My husband and I were lucky enough to travel extensively in Spain in September 2022. This trip had been postponed twice due to the pandemic. We chose Spain because of its reputation for beautiful architecture, world class art museums, fantastic food, and warm, welcoming people, but also because of its unique history as a laboratory for the collaboration among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
One of our favorite stops was Córdoba, which for several centuries was the capital of Al-Andalus, or Moorish Spain. Following the overthrow of the Umayyads in Damascus, Prince Abd al-Rahman escaped to southern Spain and eventually established control over much of the Iberian Peninsula. Córdoba was established as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate in the mid-700s CE. The Caliph sought to make his new capital as grand as Damascus, launching a massive building program. In 1000 CE Córdoba was the largest city in the world and had many libraries, mosques, and public baths. Córdoba was also one of the greatest centers of learning in the world during this Golden Age.
The Mezquita (mosque in Spanish), intended to surpass all mosques of its age, was built beginning in 785 CE on the site of an ancient Roman temple and a later Visigoth Church. The mosque was expanded many times through the 1100s. It covers 6 acres. All but 4 of the original doorways which let in light as well as visitors, are now covered over, and so the interior is dim. The mosque is simple – columns spread as far as the eye can see like a forest of pillars, thought to represent a grove of palm trees from Syria. The repeating pattern of the red and white striped columns seems to expand the prayer hall beyond one’s sight.
The Mihrab in the Mezquita, shown above, is an intricately decorated horseshoe arch, a Visigoth decorative element adopted by the Muslim architects. Traditionally the Mihrab of a mosque shows the wall facing in the direction of Mecca. Our guide explained that here in Córdoba, the Mihrab is pointed not southeast, where Mecca is located, but south, apparently a tradition of the western Islamic world and a feature also of the former Mosque of Damascus built in the early 700s.
The Mezquita is a awe-filled space, a “thin place,” where one can feel the Holy Presence. I got chills imagining thousands of Muslims worshipping together in that great hall. Still the mosque is no longer used for Muslim worship, as the Catholic Church consecrated the Mezquita grounds for Christian worship upon conquering the city in 1236 CE. Perhaps the feeling of the Presence is derived from thousands of years of worship, with Romans, Visigoths, Muslims and now Catholics praying here. This place created a sense of peace and awe and an awareness of “the Holy” for both my husband and me.
The story is told that the residents of Córdoba would not permit the destruction of the Mezquita, which they viewed as unique, beautiful, and important to Córdoba. In the 16th century, Charles V commissioned a baroque cathedral, Our Lady of Assumption, on this site; the cathedral was placed in the center of the building. The mosque is so large, however, that one can stand inside the mosque and not be aware of the cathedral; in the same way, one can stand inside the cathedral and not be aware of the mosque! While in other towns all over Spain cathedrals were placed on top of mosques, and the mosques disappeared, in Córdoba at least the structure of the Mezquita survives.
It is said that in the 11th and 12th centuries CE Al-Andalus had “one culture, with three religions.” While the truth is much more complicated, many Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders in Al-Andalus in this time period expressed admiration and gratitude for the contributions of the other two religions to their society. When I think of Córdoba, I think of this tolerance and collaboration among the three Abrahamic faiths. While imperfect, this cross pollination and friendship was a prime generator of a Golden Age including many scientific discoveries, important translations of ancient Greek documents into Latin, and beautiful works of art we still enjoy today.
Expansive thinking and creativity are true benefits of making space for one another. When we spend our energy hating or fearing the other, we are not free to be creative. We do not advance society. We spend time thinking negative thoughts, or puzzling over how to harm the other, or at least to keep ourselves safe and secure. When instead as a society we embrace the “other,” and love our neighbors around us, we open ourselves to abundant life and new opportunities.
We can find the Presence everywhere we look, and the spark of the Divine in each human. Where can we build bridges across discord, learn from someone with a different perspective or life experience, cooperate and collaborate instead of focusing on what divides us? What work are we doing each day to sow seeds of peace? How can we make space for one another, and foster creativity and new sparks from different perspectives? I will remember Córdoba as a symbol of all that can be, if we can live in tolerance and peace with one another, a place of wholeness and shalom.
Blessings of peace, Diane Frankle
Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board, Building Bridges Together
Photo credits Diane Frankle
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