The Mezquita: A Blending of Cultures in Spain

*This is an excerpt from my final paper for Honors Islam in Spain
Only July 1st, the summer before my senior year of college, I embarked on the journey that will shape my entire life. After an odd turn of events and by the inspiration of an amazing professor, I decided to spend a month studying the history of Islam and Judaism in Spain through the Honors College. Needless to say, I was out of my element before even leaving the country. I had to be pragmatic: I couldn’t hold a boring congressional internship or study something normal- I chose to push myself.
Getting to Seville, Spain was only a small ordeal. I wish I could inflect sarcasm blatantly into my writing, because I threw up at least a dozen times- twice on myself- during the 28 hours, 2 flights, 2 trains, and multiple breakdowns that it took to get me there.
Then I was greeted by Mama Virginia with besos. I would live with her for the next month and communicate mostly through charades and mis-conjugated verbs. Neither one of us spoke the other’s language, and I am convinced she humored most of my attempts at the language. I am certain of this because for the first week in Spain, I wandered around mumbling “eschuame” to every stranger I bumped into because I thought it meant “excuse me”. I literally ran into strangers on the street and whispered “listen to me” for a week before I found out that this was not the correct response.
In this very sick charade I was living (I was sick for the first couple of days but the charade was probably sick as well), I could hardly think of another time in my life where I had been so uncomfortable. The panic I experienced while puking, crying, and saying random verbs, and while living alone with a strange woman in a foreign country, was one of the most real panic attacks I have ever had. However, it is this initial discomfort that made me appreciate and gain so much from this experience. What I have found through studying abroad, is that the blending of cultural experiences and overcoming discomfort is the highest echelon of learning.
On a weekend trip to Cordoba, I experienced the physical manifestation of my time abroad: the Mesquita Cathedral/Mosque. The Mesquita was built in 784 A.D., when the Muslims ruled al-Andaluz. The Hypostyle hall- which literally means filled with columns- is a feat of Moorish architecture and features 856 columns. This was briefly the second largest mosque in the world, and a true encapsulation of Moorish architecture.
Then the Catholics acted in typical Catholic fashion by holding an Inquisition and conquering Spain. This meant many of the Jewish temples and Mosques were torn down or converted to churches. Originally, the Mesquita was ordered to be destroyed, but the task could not be carried out due to the scale and amount of the stone columns in place. Instead, a large hole was blasted through the center of what was once the world’s second largest mosque, and a cathedral was built in the center. Additionally, Christian paintings, artifacts, and sculptures were added throughout the building in an effort to “christianize” the place. Note that this is extremely significant because Muslims do not allow depictions of life- which is why they are famous for their geometric patterns- so all of these baby Jesus paintings were highly offensive.
However, despite the major alterations done by the Catholic Church, there is something uniquely beautiful about the blending of Eastern and Western styles. Briefly, there was a time in al-Andaluz of great religious tolerance and massive growth of art, culture, and knowledge. The Muslims, Jews, and Christians even lived together in harmony- a picture you couldn’t imagine today. While this harmony was driven out by the Spanish Inquisition and has never returned, we can still see the ethereal cohesion of the two religious styles in the architecture of the Mesquita. It struck me as very unique, because there are so few places today where you can see two diametrically opposed ideas coexisting.
While unfortunately the two ideologies have not been able to reconcile their differences since the Inquisition (I don’t blame them tbh) and probably won’t in the near future, it is a great depiction of my study abroad experience as a whole. It would have been a lot easier to stay in hotels, study an easier topic, and study in English speaking country. And at the beginning I was jealous of my friends who had done so. However, if I had taken the easy way out, I wouldn’t have experienced the growth I had as a person- much like the massive growth in al-Andaluz. The Catholics couldn’t destroy an entire mosque, and I couldn’t strictly conform to my Americanized way of life. Throughout this month long journey I have been uncomfortable, scared, and pushed to grow more than I thought I was comfortable with, but I know I leave Spain a better person for it. I think any person would grow by studying or even just traveling abroad, but learning about the remarkable role Muslims and Jews played in the history of Spain truly enhanced my understanding of tolerance, knowledge, discomfort, and peace. So I leave you with this: embrace the discomfort of ideas and experience. You will be grateful for it later. Adios Espana.
Here are some photos from inside. The lighting in there is terrible and I was having camera issues, but here are a couple of the shots I got.
Also, thanks to Sarah Lane for letting me use the top right photo! She was so fun to study abroad with and runs a brilliant blog so you should definitely check her out!

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