From Madrid, we took the high-speed train to Córdoba, another beautiful city in southern Spain with a rich past dating back to the Roman era and earlier.
Like the other cities we visited in Spain, Córdoba has enchanting narrow cobblestone streets and beautiful medieval architecture.
But Córdoba also features something more.
We discovered there a magnificent remnant of the Islamic Caliphate that once governed much of modern Spain and North Africa, with Córdoba as its capital.
It is the enormous “Mezquita de Córdoba” mosque, the better part of it built in the 9th and 10th Centuries. It is still one of the largest mosques in the world. Although no longer used as a mosque, in its day it was capable of holding 20,000 people in prayer.
During the period of Islamic rule, Córdoba was the premier city of the Western World, the greatest metropolis west of Constantinople, and the seat of Europe’s first university. It was a renowned center of learning and scholarship for Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Córdoba was especially important in the history of Judaiasm and in its prime had a large, prosperous and well-educated Jewish community.
Maimonides, the great 12h Century Jewish scholar and physician, was from Cordoba.
There is still a “Jewish Quarter” in Córdoba, which includes a medieval synagogue, but sadly there are no Jews still living there. They have been gone for four centuries, persecuted and expelled from Spain, along with the Muslims, under the dreaded Spanish Inquisition.
The great mosque of Córdoba is one of the most beautiful and inspiring structures we have ever visited. The fact that it survived the Christian “reconquest” is almost miraculous.
After the “reconquest,” a portion of the mosque was converted into a Catholic cathedral. The Catholics literally just cut a hole in the middle and built their cathedral there, and converted the minaret to a bell tower. Fortunately, however, most of the original mosque is still well preserved.
There is a long history of religious temples on the site, predating the mosque. An ancient Christian church once occupied the ground where the mosque now stands. Still earlier, the Romans erected a temple there. Visitors can see the remains of the foundation of the ancient Christian church in a glass-covered vault beneath the floor of the mosque.
From a Muslim perspective, and even aesthetically, construction of the Catholic cathedral literally in middle of the mosque surely must seem a desecration. So, too, was the burial of Catholic bishops and other Christian dignitaries within the confines of the cathedral. (Burial of the dead in a mosque is contrary to Islamic belief.)
But as intrusive or sacrilegious or frankly bizarre as construction of the Catholic cathedral inside the old mosque might seem, it had the benign effect of preserving more-or-less intact the bulk one of the world’s greatest examples of Islamic religious architecture, a truly beautiful house of prayer.
A Secret of the Great Mosque
At the height of Córdoba’s golden era, three centuries before the “reconquest,” it was governed by an exceptional religious and political leader named Caliph Al Hakam II.
According to Wikipedia, “[i]t has been estimated that in the 10th century Córdoba was the most populous city in the world, and under the rule of Caliph Al Hakam II it had also become a centre for education under its Islamic rulers. Al Hakam II opened many libraries in addition to the many medical schools and universities which existed at this time.”
It was under Al-Hakam II that much of the great mosque at Córdoba was built.
Now, consider this: Scholars believe from good evidence that Caliph Al Hakam II, with all of his accomplishments, kept an all-male harem and lived unabashedly as what we today would term an “out” gay man.
By that we mean people like us, people who were endowed with the desire and capacity to love a partner of their own sex, and who find a way come to terms with this part of their nature.
“It was all so plain now…. He loved men and always had loved them. He longed to embrace them and mingle his being with theirs.”
– Maurice, a novel by E.M. Forster, Chapter 10, closing paragraph
Especially in light of the recent mass killing at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, a bit of reflection and prayer on the topic of same-sex love is appropriate.
Our prayer is that all religions would open their hearts to gay and transgender people.
“We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence.”
– Pope Francis I, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love“), Paragraph 250, p.190, March 2016
Based on what we saw and learned in Córdoba, it seems fair to say that there existed within Islam, quite early in its history, a rounded and respectful understanding of same-sex love.
It was a frank acceptance of same-sex love as an aspect of human nature that allowed Caliph Al-Hakam II to achieve his great potential.
In turn, it is because of Al-Hakam, as much as anyone, that we have not only the great and inspirational mosque of Córdoba, but also the tremendous legacy of scholarship, religious tolerance and good government for which Córdoba in its ascendancy was renowned.