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  • Daniella Shear

Conquest, Conversion, and the Myth of Convivencia: Two Iberian Case Studies

“The first chapel ... was sacked and burned to the ground in 1097 by Al Mansur, the last important ruler of the Caliphate of Córdoba, who forced captives to carry the huge bells back to his home town, where they hung in the great mosque until the city was retaken by Christians 239 years later, and they were carried again, this time by Muslim prisoners, all the way to Toledo.”[1]

Image 1: Unknown artwork of the bells being returned to Santiago from Cordoba.

The quotation is taken from Robert Rosenstone’s “A Muslim-Jewish Pilgrimage,” a 2016 essay about the trip he took with his wife to Spain and Portugal to explore the Islamic and Jewish histories of the region. At Santiago de Compostela, Rosenstone heard this myth. It is clear that details have been altered or lost after centuries of retelling. The dates are off: 239 years after 1097 is much later than 1236 when Córdoba was reconquered. The bells were actually taken back to Santiago, not Toledo. And, other sources state that the bells never hung in the Great Mosque of Córdoba; they were used instead as oil lamps. Accurate or not, the legend of these bells persists through storytelling.

The artwork (Image 1) is somewhat mysterious. [2] Representationally it is quite clear

though. In the foreground, we can recognize Muslim prisoners (wearing chains) carrying

the huge bells. Christian soldiers oversee the operation. In the background, we can

recognize the architecture of the Great Mosque of Córdoba, which is noteworthy for two

reasons: the location tells us that this backbreaking journey has only just begun; we see Christian rule and supremacy over a significant (formerly) Muslim space. Al-Andalus is no more. Still, the question remains, where did this image come from? Some people have suggested that the painting was commissioned by Fernando III to immortalize his victory, but this is stylistically impossible. [3]

Despite the inconsistencies and unknowns, these representations are relevant because they tell a story that is still in the public consciousness. They tell us about the religious and political agenda of the “reconquista” [4] by broadening a story of regaining territory to a story about the restoration of Christian supremacy, represented by the bells returning to their former condition and place. The focus on the bells tells us a lot about the conversion of things rather than people – one thing has been claimed and

altered repeatedly by multiple peoples or powers. The functions may have changed while form has remained the same. All of these same ideas arise in the study of architectural conversion.

By the end of the reconquista, the Great Mosque in nearly every Spanish city had been taken by the Catholic Church. In many cases a Mass was held in the former mosques as an expression of Christian power and supremacy. [5] Given the importance of Muslims and Jews being encouraged or forced to convert to Christianity, these building transformations can be taken symbolically as a ritual conversion of the building from one religion to another. The ritual “conversion” was usually followed by a physical conversion (literally) — transformation of items in the buildings. At first, altarpieces and furnishings were brought in so the newly christened churches could function properly. In time, most of these buildings were torn down so that new romanesque or gothic cathedrals could be erected in their place. In Córdoba, however, the Great Mosque was converted into a church but was never torn down. The Córdoba Great Mosque is a story about power changing hands from the Muslim Andalusians to the Catholic Spanish.

Synagogues converted to churches tell a story that is less about state power, but is about theological triumph. Diaspora Jews could live relatively comfortably, and sometimes even prosperously, as a minority, but they did not have state power. More importantly, while Spain tolerated Jews for centuries, the ultimate goal was conversion for theological reasons, which eventually led to the expulsion of Jews who did not comply. The most comprehensive account of medieval Spanish synagogues in Iberia is

José Luis Lacave’s Juderías y Sinagogas Españolas [6] (Spanish Jewish Quarters and Synagogues). Lacave created a list of synagogues based on local and regional archival evidence, and on his travels to every site mentioned in the archives. He identified at least one former synagogue in each of 118 cities. Of these, only six remain standing. One of these extant buildings is the church of Santa Maria la Blanca in Toledo, originally the Ibn Shoshan Synagogue. [7] As one might expect, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, numerous abandoned synagogues were repurposed for alternate uses, although we unfortunately have very poor documentation of individual cases. The case of Santa Maria la Blanca was unique because it was a case of conversion before the Jews had left. The synagogue was converted to a church early in the 15th century, [8] leaving its congregants to find seats at another synagogue in Toledo.

The ideas of conversion and restoration seem to be in tension with one another. How can one restore Christianity while maintaining Islamic (and to a lesser extent Jewish) architecture? The answer seems to rely partially on whether religious architecture is viewed as belonging to distinct religions because of its formal and aesthetic qualities or its function. Through the examination of two sites – the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba and Santa Maria La Blanca – we will see that the different decisions made about different buildings were all done with the intention of advancing specific political and religious goals.

