'Cordoba' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article on Córdoba, capital city of a province in Spain, provides background to Maria Rosa Menocal's Ornament of the World, Jim al-Khalili's The House of Wisdom, and Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair's Islamic Arts. The article is reprinted from The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture edited by Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Capital city of the Spanish province of the same name, on the north bank of the River Guadalquivir. It has a population (2005) of c. 321,000. As the capital of Islamic Spain, it became perhaps the most civilized city in medieval Europe, renowned for its Great Mosque or Mezquita and for literature and science, architecture and decorative arts. After the “Reconquest” in 1236 the Mezquita was consecrated for Christian worship, and in the Renaissance its interior was rebuilt to house the city’s cathedral. The city nevertheless declined in importance, although it was an important center for gold and silver production from the 16th century.

I. History and urban development before 1236

The Roman commercial center and provincial capital of Córdoba flourished from 152 BC until the early 5th century, when the Visigoths conquered it. The foundations of the city walls and the piers of the great Puente Romano, which spans the river, date to the Roman period; some Roman and Visigothic sculpture survives (Córdoba, Mus. Arqueol.). Córdoba was the capital of a minor Islamic province from 711 until 756, when ῾Abd al-Rahman I (r.756–88) established the neo-Umayyad dynasty in Spain. He renovated the bridge and walls and built the Great Mosque (see §III below) as well as the palace estate, al-Rusafa, north of the city. ῾Abd al-Rahman II (r.822–52) enlarged Córdoba’s Alcázar or citadel and built an aqueduct to supply the city with drinking water. ῾Abd Allah (r.888–912) also expanded the Alcázar and began a program of internal political and economic consolidation and military and diplomatic expansion. This was successfully concluded by his grandson, the greatest of Córdoba’s rulers, ῾Abd al-Rahman III (r.912–61), who in 929 declared himself Caliph and adopted the name al-Nasir (“the victorious”). Al-Nasir summoned architects from Baghdad and Constantinople to work on his suburban palaces the Dar al-Rawda, Munyat al-Na῾ura (to which was added an aqueduct and spectacular golden lion fountain to water the extensive gardens) and Madinat al-zahra (begun 936; destr. 1010; excavated from 1911), for which he and his son, al-Hakam II (r.961–76), are most famous. Al-Hakam II was succeeded by the child Hisham II (r. 976–1009, 1010–13), in whose place the powerful Ibn Abi ῾Amir, called al-Mansur (d. 1002), ruled as regent. Al-Mansur built Madinat al-Zahira (destr.; unexcavated) east of Córdoba to supplant Madinat al-Zahra as the governor’s palace. The Umayyad administration collapsed under al-Mansur’s grandsons, and Córdoba suffered a devastating civil war (1009–10) that left much of the city in ruins. Thereafter it was governed variously: by a council, followed by the taifa (Arab.: “splinter kingdom”) Abbadids of Seville (from 1070), the Almoravids (from 1091) and the Almohads (from 1148). In the old city the configuration of streets in the area around the Mezquita and in the Barrio de la Judería is relatively unchanged. Portions of the Roman–Islamic walls and gates remain standing, some Islamic baths have been unearthed, and, in addition to the Great Mosque, three mosque minarets survive embedded in the churches of S. Juan, S. Clara, and Santiago.


  • P. de Gayangos: History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, 2 vols. (London, 1840–43/R 1964) [partial trans. of al-Maqqarī: Nafh al-tīb]
  • T. Ramírez de Arellano y Gutierrez: Paseos por Córdoba (Córdoba, 1873, rev. 4/1981)
  • R. Castejón: “Córdoba Califal,” Bol. Real Acad. Córdoba Cienc., B. Let. & Nob. A., viii (1929), pp. 255–339
  • E. Lévi-Provençal: Histoire de l’Espagne musulmane, 3 vols. (Paris, 1950–53)
  • R. Castejón: “Nuevas identificaciones en la topografía de la Córdoba califal,” Actas: Primer congreso de estudios arabes e islámicos: Córdoba, 1962, pp. 371–89
  • M. Ocaña Jiménez: “Notas sobre Córdoba de Ibn Hazm,” Al-Mulk, iii (1963), pp. 53–62
  • J. Gómez Crespo: “Reformas urbanas en Córdoba durante el reinado de Al-Hakam II,” Bol. Asoc. Esp. Orientalistas, xiii (1977), pp. 7–18
  • D. F. Ruggles: Gardens, Landscapes, and Vision in the Palaces of Islamic Spain (University Park, PA, 2000)
  • M. J. Viguera Molins, ed.: El esplendor de los Omeyas cordobeses: La civilización musulmana de Europa Occidental (Granada, 2001)

