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Once Upon a Time in Andalusia-PART IIII



The Style of Life in Andalusia


Andalusia was unique in terms of its tangible accomplishments in all spheres of life. Learning was emphasized, marked by a fascination with science, the Arabic literature and the philosophical discourse on reason and faith. In the world created in the land of Andalusia, there was commercial wealth, wealth in terms of consumption, and wealth of productivity and exchange. There was also a wealth of information, thanks to the libraries of Cَrdoba and a wealth of thinking about the meaning of life, God, and material things. And there were even poets who sang to all the ways of wealth.


We will restrict ourselves to a brief description of the scientific and technical achievement, and a more detailed account of the Mosque of Cَrdoba as it is one of the first monumental expressions of Muslim rule, and arguably the building that most fully embodied an image of the Muslim hegemony in Andalusia.


Scientific and Technical Achievement


When discussing the scientific development in Andalusia, one cannot separate it either from the contributions of the other great civilizations, nor from the wisdom and faith that inspired the efforts of all researchers in Andalusia: science is One because the world is One, the world is One because God is One. This principle of tawhid commanded all aspects of scientific research in Andalusia as well as in other parts of the Islamic world, at its period of apogy. The following are some of the achievements of such a philosophy of life.


The first attempt to fly was in Cَrdoba by Abu Abbas al-Fernass. Al-Zahrawi, born near Cَrdoba in 936, was one of the greatest surgeon of all times. His encyclopedia of surgery was used as a standard reference work in the subject in all universities of Europe for over five hundred years. Al-Zarqalli, who was born in Cَrdoba, devised the astrolabe: an instrument which is used to measure the distance of the stars above the horizon. The astrolabe made it possible to determine one s position in space and the hours of the day, to navigate and to call the faithful to prayer at the given time.


Al-Idrisi, who was born in Ceuta in 1099 and studied at Cَrdoba, drew maps for the King Roger II of Sicily in which he used methods of projection to pass from the spherical shape of the earth to the planisphere that were very similar to those used by Mercator four centuries later.


The agricultural and irrigation methods of the Muslims of Spain were revealed by the great Italian engineer Juanello Turriano, who came to Andalusia to study the hydraulic and agricultural techniques of eleventh century Muslim Spain to solve his problems of the sixteenth century in Italy.


The Great Mosque of Cَrdoba


Cَrdoba deserves its titles of the 'bride of the cities' and the 'jewel of the tenth century'. A city of factories and workshops, which attracted many scholars and produced her own. It was the first city with street lights in Europe. It rose to eminence as the torch of learning and civilization at a time when the Normans had savaged Paris and England had been ransacked by the Danes and Vikings. Its showpiece was its magnificent mosque, which is the most famous building of Spain after the Alhambra palace in Granada.



The foundations of the mosque were laid by Abd al-Rahman I in 785 on the site of an old Christian church. Since the time of the conquest in 711, the church had been used by both Muslims and Christians. The Muslims bought the church because of the growth of the population at that time, and not because of religious intolerance. It had been enlarged between 832-848, then in 912, and mainly in 961, by al-Hakam II, with its splendid mihrab. Al-Mansur, in 987, doubled the prayer hall which then contained 600 columns. It had already been perturbated in 1236, when Cَrdoba fell to Ferdinard III of Castille and chapels were inserted, and further in 1523 when a cathedral was built in the heart of the mosque. King Charles V is recorded to have remarked upon seeing the new cathedral: 'Had I known what this was, I would not have given permission to touch the old, because you are making what exists in many other places and you have unmade what was unique in the world.' As we can see it today, despite the opposition of the Spanish government to a UNESCO project to move the cathedral as it is without omitting the least detail (as the temple of Abu Simbal in Egypt was moved), the Mosque of Cَrdoba still reflects the image of the Muslim art at its best.



The practical problem faced by the architect of the Cَrdoba Mosque for the construction of a huge room for a big community, was to raise the roof of the oratory to a height proportionate to the extent of the building, so that a feeling of depression-like the one we feel when we get into an underground parking can be dispelled. The antique columns, or the building-spoils which were available, were insufficient. It was therefore necessary to supplement them, and the example of Damascus suggested arcades on two levels. But the model of Cَrdoba has a very surprising feature: the lower and upper arcades are no longer part of a wall, but are reduced to their pillars and arches without any intermediate masonry. The upper arches which support the roof, rest on the same pillars as the lower arches. Such a concept, without precedent in the history of architecture and unique to the Cَrdoba Mosque, is a real defiance to the weight and inertia of stones.



Let us say, to give a better picture of the image evoked by this architecture, that the curves of both series of arches soar like palm- fronds from the same trunk, which rests upon a relatively slender column, without the feeling of being too heavy for it. The arches with their many-coloured and fan-shaped wedge-stones have such expansive strength that they dispel any suggestion of weight. This expression in static terms of a reality which goes beyond the material plane, is due to the outline of the arches. The lower ones are drawn out beyond the shape of a pure semicircle, whereas the upper ones are more open and purely semicircular.


Many archaeologists have suggested that the composition of the arcs used by the architect of Cَrdoba was inspired by the Roman aqueduct in Merida. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two compositions. The Roman architect had respected the logic of the gravity, a building's support must be proportionate to the weight, thus the upper arcs must be lighter than the supporting elements. For the Cَrdovan architect-and more generally for all Islamic architecture-this rule does not work. Why?



To answer this question we have to move from the technical considerations, to the symbolic expression of space in the Muslim prayer, which was the most important factor preoccupying the 'Master' of Cَrdoba. The purpose was not to achieve an architectural exploit, but rather to create a new type of space-one that seems to be breathing and expanding outwards from an omnipresent centre. The limits of space play no role at all; the walls of the prayer hall disappear beyond a forest of arcades. Their sheer repetition (there were 900 of them in the original mosque) giving an impression of endless extension. Space is qualified here not by its boundaries but by the movement of the arcades, if one may describe it as movement. This expansion which is both powerful yet in reality immobile. Titus Burckhardt describes this as being 'a logical art, objectively static but never anthropomorphic.'



It is to al-Hakam II that we owe the marvellous mihrab, the master piece of Cَrdovan art, as well as the various copulas which stand before it, including their substructures, of interlacing arcades. The niche of this mihrab, which is very deep, is surrounded in its upper part by an arch, that is like an apparition and a source of light, of which the very curve seems to dilate, like a chest breathing in the air of infinity. According to the highest Muslim spirituality, beauty is one of the 'signs' which evokes the Divine Presence. The inscription above the symphony of colours, in severe Kufi script, proclaims the Oneness of God.



The Mosque of Cَrdoba is the embodiment of the universal message of Islam. Muhammad Iqbal in his poem A Ia mosquée de Cordoue wrote:



Oh! Holy Mosque of Cَrdoba

Shrine for all lovers of art

Pearl of the one true faith

Sanctifying Andalusia's soil

Like Holy Mecca itself

Such a glorious beauty

Will be found on earth

Only in a true Muslim's heart.



In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.


Allah! There is no God but He,

the Living, the Self-subsisting, the Eternal.

No slumber can seize Him, nor sleep.

All things in heaven and earth are His.

Who could intercede in His presence without His permission?

He knows what appears in front of and behind His creatures.

Nor can they encompass any knowledge of Him except what he wills.

His throne extends over the heavens and the earth,

and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them,

for He is the Highest and Most Exalted.

[Quran 2: 255]


Islam Guide: A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam



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