Case I: Mosque to Church

Image 2: Plan of Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral by L. Golvin (1979). Additions to the mosque are labeled in letter order. [9]

Image 3: Photograph of the hypostyle hall in the original portion of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba. Notice the double arches and the variation in column capitals and bases. [10]

Abd al-Rahman I founded a congregational mosque in Córdoba, his capital city, in 786 CE. [11] We know that the new mosque was built on the site of the Visigothic Basilica of San Vicente. [12] The roughly 80 square meter space was divided equally between an open courtyard in the northern half and a hypostyle prayer hall in the southern half (facing Mecca). The exterior walls were plain with buttresses at the corners and alongside the prayer hall. In the hypostyle hall, there are 120 spoliated column shafts, bases, and capitals that were taken from other buildings to be reused in the mosque. This yielded visible variety in the hall. Borrowing from older architecture was an integral part of this building from its inception. This space corresponds to the portion of the plan (Image 2) labeled “A” and can be seen in the photograph (Image 3).

The 9th-century expansion (necessitated by population growth) by Abd

al-Rahman II doubled the size of the prayer hall. The rectangular hall was made square

by knocking down the qibla wall (the wall that faces Mecca) and extending the columned

hall. [13] This addition is labeled “B” in plan. Also in the 9th century, Abd al-Rahman II’s son Mohammed I restored the Western portal into the prayer hall called Bab al-Wuzara, which was part of the original building’s exterior. [14] Subsequent rulers made further changes, enlarging the overall site as they went. By the time of Christian conquest in 1236, the entirety of the site that we see on the plan was occupied.

Immediately after Christians conquered Córdoba, a cross and royal banner were hung from the Mosque’s tallest tower. A mass was held in the mosque to consecrate it as a church the following day. [15] This was the standard display of Christian supremacy. Substantial interior work was completed over the rest of the thirteenth century. A choir chapel was built in the southwest corner of the building. Secondary chapels were built around the perimeter of the mosque. A baptistry was built in the building’s western-most nave. There was likely an altar and processional nave built below the existing clerestory dome. [16]

The changes to the mosque were physical manifestations of successful conquest. Converting the mosque in this way could have been seen as a way of asserting power over and over again. Muslims could still see their magnificent mosque, but were never allowed to pray in it again. Although, they were permitted to work in it. Muslim laborers were primarily responsible for these renovations. Converting their own sacred space into chapels and baptistries must have been emotionally fraught. The Muslim workforce furthers our understanding of “religious architecture.” Here we must separate the patron from the builder. Ecker offers another distinction; she suggests that we delineate “Christian” and “Muslim” architecture not by form, but by intention. [17]

In 1489, the Bishop wanted to demolish the central part of the original mosque to create a chapel with more space. Queen Isabella opposed this plan and offered a compromise which involved removing five rows of columns adjacent to the existing choir chapel to enlarge that space. This turned out not to be a very satisfactory compromise, because, in 1523, plans were publicized for a large-scale choir and high altar to be constructed in the mosque’s central hall. With Emperor Charles V’s permission, construction began on the new cathedral that same year. [18]

The emperor is said to have regretted giving permission for the new construction after visiting Córdoba, because he saw that the project had destroyed something entirely unique. They may have destroyed something unique, but they also created somethingentirely unique in its place. A renaissance cathedral set within a forest of moorish columns does not and could not exist anywhere else in the world.

Image 4: Cathedral in Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral. [19]

Image 5: Exterior view of the Mosque-Cathedral. [20]

The building was equally transformed and destroyed by Muslim and Christian rulers alike. It had not looked like Abd al-Rahman’s square congregational church for centuries. Ultimately, we cannot know exactly what decisions prompted the mosque to be left standing, nor can we understand the reasoning behind each transformation the building underwent. We can, however, do our best to understand the architecture in its dynamic religious and political contexts. When architecture is built, it becomes alive; it ages over time; it is altered by the people it is closest to. The emperor was upset because he viewed the architecture as static, but the building was always fluid, always borrowing and changing with the times.

Case II: Synagogue to Church

Image 6: Plan of Santa Maria La Blanca. [21] Image 7: Santa Maria La Blanca prior to restoration. [22]

The Ibn Shoshan Synagogue was built by and for members of Toledo’s Jewish

community either during the late 12th century or early in the 13th century. [23] In 1300,

Toledo had the largest Jewish population in Spain with 3,500 Jewish households and

ten synagogues. [24] The Ibn Shoshan Synagogue was particularly impressive. It was an

irregularly shaped building (Image 6), which was likely a result of the street patterns. The

image on the right (Image 7) begins to offer a sense of scale; the single story building is

approximately 5,000 square feet large and the central nave is almost 39 feet tall. [25] Four

arcades of horseshoe arches divide the space into five aisles. The capitals and upper

walls are elaborately decorated. It was designed and decorated by Mudejar architects,

which is why it looks like a mosque. Synagogues are more commonly designed around a

large unobstructed space to facilitate communal prayer services. Functionally this was a

synagogue and then a church. However, formally the architecture has more in common

with mosques. Even in the case of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, columns were

removed to create open, central spaces.

