A steady stream of tourists is coming into the courtyard of Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral, passing orange trees and water fountains before entering the dimmed light of the monument itself. Two million visitors come to this southern city each year, drawn by the calm beauty of the building and its unique history.
But the Mosque-Cathedral is at the centre of a dispute pitting two opposing visions of Spanish identity against each other.
In the eighth and ninth centuries, Muslims who had arrived in Spain from north Africa built a mosque on this site. Expanded into a huge monument, it helped Córdoba become a religious and intellectual hub within the Muslim-controlled Iberian Peninsula, or Al-Andalus. When Christian forces re-conquered the city in the 13th century they built a cathedral in the middle of the mosque, as a symbol of the restoration of the Catholic faith.
Today, the monument’s hybrid nature is reflected in its name, the Mosque-Cathedral, although it is supervised by the local bishopric and only Christians are allowed to worship there.
A group of local campaigners believes that the Catholic Church is not just managing the site, but is attempting to appropriate the monument by using legal loopholes and fake history.
“We’re worried about the heritage of the Mosque-Cathedral and the distortion of historical issues,” says Marta Jiménez of the organisation Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba patrimonio de tod@s (Córdoba Mosque-Cathedral everybody’s heritage).
“In our opinion, the church is trying to convert the Mosque-Cathedral into a Catholic temple,” she adds.
Campaigners are concerned about what lies beneath the Mosque-Cathedral. The local Catholic authorities claim that a Christian place of worship built by Visigoths, the church of San Vicente, stood on the site before Muslims arrived and built the mosque. An exhibition inside the Mosque-Cathedral seeks to support this theory, showing archaeological remnants of the purported church. But this claim has long been contested and Fernando Arce Sainz, an archaeologist, recently published a report dismissing the idea that a Christian church pre-dated the mosque.
“Given everything we know, everything we have over a century’s research in terms of documents and archaeology, the most reasonable theory is that there was not a church there,” he says. Arce Sainz’s work updates previous findings which had ruled out the existence of a church on the grounds that there is no evidence, for example, of Christian iconography or a cemetery.
The Catholic Church in Córdoba refused interview requests. However, among academics the issue is divisive, with other experts insisting that literary texts suggest that some form of Christian temple did once lie beneath the Mosque-Cathedral.
The issue has become politically divisive. While many on the left dismiss the San Vicente church theory as a “myth”, it tends to be stridently defended by public figures and media on the right. Francisco Poyato, a columnist at the right-wing ABC newspaper, dismissed the controversy as a “skewed” debate which is part of an attempt to wrest control of the monument from the church encouraged by the arrival of a new leftist government in Madrid.
On one side you have those who refuse to accept that Muslims contributed anything of value to Spanish history
Yet Arce Sainz says that the dispute over the Mosque-Cathedral’s roots and identity reflects a broader question, related to the influence of Islamic culture on Spain.
“On one side you have those who refuse to accept that Muslims contributed anything of value to Spanish history – on the contrary, they believe that Muslims were foreigners who imposed themselves on the country,” he says. “While others take a more positive view of what Al-Andalus meant for the history of Spain.”
The former view has been channelled by Spain’s far-right Vox party, whose nationalist – many say Islamophobic – vision often harks back to the defeat of Muslims by Christian forces in medieval times.
With strong support in southern Spain, Vox has sought to turn Córdoba's complex history to its advantage. The party's leader, Santiago Abascal, has warned of the "bullying" that Christian worshippers have suffered at the hands of "lefties and Islamists" in the city, although there is little evidence of this. Last year, during an election campaign, he delivered a similar message to supporters outside the walls of the Mosque-Cathedral.
But this is not the first time the monument’s identity has been the centre of debate. The church used a loophole in real estate laws to take legal control of the monument in 2006, something it has also done with thousands of other properties across Spain. The local campaign platform is trying to reverse that process.
The church has also faced charges of whitewashing the monument’s Islamic past in official literature. In 1998, its name was changed in tourist brochures to the “Cathedral (former Mosque)” of Córdoba. In 2010 the Catholic Church went even further, calling it “Córdoba Cathedral” and removing the word “mosque” altogether. A backlash caused the church to perform a U-turn in 2016 and restore the “Mosque-Cathedral” name.
We associate it more with Catholicism... But it's true that the Muslims were here before
Very occasionally, the tensions surrounding the monument spill over. There have been scuffles when security guards have stopped Muslims from trying to pray inside it, the most recent reported example being in 2017.
But on the tourist-filled streets of Córdoba such tensions are hard to detect and many locals acknowledge the Mosque-Cathedral’s dual influences.
“We associate it more with Catholicism, which is the predominant religion here,” says Mario Benavides, a young man who is waiting for friends a couple of minutes’ walk from the monument. “But it’s true that the Muslims were here before. For the people of Córdoba it’s the most important thing we have.”
“I think in general people are tolerant in this city,” says Alba Moreno, a student. “It’s a mixture of cultures, Catholic and Muslim... There might be a debate but in general there’s tolerance.”
Inside, the cathedral’s organ strikes up. For some, it’s a reminder of the ongoing dispute, but for others it is merely a continuation of hundreds of years of co-existence between cultures in this building.