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The Mosque

But Cordova, from which Az-Zahra was about four miles distant, has visible delights that can vie with its neighbour's vanished pomp. I know nothing that can give a more poignant emotion than the interior of the mosque at Cordova; and yet I remember well the splendour of barbaric and oriental magnificence which was my first sight of St. Mark's at Venice, as I came abruptly from the darkness of an alley into the golden light of the Piazza. But to me at least the famous things of Italy, known from childhood in picture and in description, afford more than anything a joyful sense of recognition, a feeling as it were of home-coming, such as may hope to experience the devout Christian on entering upon his heritage in the Kingdom of Heaven. The mosque of Cordova is oriental and barbaric too; but I had never seen nor imagined anything in the least resembling it; there was no disillusionment possible, as too often in Italy, for the accounts I had read prepared me not at all for that overwhelming impression. It was so weird and strange, I felt myself transported suddenly to another world.

They were singing Vespers when I entered, and I heard the shrill voices of choristers crying the responses; it did not sound like Christian music. The mosque was dimly lit, the air heavy with incense; and I saw this forest of pillars, extending every way, as far as the eye could reach. It was mysterious and awe-inspiring as those enchanted forests of one's childhood in which huge trees grew in serried masses and where in cavernous darkness goblins and giants of the fairy-tales, wild beasts and monstrous shapes, lay in wait for the terrified traveller who had lost his way. I wandered, keeping the Christian chapels out of sight, trying to lose myself among the columns; and now and then gained views of horseshoe arches interlacing, decorated with Moorish tracery.

At length I came to the Mihrab, which is the Holy of Holies, the most exquisite as well as the most sacred part of the mosque. It is approached by a vestibule of which the roof is a miracle of grace, with mosaics that glow like precious stones, ultramarine, scarlet, emerald, and gold. The arch between the chambers is ornamented with four pillars of coloured marble, and again with mosaic, the gold letters of an Arabic inscription forming on the deep sapphire of the background a decorative pattern. The Mihrab itself, which contained the famous Koran of Othman, has seven sides of white marble, and the roof is a huge shell cut from a single block.

I tried to picture to myself the mosque before the Christians laid their desecrating hands upon it. The floor was of coloured tiles, tiles such as may still be seen in the Alhambra of Granada and in the Alcazar at Seville. The columns are of marble, of porphyry and jasper; tradition says they came from Carthage, from pagan temples in France and Christian churches in Spain; they are slender and unadorned, they must have contrasted astonishingly with the roof of larch wood, all ablaze with gold and with vermilion.

There were three hundred chandeliers; and eight thousand lamps--cast of Christian bells--hung from the roof. The Arab writer tells of gold shining from the ceiling like fire, blazing like lightning when it darts across the clouds. The pulpit, wherein was kept the Koran, was of ivory and of exquisite woods, of ebony and sandal, of plantain, citron and aloe, fastened together with gold and silver nails and encrusted with priceless gems. It needed six Khalifs and Almanzor, the great Vizier, to complete the mosque of which Arab writers, with somewhat prosaic enthusiasm, said that 'in all the lands of Islam there was none of equal size, none more admirable in its workmanship, in its construction and durability.'

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Then the Christians conquered Cordova, and the charming civilisation of the Moors was driven out by monks and priests and soldiers. First they built only chapels in the outermost aisles; but in a little while, to make room for a choir, they destroyed six rows of columns; and at last, when Master Martin Luther had rekindled Catholic piety, they set up a great church in the very middle of the mosque. The story of this vandalism is somewhat quaint, and one detail at least affords a suggestion that might prove useful in the present time; for the Town Council of Cordova menaced with death all who should assist in the work: one imagines that a similar threat from the Lord Mayor of London might have a salutary effect upon the restorers of Westminster Abbey or the decorators of St. Paul's. How very much more entertaining must have been the world when absolutism was the fashion and the preposterous method of universal suffrage had never been considered! But the Chapter, as those in power always are, was bent upon restoring, and induced Charles V. to give the necessary authority. The king, however, had not understood what they wished to do, and when later he visited Cordova and saw what had happened, he turned to the dignitaries who were pointing out the improvements and said: 'You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.' The words show a fine scorn; but as a warning to later generations it would have been more to the purpose to cut off a dozen priestly heads.

Yet oddly enough the Christian additions are not so utterly discordant as one would expect! Hernan Ruiz did the work well, even though it was work he might conveniently have been drawn and quartered for doing. Typically Spanish in its fine proportion, in its exuberance of fantastic decoration, his church is a masterpiece of plateresque architecture. Nor are the priests entirely out of harmony with the building wherein they worship. For an hour they had sung Vespers, and the deep voices of the canons, chaunting monotonously, rang weird and long among the columns; but they finished, and left the choir one by one, walking silently across the church to the sacristy. The black cassock and the scarlet hood made a fine contrast, while the short cambric surplice added to the costume a most delicate grace. One of them paused to speak with two ladies in mantillas, and the three made a picturesque group, suggesting all manner of old Spanish romance.


William Somerset Maugham