II. Art life

Córdoba was probably a sophisticated center of the arts from the time of ῾Abd al-Rahman I (r.756–88). Chroniclers suggested his keen interest in Syrian culture, apparently confirmed by aspects of the Mezquita (see §III below). ῾Abd al-Rahman II (r.822–52) established a workshop specializing in tiraz (embroidered textiles). During his reign the culture of Baghdad became fashionable: the musician Ziryab was brought to the court, and he probably influenced not only music but also the taste for furnishings, dress and even cooking in the Iraqi style. Not until the establishment of the caliphate under the reign of ῾Abd al-Rahman III (r.912–61) is there evidence of courtly patronage of portable objects, namely the ivory boxes for which Córdoba is famous; the first center was probably at Madinat al-Zahra. Two ivory boxes, one executed before 961 (Burgos, Mus. Arqueol. Prov.) and one (London, V&A) made shortly after the Caliph’s death for his daughter, suggest that a discrete and sophisticated tradition was already well established. The decoration of the later box is unique in consisting of rinceau and arabesque designs, symmetrical but naturalistic, in which undercutting and use of the drill recall Mediterranean traditions.

Ivory boxes that survive from the reign of al-Hakam III (r.961–76) are, in contrast, rarely without representations of animals or human figures, although these are usually depicted heraldically and hidden in a tangle of vegetal ornament, suggesting that their function is less narrative than emblematic, as on a late 10th-century panel (New York, Met.) from a casket with figures and animals in vegetation, and the casket (Madrid, Mus. Arqueol. N.) made for al-Hakam II’s favorite, Subh. A second type from the same workshops includes framed scenes from court life subtly set apart from the complex ground of the box, accompanied by hunting or animal scenes commonly associated with royal authority, for example the extraordinary pyxis (968; Paris, Louvre) of al-Mughira, al-Hakam II’s younger brother. According to Ibn Said, “there were more books in Córdoba than in any other city of al-Andalus.” Al-Hakam II’s library, indeed, was said to have held 400,000 volumes; this enormous collection has been associated both with the use of paper (rather than of the more costly parchment employed in Christian areas) and with the use of large numbers of female copyists.

During the caliphate the city had over 13,000 textile weavers, and the production of fine silks flourished until the Christian conquest of the city interrupted its line of supply from the silk farms of the kingdom of Granada. There was also an established tradition of working goatskin to make bookbindings, saddles, equestrian accoutrements and pillows. Although with the fall of the caliphate the production of ivory caskets appears to have stopped abruptly, leatherwork and ceramics continued to be made, and the enormous wooden minbar made in Córdoba in 1137 for the Kutubiyya Mosque in Marrakesh indicates that the quality of workmanship in the carving workshops remained at the highest level. Its extraordinary decoration—the marquetry of bone and precious woods in a complex geometric interlace, based on an octagonal grid—is the finest and most luxurious work known from the Almoravid period in Spain and one of the great masterpieces of Islamic art. Gold- and silverwork flourished in the city from the 16th century, and azulejos (Sp.: “glazed tiles”) were produced throughout the 19th century.


  • L. Torres Balbás: Arte almohade, arte nazarí, arte mudéjar, A. Hisp., iv (Madrid, 1949)
  • M. Gómez-Moreno: Arte árabe español hasta los almohades: Arte mozárabe, A. Hisp., iii (Madrid, 1951)
  • J. Beckwith: Caskets from Córdoba (London, 1960)
  • M. A. Orti Belmonte: Córdoba monumental, artistica e histórica (Córdoba, 1980)
  • J. Bloom and others: The Minbar from the Kutubiyya Mosque (New York, 1998)
  • K. von Folsach and J. Meyer, eds.: The Ivories of Muslim Spain, J. David Coll., vol. 2/1 and 2 (2005) [entire issue]

III. Buildings

A. Mosque.

The tradition that the first mosque in Córdoba was housed in the Christian monastery of St. Vincent, and that it was said to have been shared with the city’s Christian congregation, has been challenged. It is almost certain, however, that the building that housed the early 8th-century mosque was destroyed by ῾Abd al-Rahman I for the first phase of the present Mezquita (Great Mosque). Constructed on a simple hypostyle plan, ῾Abd al-Rahman’s mosque of 785 consisted of 11 aisles of 12 bays that—like the Great Mosque at Damascus—ran perpendicular to a walled court. Each bay was defined by a set of two-tiered horseshoe arches with alternating red brick and white stone voussoirs, which were later colored. Thus the simplicity and apparent predictability of the plan were rendered more complex by the building’s elevation. Many of the most inventive forms of this first mosque suggest careful attention to local tradition: both the superimposed arches and the alternating masonry recall the Roman aqueduct of Los Milagros at Mérida, while the horseshoe arch was commonly used in Christian Visigothic architecture. For some scholars, the plan and alternating voussoirs also indicate a local imitation of Syrian Umayyad architecture, thereby alluding to the lost home of ῾Abd al-Rahman I.

