Córdoba's stunning mosque-cathedral showcases Spain's Muslim heritage

Christian forces captured the Umayyad capital in 1236, but left its glorious house of worship largely untouched when converting it to a cathedral.

By Yolanda Victoria Olmedo Sánchez
Published 17 Aug 2022, 17:57 BST
Majesty of two faiths
The artistic styles of Islam and Christianity are visible almost everywhere in the mosque-cathedral of Córdoba—from the Renaissance cathedral in the center to the lush green orange tree courtyard.
Photograph by S. Deng, Alamy, ACI

On June 30, 1236, King Ferdinand III of Castile entered the city of Córdoba, putting an end to the five-month siege that his troops had staged around the square. The Spanish Reconquista of Islamic Andalusia was advancing, and Córdoba, capital of the Umayyad caliphate in the 10th century, was the latest to fall. It had once been the brightest and most populous city in Al Andalus. It was also home to one of the world’s marvels of architecture: the Aljama Mosque.

A day before the king entered Córdoba, after the Muslims had already abandoned it, a group of Castilians left the place where they were encamped, entered the walled city through the Algeciras Gate, and went to the Great Mosque. They placed a cross and a flag of Castile atop the minaret. A few hours later, the bishop of Osma sanctified the building and celebrated a dedication mass after consecrating the altar. In a few moments, the magnificent Aljama Mosque had become a Christian cathedral.

The Córdoba mosque was expanded several times by Muslim rulers. The vast colonnaded area appears larger than it is, as the repeating patterns creates an illusion of infinite space.
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

Marvellous mosque

The new beginning decreed by Ferdinand III in 1236 was not the first transformation of the site at the foot of the Sierra Morena in southern Spain. Legend has it that when Romans founded Córdoba in the second century B.C., they built a temple there dedicated to Janus, the two-faced god of new beginnings. Some 800 years later, the Visigoths took control of much of the Iberian Peninsula. In A.D. 572, Visigothic King Leovigilido captured Córdoba, and a Christian basilica was built there.

People kneel in prayer at the Royal Chapel of the mosque-cathedral in Córdoba, Spain, in this 1836 engraving by Charles Joseph Hullmandel.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

The next “new” beginning came nearly two centuries later when the expanding Umayyad empire pushed into the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa around 711. Muslim forces would soon control most of the peninsula and named it Al Andalus. A provincial capital was established at Córdoba, while the caliphate capital remained in Damascus, Syria.

A few decades later, around 750, power in Damascus changed hands from the Umayyads to another powerful Muslim faction, the Abbasids. Afraid for his life, Abd al-Rahman, a son of an Umayyad prince, fled from Damascus. After a harrowing flight across North Africa, he escaped to the Iberian Peninsula and crossed into Al Andalus. Al-Rahman contacted several allies and defeated the existing governor, setting up his new capital in Córdoba, which now became a Muslin emirate with Abd al-Rahman I ruling as its emir. It was the beginning of a period of growth and glory for the city.

Once his position seemed secure, al-Rahman demolished the Visigothic basilica and in 786 began construction of a new sacred structure on the site. The city flourished, becoming a centre of learning and culture as splendid works of architecture arose throughout the whole of Al Andalus. The death of al-Rahman in 788 did not halt work on the grand mosque, which had yet to be completed. His son Hisham and their successors would continue the work for two centuries.

During his stay in Córdoba in 1833, the British painter David Roberts wrote: “The lion of Cordova is the Mosque, once second only to that of Mecca. ... I find from the ground-plan which I have taken that there are 632 pillars of polished marble, ... some of them very exquisite in proportion.” Roberts’s vibrant 1849 painting shows the mihrab in the background.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

One of the mosque’s most iconic features is its massive hypostyle prayer hall filled with soaring symmetrical columns, some of which were salvaged from ancient Roman structures. Topped by colourful arches of stone and red brick, these columns stretch out almost endlessly, as row upon row makes the room feel larger and more expansive.

A focal point in the prayer hall is the mihrab, a prayer niche used in mosques to signify which wall faces Mecca, birthplace of Islam. An intricately decorated golden arch frames the mihrab, calling attention to the sacred space. Soaring above, a roof of intersecting ribs form a spectacular, segmented dome.

