Monday 8 December 2014

Cordoba: Mosque or Cathedral?

I confess that I don't know as much about Spain as I should. My Spanish is minimal (really just what sense I can make out based on French and Latin) and as a good Protestant agnostic, I was brought up believing that historical Spain was summed up by Francis Drake and the Spanish Inquisition, and with a sure and certain belief that modern Spain was populated simply by donkeys and workshy Mexican bandits. (My geography was as dodgy as my history.)

I've moved on enough to realize quite how idiotic that is, but one suspects that readers of The Guardian haven't. (Or at least Spain when coupled with the magic word 'Catholic' produces foaming at the mouth worthy of hydrophobic wolverines.) Hence an article [here] which explains how the awful Spanish Catholic Church is trying to be Islamophobic isn't probably going to be subject to much in the way of critical thought. Under the strapline:

Government of Andalusia says Diocese of Córdoba is ignoring site’s history as a place of worship for Muslims and Christians

the article continues

The site is now under the control of the diocese of Córdoba, which has begun referring to the site as the cathedral rather than the city council-approved name of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Andalusia’s minister for tourism Rafael Rodríguez told El País. “Hiding its past as a mosque is like calling the Alhambra the palace of Charles V – it’s absurd.”

Describing that attitude as fundamentalist, the United Left politician said the diocese appeared to be “prioritising religious beliefs over common sense and the natural history of the monument. It doesn’t seem either reasonable or acceptable to me.”

He said the regional authorities planned to raise their concerns with the diocese next week. “It’s an essential tourist site for Andalusia, the second most important after the Alhambra. It seems absurd that they are not exploiting all the possibilities for tourism due to religious reasons.”

[Link to article here]

Now I confess that I haven't done a lot of research to check this. So I'm very happy for those who have a greater knowledge of the affair to correct me in the combox below. But immediately, and based, as I said, on a fairly minimal knowledge of Spain, some 'issues' became obvious. For example, it strikes me as fairly implausible that since 1236 (when the 'mosque' was captured by Ferdinand III (yes, I can read Wikipedia), moving through (shall we say) some fairly fraught exchanges between the Catholic Church and Islam, not to mention the rather unecumenically minded Church under Franco in the twentieth century, that it was only now that the Church 'has begun' referring to the site as the Cathedral. And indeed, so far as I can make out from this El País article (here. Sp) it was in fact only ten years ago that Government of Andalusia dubbed it officially 'Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba'. Moreover, one might suspect, given the history of left wing anti-clericalism in Spain, that a United Left government is hardly likely to be free of its own anti-Catholic agenda.

Moreover, more extensive research (ie thirty seconds googling) found the (Church) website for the Cathedral (here). Indeed, it is called simply 'la Santa Iglesia Catedral de Córdoba'. But the first words of the 'descripción breve' (short description here) are

La mezquita original se construye sobre la basílica visigoda de San Vicente ('The original mosque is built on the Visigothic basilica of Saint Vincent...')

which is hardly 'hiding its past'.

So what does this teach us? Firstly, beware of journalism in general. I picked up this story from some tweets (by people who should have known better) retweeting this with shocked horror. A moment's thought should have encouraged the suspicion that there is more to this than meets the eye. Secondly, beware of journalism about the Catholic Church in particular. Of course Catholics are going to be sensitive about calling a Church a Mosque: quite apart from the particular history of Spain, a Church for Catholics is the site where Christ is present, body, blood, soul and divinity in the reserved Sacrament. By all means mock us for that belief, but given it, don't be surprised at our sensitivities.

In essence, the story of the Mosque-Cathedral seems to be one where an anti-Catholic secularist party has tried to rebrand a working Church as a Mosque, in part to drag in tourists, in part (no doubt) to stick it to the Church. It is also a story of a greater Muslim push to get use of the Church as a Mosque (here). Where you stand on those issues will no doubt depend on where you are coming from. Fair enough. But absolutely nothing is gained in an area of great sensitivity by pretending that one party is acting irrationally: living with this sort of dispute is only possible through making a serious attempt to understand the other points of view involved.


  1. I visited Cordoba in 1970 (i.e. during the time of Franco) and the designation "mezquita-catedral" was in use even then.

  2. Thank you! That's helpful.I suspect that the issue isn't so much whether 'mezquita-catedral' was used to some extent, but whether the Church's use of simply 'catedral' is only recent, deliberately revisionary and clearly unreasonable.

    Your comment made me get out an old US encyclopedia (Collier's) (1971) and there (under 'Cordoba') the description is: 'Cathedral of Cordoba. The chief architectural feature of Cordoba is the cathedral, originally the Great Mosque of the Ommiad caliphs.'

    1905 edition New International Encyclopedia: "The finest edifice is the cathedral, once the chief mosque of the ‘Infidels,’ and one of the most splendid examples of Moorish architecture."

    Catholic Encylcopedia (1917): 'In 786 the Arab caliph, Abd-er Rahman I, began the construction of the great mosque of Cordova, now the cathedral'.

    I think it's clear that the use of just 'cathedral' wasn't unusual at least in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

    1. And there's more!

      The Grauniad article says: '

      'The site is now under the control of the diocese of Córdoba, which has begun referring to the site as the cathedral rather than the city council-approved name of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba'.

      It adds: 'The regional government’s remarks come amid a dispute over the monument’s ownership. In 2006, making use of a law dating back to the dictatorship of General Franco, the diocese of Córdoba registered the world-renowned site to its name for €30.'

      All of which sounds as though the Church has been acting in an underhand manner and basically nicked the Mosque.

      However, EuroWeekly News makes clear: 'The monument recently came under the spotlight when several groups gathered signatures to demand that it become a public asset.The World Heritage Site was apparently registered officially as belonging to the Church in 2006. However, the Ministry of Tax confirms that the monument has belonged to the Church for centuries.'


      UNESCO site: 'The Great Mosque became the Cathedral...'

      The Spanish Wikipedia article has: La Mezquita-catedral de Córdoba, antes «Santa María Madre de Dios» o «Gran Mezquita de Córdoba», actualmente conocida como la Catedral de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora de forma eclesiástica, o simplemente Mezquita de Córdoba de forma general...'

      which sounds about right. Name changed by the regional government ten years ago. Church denying the right of the Government to ownership and insisting on the official: 'Catedral de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora'. Ordinary people just using the simplest title.

      But none of this complexity in the Guardian article. Just bad Church being unreasonable as usual....

  3. I'm not going to enter the question of whether it is or not a church (I think that would entail a long discussion), because I just want to point out a different question which is related to this one.

    The thing is that in Spain there's a law by which the Church -as an institution- can claim places for itself, for their own usage, without having to pay a penny for them. This means the Spanish Church has registered a great number of properties as being of their own in the last past years. I know that the Mosque as such is considered of ecclesiastical property since 1236, but it was in 2006 when the Spanish Church registered the Mosque as an ecclesiastical property.

    As I see it, it's a terrible thing that the Spanish law allows these things, but that would be a long debate, too. To sum up, I'm just trying to point out that this question is bigger than it seems, and I hope this helps to a better understanding of it.

  4. Thank you for the comment! One of the reasons I blogged was the hope that I'd get some comments from people with a greater knowledge of the circumstances: so much appreciated!

    I think your point, 'this question is bigger than it seems' is precisely the point that ought to be made: how the site is described (and indeed who owns it) is disputed (as one would expect in a society with a variety of (strong!) viewpoints on Catholicism). But the Guardian article downplays this conflict in favour of a predominant narrative of ecclesiastical unreasonableness and this simplification gets in the way of a proper understanding of the difficulties of negotiating the past (and indeed modern religion).