In 836 ῾Abd al-Rahman II extended this mosque by eight bays to the south, maintaining an identical elevation, arch type and decorative texture. Muhammad I (r.852–86) constructed a maqsura and completed the building’s exterior, restoring the early Bab al-Wuzara῾, or Puerta de S. Estéban, in 855–6. This and subsequent doorways have a blind horseshoe arch inscribed in a rectangular frame (Sp. alfiz) above an arched lintel and are framed with niches and blind arcades that often exhibit such complex arch types as interlaced or polylobed arches. Each plane of the composition is covered with a different texture or relief, making the relationship between parts difficult to discern. ῾Abd al-Rahman III added a large minaret to the mosque and rebuilt its courtyard (951). In 961–6 al-Hakam II extended the prayer-hall by 12 bays, creating an elaborately domed MAQSURA and adorning the qibla with three doorways covered, like the domes, with mosaic inscriptions and decorations. A domed bay supported on an extravagant screen of interlaced and polylobed arches introduces the mihrab aisle and creates a basilical space around the approach to the maqsura. The domed Mihrab, the first in the form of a room, is horseshoe-shaped and flanked by the treasury and the entrance to the palace passageway. Together with the transverse, domed bays and three doors of the qibla, this part of the addition recalls a Christian liturgical space, although it was probably the powerful effect, rather than any direct allusion to Christian worship, that was sought.

The mosaics probably also make reference to Umayyad Damascus, an assumption supported by a literary tradition. The decoration features the juxtaposition of floral and geometric patterns into which inscriptions, at times obscured by their own abstract texture, are inserted. These inscriptions are both a chronicle of the building additions and a series of Koranic quotations, and they constitute one of the earliest attempts to create a written iconography in a mosque.

The regent al-Mansur ordered the final enlargement to the mosque, adding eight aisles to the east, deflecting the longitudinal thrust of al-Hakam II’s plan but maintaining every other aspect of the elevation of ῾Abd al- Rahman I’s original sanctuary.

In 1236 Ferdinand III of Castile and a number of bishops purified the Great Mosque for Christian worship, consecrating it as a cathedral dedicated to S. María. The building was initially altered only by the creation of St. Clement’s Chapel and by a number of Christian burials. Large-scale alterations began with the Capilla Real (late 13th century–early 14th), a pantheon for the kings of Castile—in particular Ferdinand IV (r.1295–1312) and Alfonso XI. Its first patron is unknown, but a second campaign was executed by Henry II (r.1366–7, 1369–79) in 1371, as documented in an inscription. Constructed in a Mudéjar style, the Capilla Real represented a symbolic appropriation of Islamic rule. At the end of the 15th century the Capilla Mayor, its Gothic nave visible between the enlargements of ῾Abd al-Rahman II and al-Hakam II, was constructed.

The clearest illustration, however, of the need of the Córdoban Church to control and transform what the mosque represented is the construction of a vast cathedral at its center in 1523. Despite the opposition of the city council, which vociferously sought to protect the mosque in its original form, the work began. Designed primarily by three generations of the Ruiz family, the cathedral, which sprouts impertinently from the low, flat roofs of the mosque’s prayer-hall, has an elliptical crossing dome (1598; by Diego de Praves (1556–1620)) and a clearly defined nave that proclaim its Christian formal heritage; it visually appropriates the minaret as a bell-tower (1589–93; 1656; rest. 18th century). Its interior reveals a vast, radiantly lit space, featuring Gothic tracery, Classical orders, Gothic and Renaissance figural sculpture and Italianate stucco decoration. The figural sculpture is sometimes inscribed in horseshoe arches with polychromed masonry, as if to give the Islamic architectural decoration a Christian focal point and narrative, figural subject. The Plateresque style is present, especially in the complex patterns of the vault ribs. Its abstract patterns and the horror vacui of much of the cathedral interior are reminders that even appropriate Spanish ecclesiastical architecture contained implicit references to 700 years of cohabitation with Islamic culture. “You have taken something unique and turned it into something mundane,” Charles V is recorded as having remarked on seeing the new cathedral. Pedro Duque Cornejo (1678–1757) carved the choir-stalls (1747–57). Work on the cathedral was not complete until the end of the 18th century.


