CORDOBA — Back in 1984, UNESCO included Spain’s Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba on its World Heritage list. Thirty years later, the site that tourist guides describe as one of Andalusia’s architectural masterpieces — a symbol of the golden age of the Umayyad civilization and of the “concord” between religions — now represents conflict. Though the exceptional monument, also called the Mezquita, remains, the diocese in charge of it has dropped the “Mosque” part of its name, calling it simply a “Cathedral,” which has angered many.
A group of citizens sparked an intense controversy in February after they denounced “the ongoing attempts of legal, economic and symbolic appropriation from the bishop of Cordoba.” Over 200,000 people have already signed their petition on Change.org, asking that the site be called “Mosque-Cathedral” and not just “Cathedral.” They are also demanding “the legal recognition of its status as public property.”
The public has discovered how the diocese of Cordoba has tried to erase the monument’s Muslim history and establish its authority over the site. In 2006, it covertly registered the monument in its name. “If the administration doesn’t oppose it, it will become the Church’s property in 2016,” explains Antonio Manuel Rodriguez, law professor at the University of Cordoba and spokesman for the outraged citizen group. “But our main concern is the escalation of the denominational management of the site,” he adds.
A diocese leaflet printed in 2009 described the mosque as an “islamic intervention” after the destruction of a Visigothic church during the 6th century — St Vincent’s basilica — by “Muslim dominants.” The magnificent forest of columns, famous around the world, is mentioned only once and as an “inconvenience” to “celebrate liturgy.” The leaflet, however, insists on the “Christian transformation,” which destroyed the center of the mosque to build the heart of the cathedral, the artistic interest of which is minor.
“It’s unbelievable,” says historian Bernard Vincent, who is dumbfounded after reading the leaflet. “The mosque is presented as no more than a blip in an otherwise entirely Christian site that dates almost as far back as Ancient Rome. It’s as if Muslims had done nothing more than simply patching up something that already existed. Those aren’t mistakes but rather interpretations which are evidence of a campaign to claim total control over the Mosque-Cathedral,” he explains.
The diocese believes that the Mosque-Cathedral has been its property since 1236 and the Reconquista led by Ferdinand the Third of Castile, at which point the site was dedicated to Catholic cult. “Until 1998, the Church was not allowed to register its property,” says diocese spokesman Pablo Garzon. When a new law changed that, it was registered, he says. “The difference here is that temple is very controversial.”
The young priest describes the fact that “Muslims have tried to pray” there. But for the Church, letting people kneel in front of the magnificent apse covered in golden mosaics is simply out of the question. The security guards are quick to stop those who try.
In 2006, the former president of Cordoba’s Muslim community, Mandur Escudero, sent a letter to the Pope asking that Muslims be permitted to pray there. To demonstrate to the world that it was impossible for him to do so, he then prayed outside the Mezquita in the middle of the street.
Four years later, a group of Muslims from Austria attempted to pray inside the Mosque-Cathedral, which sparked clashes with security guards. Soon after, the new and very conservative Bishop Demetrio Fernandez asked city officials to change the road signs to the monument, replacing the name “Mosque-Cathedral” with just “Cathedral.”
“We’re not a war against the word ‘mosque’, except when it’s used in an exclusive manner,” argues Pablo Garzon, the diocese spokesman. “But the workers are being put under intense pressure, and we need to react.”
This “pressure” from the Muslim community has become the perfect excuse for the symbolic disappearance of Cordoba’s mosque. In the 1980s and 1990s, the diocese leaflet was entitled “The Mosque-Cathedral,” but by 1998, it had already been renamed “The Holy Cathedral Church,” with the subtitle reading, “former mosque of Cordoba.” Now, the monument visited by 1.4 million tourists every year is just a cathedral.
“We respect that the church is used for liturgy,” says Antonio Manuel Rodriguez, the citizen group spokeman. “But there must be a transparent, public and non-confessional administration.”
Former UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor Zaragoza warns that “UNESCO could declare the monument an endangered cultural site.” Victor Fernandez Salinas, secretary-general of the Spanish Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, denounces what he sees as a form of “fundamentalism” seeking to “erase the traces of the past.”
He observes that over the past few years, “The sites that meant more to the Muslims were occupied with elements that reinforced Catholicism.” At the end of 2012, a massive statue of Saint John of Ávila (remembered as the “Apostle of Andalusia”) was erected nearby.
The sound and light show that is offered to nighttime visitors has also exacerbated the tensions. Bankrolled by the city but written by the Church after the bishop declared in 2008 that he would “never accept that the vision of Arab knights be projected on the wall,” the show presents a biased description of the mosque, insisting on the Byzantine influence and the Christian prisoners used to build it.
“After more than five centuries, the Cross of Jesus Christ rises once again,” the first part concludes, as grandiose music plays in the background. More than half of the show is then dedicated to a precise description of the choir built between the 16th and the 18th century.
And yet history tells another story. Charles V, who had authorized the cathedral nave’s construction after an argument between the city’s officials, later expressed his remorse: “I did not know what it was, for I would not have allowed the ancient to be changed,” he said. “They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”