Sparing no expense, the Umayyad rulers who followed continued to embellish the mosque. A courtyard, fountains, an orange grove, and a covered walkway were all added to the complex. Perhaps most notable was a minaret, the tower used to call Muslims to prayer. Abd al-Rahman III built what some historians consider the mosque’s first true minaret in 951-52. The original minaret’s floor plan was square, and the structure narrowed as it rose. On the top perched a gilt bronze dome topped by an iron finial, called a yamur in Islamic architecture.

In the shadow of the mosque-cathedral’s bell tower along its north wall, the altar of the Virgin of the Lanterns is illuminated at night.
Photograph by Anna Serrano, Gtres

Preservation and change

Civil war weakened Umayyad control of Al Andalus in the early 11th century, which would later allow Ferdinand III and his forces to take the city in 1236. The Castilians might have radically changed the Great Mosque’s spiritual function, but they certainly weren’t going to destroy it. They recognised the magnificence of the architecture, and many Christian writers praised it. Don Juan Manuel, grandson of Ferdinand III, mentions the Great Mosque in his story collection The Tales of Count Lucanor (1335), with a character describing it as “one of the most beautiful mosques the Moors had in Spain, glory to God! it is now a church, called ‘Saint Mary of Cordova.’ It was dedicated, by the ‘good King Ferdinand,’ to Saint Mary after he had taken Cordova from the Moors.” In the mid-15th century, the Cordoban writer Jerónimo Sánchez also expressed his great admiration: “a temple worthy of all praise, whose exceedingly pleasing beauty revives the spirit of those who behold it,” even a “wonder of the world.”

In the first two centuries of Christian rule, existing spaces were adapted for Christian worship, but structural alterations were few. Much of it was carried out in the Mudejar style, which combined Christian artistic currents with Muslim architectural and decorative traditions. The so-called Royal Chapel was one of the earliest. Built in the 1370s, it combines a tiled plinth, plasterwork, a beautiful ribbed vault, and stalactite-like muqarnas (ornamented vaulting). After the building’s consecration as a Christian church, the minaret was converted into a bell tower.

Begun in 1371, the Royal Chapel was funded by Spain’s King Henry II in order to house the remains of his ancestors. The square enclosure is covered with a vault of interlocking arches. The image shows one of the two main walls, with an arcade and splendid plasterwork decoration.
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

The most obvious change made to the mosque during the first phase of Christian rule was the addition of numerous private chapels along the inner walls of the complex. The city’s most illustrious families were buried here, and there is evidence that the chapel construction began shortly after the Christian conquest of the city. One of the earliest was in 1262, when a man named Juan Pérez Echán signed an agreement allowing him to construct a chapel delimited by lattices and with an altar inside.

The end of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th saw the most significant alterations to the structure. The first significant transformation of its interior took place between 1486 and 1496 when Bishop Íñigo Manrique had a long Gothic nave built in front of the Main Chapel, a complex later called the Chapel of Villaviciosa. This space had served as the focal point of Christian worship since Ferdinand III’s forces captured Córdoba, thanks to the skylight installed by Hakam II in the 10th century.

Later renovations were largely directed by the Ruiz dynasty of architects: Hernán Ruiz, father, son, and then grandson, held the position of master builder at the cathedral. They designed and oversaw construction and were responsible for dealing with any technical problems. Hernán Ruiz I (also known as Hernán Ruiz the Elder) oversaw the transformation of the mosque’s courtyard into a Gothic-Mudejar cloister.

After seizing Córdoba in 1236, Castilian Christians performed their first Mass underneath the splendid skylight installed by Hakam II. This part of the mosque would later be renovated and become known as the Chapel of Villaviciosa.
Photograph by Günter Gräfenhain, Fototeca 9x12

Changes to the Main Chapel

The building of a new Main Chapel and a new choir designed by Hernán Ruiz was a turning point in the mosque’s transformation. The project involved moving the Main Chapel to the cathedral’s centre, where, according to Bishop Alonso Manrique, “it would be better than where it is now, as that is a corner of the church.”

The project caused great controversy and huge clashes between members of the city council and the cathedral chapter. Various councillors, then known as Veintiquatros (the Twenty-Four), owned private chapels in and around the cathedral’s original Main Chapel. They worried that these would lose prestige if the main worship space were moved (spaces closer to the central place of worship were higher status). There was also concern about destroying a considerable section of the original mosque, which, according to one of the statements in protest, “because of the way it is built, is unique in the world.”