  • H. Terrasse: L’Art hispano-mauresque (Paris, 1932)
  • F. Chueca Goitia: Arquitectura del siglo XVI, A. Hisp., xi (Madrid, 1953)
  • G. Marcais: L’Architecture musulmane d’occident (Paris, 1954)
  • G. Kubler: Arquitectura de los siglos XVII y XVIII, A. Hisp., xiv (Madrid, 1957)
  • L. Golvin: L’Art hispano-musulmane (Paris, 1979)
  • C. Ewert and J. -P. Wisshak: Forsch. Almohad. Moschee, i (Mainz, 1981)
  • J. M. Bloom: “The Revival of Early Islamic Architecture by the Umayyads of Spain,” The Medieval Mediterranean: Cross-Cultural Contacts, ed. M. J. Chiat and K. L. Reyerson (St. Cloud, MN, 1988), pp. 35–41
  • J. D. Dodds: “The Great Mosque of Córdoba,” Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain (exh. cat., ed. J. D. Dodds; Granada, Alhambra; New York, Met.; 1992), pp. 10–25
  • N. N. Khoury: “The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century,” Muqarnas, xiii (1996), pp. 80–98
  • M. Ocaña Jiménez: “The Basilica of San Vicente and the Great Mosque of Córdoba: A New Look at the Sources,” The Formation of al-Andalus. Part 2: Language, Religion, Culture and the Sciences, ed. M. Fierro and J. Samsó, The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, 47 (Aldershot, 1998), pp. 257–73
  • B. Pavón Maldonado: “La mezquita aljama de Córdoba de ῾Abd al-Raḥmān I, la ampliación de ῾Abd al-Raḥmān II y las actuaciones de Muḥammad I,” Anaquel Estud. Arab., xii (2001), pp. 595–629
  • H. Ecker: “The Great Mosque of Córdoba in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” Muqarnas, xx (2003), pp. 113–41

B. Synagogue.

The one surviving synagogue of Córdoba’s flourishing Jewish community is an early 14th-century reconstruction in the Mudéjar style of an older building. It is, as its commemorative inscription declares, a “sanctuary in miniature,” composed of three, modest spaces: a tiny court (4.25×5.80 m), which mediates between the street and the synagogue proper, an atrium (c. 2.75×6.36 m) and a prayer-hall (6.95×6.37 m). A women’s gallery (possibly constructed somewhat later) was accessible from the atrium, but its original supports and ceiling are lost, as is the original entrance to the prayer-hall. The synagogue also possessed several 14th-century outbuildings: vestiges of a meeting-room and a Talmudic school, for instance, are discernible.

This diminutive sanctuary had a lavish decorative program in the late Mudéjar style. The dados are lost: they were either painted stucco, like the upper portions, or tilework, which is typical of Córdoban Mudéjar. The upper walls, however, still retain a complex program of festooned arches, lacy stuccowork, multi-planar geometric webs, and inscriptions, which combine to recall the Granadan style. The most interesting of these inscriptions names the patron: Isaac Moheb ben Ephraim, who founded the synagogue in 1314 or 1315. Interestingly, the Mudéjar style at Córdoba’s synagogue uses Hebrew script much as Arabic writing is used in an Islamic context: as well as having a literary meaning, the inscriptions play a significant formal role, framing decorative fields, which often contain vegetal and geometric motifs that mimic the epigraphic forms. In both the decorative style and the use of inscriptions, the synagogue recalls the almost contemporary El Tránsito Synagogue (1366) in Toledo, although the decoration at Córdoba is somewhat more planar and geometric, and the monument itself is significantly more modest.


  • F. Cantera Burgos: Sinagogas españolas (Madrid, 1955)
  • F. Cantera Burgos: Sinagogas de Toledo, Segovia y Córdoba (Madrid, 1973)
  • C. H. Krinsky: Synagogues of Europe (New York, 1983)
  • J. D. Dodds: “Mudejar Tradition and Synagogues of Medieval Spain: Cultural Identity and Cultural Hegemony,” Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, ed. V. B. Mann, T. F. Glick and J. D. Dodds (New York, 1992), pp. 113–31


"Córdoba." In The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture edited by Jonathan M. Bloom, Sheila S. Blair. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t276/e235

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #263: 'Cordoba' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", January 21, 2018 http://bridgingcultures.neh.gov/muslimjourneys/items/show/263.