Medieval Europe was a swirling mix of three religions in particular – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. And the Islamic influence can be found in places you might not expect.
Ten years ago, I visited the cities of Cordoba and Seville in Spain. In Cordoba, you can still visit the great mosque built in the 10th century. It’s a forest of pillars in the Islamic style – yet in the middle of western Europe today.
Islamic legacy in Europe very visible in Spain
The mosque was put up at a time when most of modern Spain and Portugal was under the rule of Muslim emirs – ruling from cities like Seville and Cordoba. These were huge centres of urban civilisation producing top mathematicians and philosophers. But also stunning architecture.
There was a very subtle and nuanced relationships between Christianity and Islam – it wasn’t all conducted on the point of a sword – though that had its place. The mosque in Cordoba borrowed Roman pillars from local ruined sites and the shape of the arches was heavily influenced by the earlier Christian Visigothic civilisation.
When Cordoba was retaken by Christian crusaders after over four hundreds of Muslim rule – they kept the mosque because of its beauty. But later, the kings of Catholic Spain slapped a cathedral right in the middle of it. Today, you have the almost surreal experience of walking into a 10th century mosque and then suddenly finding yourself in a gothic/baroque cathedral at the centre of the building.
Islamic rulers in Europe told to preserve their buildings – by Christians
In Seville, the crusaders were on the verge of taking the city in the 13th century and told its Muslim rulers not to destroy the huge, thick minaret on the great mosque. If they did, the city would be slaughtered. When it was seized by the Christian armies, they kept the minaret and demolished the mosque. The minaret became the new bell tower. But such was the admiration for the Islamic craftsmanship involved in building the minaret – that it was inconceivable to knock it down.
Here are a couple of photos I took back in 2010 of the mosque in Cordoba – pardon the quality of digital images back in those days!