In the Eighth Century, the Moors invaded Spain and celebrated their conquest by building the Mosque of Cordoba. They ruled Spain for 500 years until they were defeated by the Christians. But rather than tearing down the mosque — as was normal practice — the Catholic Church built a cathedral inside of it.
Today, the Catholic Church calls the site “the Cathedral of Cordoba” in official literature. But it still stands as the most important Islamic heritage site in the western world. It’s also a major tourist destination and the center of tense debate in which the church has been accused of downplaying the role of Islam at the site, and Muslims are working to maintain their cultural, if not religious, legacy there.
A Muslim tourist named Ashrif took time off from his job as a pediatrician in England, packed his prayer mat, and flew to Cordoba with his family to visit the site.
He’s dreamed of coming here since he was 9 and living in Syria. But when he approached the Mosque Cathedral with his prayer mat, he was told he’s not allowed to pray. Anyone that looks Middle Eastern is stopped and reminded they’re entering a cathedral, not a mosque.
“There is so much nostalgia vibrating in this place. ... It’s not only [a] main part of Islamic history, it’s a main part of Arabic culture as well,” Ashrif says. “There is a space for everyone there, so I think that Muslim visitors should be able to pray if they wish.”
He was disappointed that he was turned away, but he wasn't confrontational about it. Instead, he wandered through the courtyard with his family and lined up for audio guides.
They filed into a space big enough for 40,000 people. Pink, gray, and white marble columns hold up Moorish horseshoe-shaped arches striped like candy canes. The arches surround a chapel in the center of the building. Tiny details cover every square inch, reaching up the walls beyond where the eye can see. There are Cuban mahogany sculptures, gold inlay, bronze vines, and angels cloaked in granite.
The site’s Islamic and Christian artistry suggests inter-religious harmony for the hundreds of tourists speaking different languages as they wander through the building’s nooks and archways. But beyond these walls, Spanish Catholics and Muslims have had a strained relationship for centuries, and in recent years that hostility has escalated.
In 2004, Islamic extremists killed almost 200 people in a train bombing in Madrid. And this year, a gunman linked to ISIS killed 38 people in a Spanish hotel in Tunisia. There’s evidence of widespread discrimination against Christians in the Muslim world as well. In a recent TV interview, the Cordoba Bishop Demetrio Fernandez expressed concern about the Muslims’ motives for the site.
“Islam as a religion doesn’t allow Muslims to pray together with Catholics anywhere in the world. So when Muslims ask to join the Catholics at the Mosque Cathedral, they’re actually ordering the Catholics to leave,” said Fernandez.
Catholic University professor and inter-religious dialog expert Pim Valkenberg says the idea of Muslims and Catholics sharing the Mosque Cathedral, much less praying together, is next to impossible in the current climate.
“Both the Catholics and the Muslims argue on historical grounds that it has been a sacred space for them for a long time,” he says. “I don't think that it will be wise to start a possible dialog or a possible encounter between the two with these historical questions right away, because first, you need to build trust.”
Some Catholics and Muslims in Cordoba are working to do just that. Local high-school science teacher Miguel Santiago grew up just blocks from the Mosque Cathedral. A gold cross hangs from his neck, but despite his religious beliefs, he doesn’t support the Catholic Church’s exclusive policies.
“In an architectural space that is a mix of different arts and cultures, what better way, in a world full of conflict, to show the world that we can all live together,” he says. “These stones are a mirror of the reality of humankind.”
Muslim leader Isabel Romero is the director of “Together Islam,” an organization that represents Muslims in Spain. She respects that the owner of the building is the Catholic Church, and she won’t insist that Muslims be allowed to pray there, but she says there needs to be more tolerance and a better understanding of Muslims’ role in the building’s history.
So far the Cordoba Diocese has refused to meet with Romero, but that doesn’t mean the fate of the Mosque Cathedral is sealed.
Throughout the building are faded inscriptions of the word “Allah.” Catholics kept these inscriptions, saying that it doesn’t matter what word you choose to say God. And “Allah” refers to the same God for both religions.
The mixed religious influences throughout the Mosque Cathedral show collaboration, a shared history that many hope might one day be able to unify Muslims and Catholics in this shared space. But that isn’t likely to happen soon unless the stakeholders are willing to dial down the heat.