The biggest attraction in Córdoba and a truly must-see building, the Mezquita is a massive former mosque-turned-cathedral famed for its "forest" of columns topped with Islamic-style red and white striped arches among its other many architectural highlights and serves as a reminder of the glory and importance Córdoba held in medieval times. The building is full of history and beauty.
Built in 786 as a mosque, the structure was expanded several times under Córdoba's Muslim rule while still remaining largely true to the original design. Following the Christian Reconquista of Córdoba in 1236, work immediately went underway to convert the building to a church, and four centuries later a cathedral at the center of the building was constructed, though not without controversy as it significantly altered the space. Today, despite the presence of the cathedral, most of the original mosque structure remains remarkably well-preserved.
Approaching the Mezquita, the first thing you will notice is the massive bell tower on the building's north side which looms over the surrounding buildings. Built in the 1600s the tower replaced a minaret previously on the site. Along the outside of the building the wall takes on the appearance of a fortress, with an elaborate set of Moorish-style archway and windows spaced every so often.
Stepping through one of the doors you'll enter the Patio de los Naranjos, or Court of the Orange Trees, which true to its name contains a grove of orange trees, planted in symmetrical rows that replicate the forest of columns within the building. A large fountain drips pleasantly in the middle, and the views of the bell tower framed by trees are excellent. The Patio is free to enter and is open during the day as a public park - the ticket booths are located on the bell tower side of the courtyard.
Entering the interior you'll immediately be standing before the forest of columns which recede into the distance, topped with their dazzling horseshoe arches. The light in the space will play interesting tricks with the arches and varies pretty dramatically as you walk through the building, going from rather dark when you enter to very bright at the cathedral in the middle and back and forth as you continue.
Opposite the room from the entrance is the Mihrab, a spectacular archway decorated with Arabic writing which was the focus of the mosque, as it faced in the direction of Mecca and was what every Muslim faced as they knelt on the floor to pray . Once, tens of thousands of people could fit into this space to pray, the multitude knelt on their rugs before the Mihrab. In the corner of the building nearby are glass cases with artifacts excavated from beneath the Mezquita, and the walls along the side of the building are lined with chapels, each one with an intricate piece of artwork.
At the center of the building, the Cathedral towers over the rest of the building, and the transition from the impressive-but-intimate mosque structure to the overwhelming awe of the cathedral is abrupt and rather jarring, but don't let that stop you from taking in the beauty of the cathedral, with its rich decoration and well-illuminated interior, standing to suggest triumph over the Muslims who previously used this building. The presence of the cathedral also offers the unique opportunity to so easily compare the differences between Muslim and Christian architecture.