Islamic past of Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral restored

Campaigners celebrate victory against Catholic Church in tourism brochures feud

Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral: its new tourism brochure acknowledges the cathedral’s Islamic past. Photograph: Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters

Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral: its new tourism brochure acknowledges the cathedral’s Islamic past. Photograph: Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters

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Local campaigners in Córdoba are celebrating the end of a long-standing feud with the Catholic Church over the status of the city’s Mosque-Cathedral, in a conflict that spilled into the political arena and raised questions about Spain’s relationship with its Islamic past.

Hosting both a huge mosque and a Catholic place of worship, the monument has long been a unique expression of Córdoba’s religious history. Unesco described it as “an irreplaceable testimony of the Caliphate of Córdoba and […]the most emblematic monument of Islamic religious architecture.”

It was also seen as a reflection of the city’s tradition of religious tolerance, which in mediaeval times saw Muslims, Christians and Jews co-exist.

But in recent years, the Catholic Church, which administers the Mosque-Cathedral, had removed references to its Islamic past in tourism literature and on the building’s website, drawing accusations that it was whitewashing the city’s Muslim history.

Two decades ago the monument was described as the “Mosque-Cathedral” in tourist brochures, a term that acknowledged its shared heritage. In 1998, the Catholic authorities changed that to the “Cathedral (former Mosque)” and then in 2010 it became simply “Córdoba Cathedral”.

In 2014, an association of local people, The Mosque-Cathedral – a Heritage for All, started campaigning against such changes. They gathered nearly 400,000 signatures to “save the Córdoba Mosque” on the petition-based platform change.org, including that of British architect Norman Foster. More recently, the Socialist-led Andalusia regional government joined the clamour.

Just after Easter, the church conceded defeat, announcing it will change the name back to “Mosque-Cathedral” in official literature.

Manuel Pérez Moya, dean of the cathedral, presented the reversal on March 31st as a “new brand” for the monument, which he said now has “an updated, image that is more in tune with the present day”. In explaining the drawn-out controversy leading up to the decision, he added: “Logically, a monument with the wealth and exceptional nature of the Mosque-Cathedral requires a period of reflection.”

The new tourism brochures state: “Islamic architecture, with Greek, Roman and Byzantine effects, blends with Christian architecture in the most beautiful expression.”

This contrasts with the previous edition of the brochure, which played down the monument’s Muslim period, even casting it in a negative light. That phase of the monument’s history, it stated, was an “intervention” and one of the periods of Islamic construction was “an ostentatious display of power, though…not very original.”

“This is an enormous victory, to have made such a stubborn institution as the Catholic Church change the intolerant stance it had taken for years,” Miguel Santiago, a local teacher who led the civic campaign for the name reversal, told The Irish Times. “You could say that [the Mezquita-Cathedral] is the city’s genetic code, it’s where our different cultures have been blended.”

He added: “At this moment in history, with so much international conflict, the Mezquita is a monument that shows that cultural hybrids are possible. It’s a beacon of harmony, unity, multi-culturalism and religious tolerance.”

Standing on the site of Visigoth ruins, the building’s construction began in 785 AD, at the start of eight centuries of North African Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula. By the 10th century, the Great Mosque had helped make Córdoba a hugely influential hub of learning and the world’s second most important Muslim place of worship, after Mecca.

When Christians re-conquered Córdoba, they built a cathedral, completed in 1236, in the heart of the mosque. Since then, only Christian worship has been allowed inside the monument, which draws 1.5 million visitors each year. In 2010, two Austrian Muslims were arrested after an altercation with security guards who had stopped them from praying in the monument.

Isabel Romero, president of the Islamic Council, which represents Spain’s two million Muslims, said that in recent years the Catholic Church had showed “a lack of respect to the monument and its history … Just because it is not a mosque now doesn’t mean it was never a mosque. Wiping out eight centuries of history didn’t make sense.”

However, campaigners in Córdoba say they will continue to pressure the Catholic Church, which they also accuse of removing the Mosque-Cathedral from public hands by taking advantage of a loophole in property legislation and registering itself as the sole owner of the monument.

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