Michael Hecht writes:
“A timely article might be about the implications of the name Cordoba House for the proposed Islamic center at Ground Zero. Is it perhaps intended as the name of the once — and future — capital of Islamic Spain?”
By “future capital,” Mr. Hecht is, I assume, referring to the alleged Muslim dream of regaining Andalusia, the southern region of Spain that was completely under Muslim control from 711 to the late 12th century and remained partially so until the final Christian victory at Granada in 1492, the same year in which Spain expelled its Jews. Prior to being sacked by Berber troops from North Africa in 1013, Córdoba, a city fabled for its wealth and splendor, was Muslim Spain’s capital — and Mr. Hecht is apparently suggesting that the proposed name of Cordoba House is a veiled allusion not only to the hoped-for re-establishment of Muslim rule in Spain, but also to its extension to America.
Although the loss of Andalusia was certainly a traumatic blow to Islam’s pride and aspirations, I very much doubt whether Faisal Abdul Rauf, the Muslim cleric behind the Cordoba initiative, was thinking of this when he chose the name. It certainly isn’t what he has said publicly, which is that Córdoba, far from being a symbol of Islamic revanchism, symbolizes for the project’s initiators the (to use a Spanish term) convivencia or (to use its English equivalent) harmonious co-existence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in medieval Muslim Spain. It is such co-existence, Rauf declares, that he intends to campaign for in America, too.
One may take him at his word. And yet, even if Muslim Spain was, for its era, “the most enlightened, pluralistic and tolerant society on earth,” as Rauf has stated, and as some historians of the period would agree (others would not), is Córdoba, historically speaking, an appropriate symbol of this? Certainly not if one keeps in mind that the dispute over building an Islamic center at Ground Zero involves the relationship of architecture to politics and the use of grand architectural structures to make religious and political statements.
For what, after all, is Córdoba, architecturally, most known? The answer, of course, is its grand Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, also known as the Mezquita cathedral, the cathedral of the Mosque. (Mezquita is the Spanish word for “mosque,” from Arabic masjad.) The reason the cathedral is called this is that prior to 1236, when it was taken from the Muslims by King Ferdinand III of Castile, Córdoba was one of the most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world, the original floor plan of which can still be seen in its huge rectangular prayer hall with its long crisscrossing rows of pillars and arches that define the otherwise unornamented space in which the Muslim faithful kneeled to pray. Although after being turned into a church, the mosque was gradually filled with the naves, niches, sacristies and altars of Catholic worship, they fail even today to obscure its once pristine design.
If this were the full story, it would simply be a tale of the Christian architectural appropriation of an Islamic site. But it is not the full story, because when the Umayyad Caliph Abd ar-Rahman I decided to construct the Córdoba mosque in 784, there was already a house of worship there — the Catholic Church of St. Vincent, which had been standing since about 600. True, the caliph is said to have purchased the structure, but its Christian prelates could hardly have had much choice in the matter. The story of the Mezquita cathedral, therefore, is not just one about the Christian appropriation — or, perhaps one should say, expropriation — of an Islamic shrine; it is also one of the Islamic expropriation of a Christian shrine.
And that’s not the full story, either, because before the Church of St. Vincent was built, the site was occupied by a Roman temple, which the Visigothic rulers of Christian Spain expropriated from its pagan users. And although nothing is known about it, it’s a reasonable assumption that Spain’s Roman conquerors found the earlier temple of a local Iberian cult and rededicated it to the deities of Rome. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the history of religion. Sacred sites have greater powers of endurance than do the gods who are prayed to in them.
The moral? If Córdoba symbolizes anything in the context of architecture and religion, it is how all religions use power, when they have it, to promote their concept of their own grandeur and importance in architectural terms. The proposed construction of Cordoba House on a site two blocks from the area razed by Muslim jihadists is no exception to this rule. It is no worse than what has been done countless other times in the course of history, but it is not much better, either. Perhaps this is why, according to the latest reports, the name Cordoba House has been changed to Park 51.
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