly at the thought of being so near the famous Mosque, and I felt myself impelled with a great curiosity and yet held back by an indescribable childish trembling. " Let us go in! " said my companions.

" Another moment! "I replied. "Let me taste the pleasure of anticipation." Finally I stepped forward, and without glancing at the marvellous door, which my companions showed me, I entered.

I do not know what I did, or said when I entered; but certainly some strange exclamation must have escaped me, or I must have made some extraordinary gesture, for several people who were near me at that moment began to laugh and turned around to look about them, as if they wanted to discover what caused the excitement I manifested.

Imagine a forest, and imagine that you are in the depths of this forest, and that you can see nothing but the trunks of the trees. Thus, no matter on what side of the Mosque you look, the eye sees nothing but columns. It is a limit less forest of marble. Your glance wanders down the long rows of columns, one by one, which every mw and then are intersected by other interminable rows, until it reaches a twilight background where you seem to see the white gleam of still other columns. Nineteen naves extend before the visitor g they are intersected by thirty-three other naves, and the whole building is supported by more than nine hundred columns of porphyry, jasper, breccia, and marbles of every colour. The central nave, much larger than the others, leads to the Maksurah, the most sacred spot in the temple, where they read the Koran. A pale ray of light falls from the high windows here and shines upon a row of columns; beyond, there is a dark spot; and, still further away, another ray of light illuminates another nave. It is impossible to describe -the mystical feeling and admiration that this sight evokes in your soul. It is like the sudden revelation of an unknown religion, nature, and life, which carries your imagination to the delights of that Paradise, so full of love and voluptuousness, where the blessed ones seated under the shadow of thick-leaved plane-trees and thornless rose-bushes drink from crystal vases that wine, sparkling like jewels, which is mixed by immortal virgins, and sleep in the arms of houris with large black eyes. All these pictures of eternal pleasure, which the Koran promises to the faithful, rush upon the mind at this first sight of the Mosque in such a vital, intense, and bewildering manner that for an instant they give you a sweet intoxication which leaves your heart in a state of indescribable and gentle melancholy. Confusion in the mind and a rushing fire through the veinsthat is your first sensation on entering the Cathedral of Cordova.

We begin to wander from nave to nave, observing everything in detail. What variety there is in this edifice, which seemed all alike at the first glance! The proportions of the columns, the designs of the capitals and the forms of the arches, change, so to speak, at every step you take. Most of the columns are ancient and were brought by the Arabs from Northern Spain, Gaul, and Roman Africa; and some of them, it is said, belonged to a temple of Janus on whose ruins was built the church which the Arabs destroyed in order to erect this Mosque. On many of the capitals you can still distinguish the cross, which was carved upon them and which the Arabs erased with their chisels. In some of the columns pieces of curved iron are fixed, to which it is said the Arabs chained the Christians; one, particularly, is exhibited, to which, according to popular tradition, a Christian was chained for many long years, and during this time he dug at the stone with his nails to make a cross, which the guides show you with deep veneration.

We stood before the Maksura, the most complete and marvellous example of Arabian Art of the Tenth Century. There are three adjacent chapels in front of it, with vaulted ceilings of dentelated arches and walls covered with superb mosaics in the form of large bunches of flowers and inscriptions from the Koran. The principal Mihrab, the holy place where the spirit of God dwells, is at the back of the central chapel. It is a niche with an octam gon base and arched at the top by an enormous shell of marble. In the Mihrab, and fastened on a stool of aloewood, was kept the Koran, copied by the hand of the Caliph Othman, covered with gold and ornamented with pearls; and the faithful made the tour of it seven times on their knees. On approaching the wall, I felt the pavement sink under my feet: the marble is hollowed out! Coming out of the niche, I stopped for a long time to look at the ceiling and the walls of the principal church, the only portion of the Mosque which is almost intact. It is a dazzling array of crystal of a thousand colours, an interlacing of arabesques which confounds the imagination, a complication of bas-reliefs, of gold-work, of ornaments, and of details of design and hues of a delicacy, a grace, and a perfection to drive the most patient painter to despair. It is impossible to recall clearly that prodigious work; you might return a hundred times to look at it, yet it would only be remembered as an aggregation of blue, red, green, golden, and luminous points, or a complicated embroidery whose patterns and colours are continually changing. Such a miracle of art could only emanate from the fiery and indefatigable imagination of the Arabs.

Again we wandered about the Mosque, examining here and there on the walls the arabesques of the ancient doors, of which you get glimpses from beneath the detestable Christian paint. My companions looked at me, laughed, and whispered to each other.

" You have not seen it yet? " asked one.

cc What? "

They looked at each other again and smiled.

"Do you think you have seen the entire Mosque?" said the one who had first spoken.

"I? Yes," I replied, looking around me.

" Well, you have not seen it all: what remains to be seen is a church-nothing more!"

" A church! " I cried, stupefied, "where is it? "

" Look! " said the other companion, pointing it out, " it is in the very centre of the Mosque."

" Good heavens! And I had not noticed it at all! " By that you may judge of the size of the Mosque. We went to see the church. It is very beautiful and very rich, with a magnificent high altar and a choir worthy of ranking with those of Burgos and Toledo; but, like all things which do not harmonize with their surroundings, it annoys you instead of exciting your admiration. Even Charles V., who gave the Chapter permission to build it here, repented when he saw the Mussulman temple. Next to the church there is a kind of Arabian chapel, admirably preserved and rich in mosaics not less beautiful and varied than those of the Maksura; it is said that the doctors of this religion met there to read the Book of the Prophet.

Such is the Mosque of today.

What must it have been in the time of the Arabs! It was not enclosed then by a surrounding wall, but it was open in such a way that the garden could be seen from every one of its parts, while from. the garden you could see the entire length of the long n: ves, and the breeze carried the perfume from the orange-trees and flowers to the very arches of the Maksura. Of the columns, which today number less than a thousand, there were fourteen hundred; the ceiling was of cedar and larch sculptured and incrusted with the most delicate work; the walls were of marble; the light of eight hundred lamps filled with perfumed oil made the crystals in the mosaics sparkle like diamonds and caused a marvellous play of colour and reflection on the floor, on the arches, and on the walls. " An ocean of splendours," a poet said, " filled this mysterious enclosure, the balmy air was impregnated with aromas, and the thoughts of the faithful strayed until they became lost in the labyrinth of columns which glimmered like lances in the sunlight."

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