The meaning of the word Mosque in the Islamic world
The word mosque comes from the Arabic masyid, meaning "a place to kneel or be prostrated", which perfectly reflects the attitude of the Muslims when praying, an attitude of "submission" –which is the meaning of the word Islam– to Allah. The building named after this word constitutes not only the temple where Muslims have gathered to pray their God throughout history, but it has also become a symbol of Islam as a religion and civilization. Thus, in order to know the history of the past of Islam, mosques represent one of the most important and spectacular material remain.
Islamic mosques find their closest origin in the basilicas from the Eastern Mediterranean, which they resemble in many aspects, such as their floor, frequently in the form of a basilica and with an odd number of naves facing the wall of the "qibla". The naves used to be separated by round and / or horseshoe arches.
The main elements of every mosque, which can be found in the aljama from Córdoba, are the following ones.
The "prayer hall" (haram), indoor space where the believers gather during prayer, connected to an "outdoor courtyard" (sahn) which is very frequently surrounded on three of its sides by series of arches (riuaq), while the fourth side leads to the prayer hall. In order for the faithful to carry out the mandatory and ritual ablutions before prayers, every mosque hada pool, with or without fountains, which was usually placed in the central area of the courtyard and was big enough to allow several believers to share it.
The "minaret" is the square or round tower, usually in the north of the ablutions courtyard, from where the "muezzin" summons all the believers to "prayer" (adhan) five times a day. Each prayer hall in a mosque must have a wall facing Mecca (Qibla), in the centre of which the "mihrab" can be found, that is, a space or niche which constitutes the centre of every mosque and where the richest and most attractive decoration is concentrated. Unlike the altar in a church, the "mihrab" does not constitute a sacred space, but it indicates the direction of the prayer, which is indeed sacred. It usually has a semicircular floor and it is opened to the wall of the "qibla" through a round or horseshoe arch. It is very often preceded by a dome.
The "minbar" or pulpit, always on the right of the mirhab, consists of a wooden structure in different heights to which access can be gained through stairs leading to a small platform with a dome or roof at the top. From its higher part, the "Imam" leads the believers’ prayer (jutba). It is a common element to all big mosques, but it is not present in small rural or local mosques,due to the reduced size of those temples.
The "macsura" was originally a separate place where they could protect the life of the Imam, who, during the first years of Islam, used to be the Caliphor governor and who was often at risk of being assassinated. It consisted of a raised platform with protective wooden fences and it later developed into architectonic forms that highlighted the central nave of every mosque, which was generally wider than the side ones.
From an archaeological point of view, a mosque is especially recognisable by its orientation towards Mecca, Islam’s sacred city. It is also easy to recognise other elements, such as the galleries of the prayer hall, whose arches have a continuous footing most of the times; the niche of the mihrab, with its semicircular floor or with a horseshoe arch; the foundations of the minaret, usually with a square floor; the pillars marking the location of the macsura, etc.
When the Christian reconquest of Al-Andalus took place –the territory of the Iberian Peninsula under Muslim control– many of the mosques were reused as churches by Christians. It was then frequent to respect the naves and the internal distribution of the space in the temple, although its orientation was altered. Examples of this transformation are not scarce in Spain (Seville or Toledo), although we will of course pay more attention to the aljama or main mosque of Córdoba.
If you wish to visit the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, do not hesitate to hire one of our guided tours. We are experts in the interpretation of the cultural heritage from Córdoba. If you have chosen to go sightseeing in Córdoba, choose a high quality option, choose ArtenCórdoba.
Text: Jesús Pijuán.