Construction of the cathedral’s Main Chapel began in 1523. It was placed in the center of the original mosque and adorned with more traditional Christian artworks, including a 17th-century marble altarpiece and paintings honoring the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
Photograph by Manuel Cohen, Aurimages

The dispute became so heated that the Veintiquatros argued that“the workmanship that is being undone is of a quality that could not be remade with the same goodness and perfection.” They even threatened to harm those working on the demolition, but Bishop Alonso Manrique, determined that the work should proceed, responded by excommunicating them and then appealed to the crown. King Charles V gave his approval for additions at the old mosque complex’s centre, and construction began in fall 1523.

Three years into the project, Charles V travelled to Córdoba with his new wife Isabella of Portugal and visited the cathedral to see how the project was progressing. Allegedly, he was disappointed with the renovations that he himself had approved. Tradition has it that he delivered a rather scathing critique of the job: “You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace.”

One of the most recent additions is this chapel, built at the end of the 16th century. It includes three naves and is covered with a ribbed vault. Representations of Cordoban saints appear around a central painting of the Last Supper, following a design prepared by the humanist Ambrosio de Morales.
Photograph by W. Cezary, Alamy, ACI

For the new Main Chapel, Hernán Ruiz I designed a rectangular chapel that would stand at the complex’s centre. It had three naves, the central one higher and wider than the two to the sides. A magnificent dome rose above the central crossing. He used slightly pointed arches for the central nave and ribbed vaults for the lateral ones. The sense of height was accentuated by incorporating arches from the old mosque. His aim was to integrate the Christian temple without losing the original Muslim oratory’s splendour. Opinions remain divided on the result.

Building work continued for several decades. His son, Hernán Ruiz the Younger, built the apse and the arms of the transept and vault in the apse of the Main Chapel, which he had decorated with Gothic openwork and images of the Virgin Mary. When Hernán Ruiz II died in 1569, the crossing’s construction was halted for 30 years, starting again at the end of the 16th century, during the time of Bishop Francisco Reinoso. The master builder, Juan de Ochoa, added a lowered barrel vault decorated with intricate plasterwork by Francisco Gutiérrez Garrido.

The interior walls of the mosque-cathedral are dotted with chapels, as shown in this drawing, which shows the area around the Parroquia del Sagrario.
Photograph by Oronoz, Album

Another new space dedicated to worship was the Chapel of the Sacrarium, in the southeast corner of the complex, with a façade built by Hernán Ruiz III. The wall paintings inside were made in 1583 by the Italian painter Cesare Arbasia, and depict the Eucharist and various Cordoban martyrs, following a design by the Cordoban humanist Ambrosio de Morales. In 1589 an earthquake caused major structural damage to the bell tower, and a new one was built, incorporating remnants of the old minaret. It was designed by Hernán Ruiz III and crowned with a sculpture of St. Raphael.

Later, during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, private chapels were added to the mosque-cathedral, some sumptuous in their decoration. The Chapel of Our Lady of Conception carved in marble on the west flank of the cathedral was the work of Melchor de Aguirre between 1679 and 1682. It was endowed by Bishop Fray Alonso de Medina Salizanes as a burial chapel. Between the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, another funerary space was built at the south end: the Chapel of St. Teresa (also known as the Chapel of Cardinal Salazar), a work in Baroque style by Francisco Hurtado Izquierdo and Teodosio Sánchez de Rueda. The Chapel of Saint Inés was built in neoclassical style in the latter half of the 18th century.

Viewed from the south, the complex’s interconnected warren of small chapels, sacred doors, and fragrant gardens surrounds the breathtaking hypostyle hall and central cathedral.
Photograph by Illustration by Sol90, Album

Visitors to the mosque-cathedral have never failed to be impressed by its beauty and the way it embraces the visual styles of two separate faiths. In 1984 the mosque-cathedral of Córdoba became a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 1994 UNESCO added nearly 200 acres to its listing, including part of the city’s historic center, the fortress (or Alcázar), and south to the Guadalquivir River’s far bank, the Roman Bridge, and the Calahorra Tower. With this designation, the mosque-cathedral of Córdoba and its site will be studied, appreciated, and renewed for many generations to come.


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