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The Mezquita is the finest patrimony the city of Córdoba has. It is important for many reasons: it is the oldest building still in use in Spain; it shows the fusion of great civilizations that were able to cohabit in harmony at the time; it is a symbol to the Islamic world; and it also represents an architectonic reference that even nowadays leaves architects from all over the world in awe.

To fully grasp this awe we should know that this building has more than a thousand years of age. The Mezquita was planned and then built around the year 760. At that time in the peninsula a proto-romanesque architectonic fashion was starting to blossom, still far away from the skillful roman technique. In order to open small gates, spaces were founded with vast amount of stone so the building will not collapse. Images of these first Romanesque temples (contemporaries of the Mezquita) look not so different from the navetas in Mallorca, built 2000 years before Christ.

In contrast with the Christian architecture, the Mezquita shows qualitatively an astounding improvement. We may have not seen such a innovative jump ever since. While the main Romanesque architectonic notion meant piling up huge amount of stone at the base of the building, hence narrowing the space and openings, the Muslim temple had a wide and clean inner space secured by a thin column structure, accompanied by high ceilings.

That space inside known as “the forest of columns” shows how innovative the Mezquita was at the time. We can safely say that the horseshoe arch is probably the most representative arch in Spanish architecture. Initially introduced by the Visigoth in Spain, the Arabs would later imitate it when building the Mezquita, which was built on top of the previous Christian basilica of Saint Vicent.

The horseshoe arcs of the Mezquita don’t act as central pillars but they are not mere decorative edifications either. They strengthen the main foundations on top.

The true innovation they introduced meant a different way of building the pillars so that from a smaller space a wider area could be covered. This can achieved by gradually increasing the bearing surface, from bottom to top via modular elements, where the hood rests. Let’s take a look at this interesting system.

The basis of the column often leveled the surface in which it stands, since the materials tended to show different measures (they were frequently recycled from previous constructions). On top of the basis the thin column shaft was placed and then finished with the capitals, most of them recycled from roman and Visigothic monuments in the city. The capital was the key element to wider the bearing surface. On top of that was then placed the cymatium, which somewhat resembles an inverted pyramid, again increasing the bearing surface.

On top of the cymatium yet another fascinating innovation awaits, a kind of bracket: a stone modillion that allowed building another pillar of considerable size. This modillion held the imposts of the half-moon arch overhanging thanks to a chamfer, finally resulting in a width capable of bearing the gable roof and its water drainage. These drained waters would not reach the patio or the street, instead they were collected by two big cisterns built underground and later used to irrigate.

Throughout this process a diaphanous space of great size and with hardly any visual interferences was achieved. Even today, over 1200 years later, it still surprises many with the creativity and genius of this construction work. Try to picture seven-meter wide halls held together by columns of less than a meter in diameter.


 

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