Ibn Shoshan became Santa Maria La Blanca (Image 8) when it was converted from a synagogue to a church in 1405. [26] This conversion involved the removal of the Ark (a cabinet that holds the Torah scrolls) and the addition of a large altarpiece. These were essentially furniture being exchanged in a building that remained structurally unchanged. Therefore, this conversion relied heavily on the way we spiritually embody religious spaces which refines our categorization of religious architecture by religion. Buildings can have the same structure, but different religions have their own symbolic

and formal typologies. Jale Negdet Erzet argues that the more one understands the

symbolism of mosques, the more meaning one will find in the space. [27] But this seems to apply to all sacred architecture – it is an architecture that rewards the knowledgeable.

This conversion also rewarded the knowledgeable. Christianity began when it

diverged from Judaism. This was an expression of power and a statement of religious

supremacy, achieved not through structural changes, [28] but through stating that the

building is a church, a departure from its former state as a synagogue. At the heart of

this conversion was faith. It was a church if you believed it was.

Image 8: Santa Maria La Blanca arcades. [29]


It says something about a site’s complexity when it is hard even to settle on its

name. A Google search for “mosque cathedral Córdoba” turns up many names to

describe one site. The Google Maps entry (linked to Wikipedia) tells us that the

Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba (Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba) is officially known by

its ecclesiastical name, Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. Other names on the

first page of search results include Great Mosque of Córdoba, Mezquita

Mosque-Cathedral, Cathedral-Mosque, and Mezquita Mosque and Cathedral. Why

does this matter? Names reflect our beliefs about places. The plurality of names reflects a debate about what this building is and when it is from. How do we assign dates to a building when a building changes over time? Do we emphasize that which came first (mosque) or the thing that is most recent (cathedral)? It depends on the goal.

Religiously converted architecture continues to be used to advance certain goals. If the medieval goal was to emphasize a change in political and theological power, 21st-century tourism boards have different goals. Convivencia is a 20th-century theory that describes the medieval period in Iberia as a time of great religious tolerance which allowed for an exchange of culture and ideas. [30] The theory has fallen out of favor with scholars, but prevails in Spain’s modern consciousness by design, to further an economic project. In 2014, there was a dispute among religious and local officials over the name of the Cordoba “Mosque-Cathedral.” Andalusia’s minister of tourism said, “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.” [31] The economic agenda is quite clear.

This new economic agenda requires reframing history in a way that obscures some of the deliberate decisions made to advance the previous political-religious agenda. Just as one can take a building and convert it to another religion, one can take a building and convert it to a monument to religious pluralism. Often religious architecture is categorized by the formal qualities of buildings, but these case studies bring nuance to this picture by focusing on changes to interior space, symbolism, and use. While the physical changes are significant, the ways that we talk about buildings and describe them also matter and are part of political agendas.



1. Robert A. Rosenstone, “A Muslim-Jewish Pilgrimage,” The Antioch Review 74, 1 (2016): 29–43.

2. The website that I took the image from does not offer any image citation. n.d. The same image can be found on other webpages, but none of them cite the source of the image either: Unfortunately, I have not been able to trace down an artist or date for the piece.

3. It is likely from the 18th or 19th century. One could imagine this piece being based on an earlier medieval painting, although there are no records of an earlier such painting either.

4. The term “reconquista” is loaded. It describes a conquest with the purpose of regaining land and establishing Christian supremacy by expelling Moors.

5. Justin E. A. Kroesen, “From Mosques to Cathedrals: Converting Sacred Space During the Spanish Reconquest,” Mediaevistik 21 (2008): 113–37.

6. Vivian B. Mann, “Synagogues of Spain and Portugal during the Middle Ages,” in Jewish Religious Architecture: From Biblical Israel to Modern Judaism, ed. Steven Fine (Boston: Brill, 2020), 151–168.

7. Mann, “Synagogues of Spain and Portugal during the Middle Ages,” 153.

8. Don A. Halperin, The Ancient Synagogues of the Iberian Peninsula (Gainesville: University of Florida, 1969), 46.

9. Unknown. Great Mosque (Umayyad Mosque, Cathedral). Ground Plan- Present State, 1979. (Plan by L. Golvin). Images, n.d.

10. Córdoba: Great Mosque: Int.: Images, n.d.

11. Jonathan M. Bloom, Architecture of the Islamic West: North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula (New Haven: Yale, 2020) 18–20.

12. Yet, no one includes Basilica in the name of this site today - architecture surpasses the site in value.

13. Bloom, Architecture of the Islamic West: North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, 21.

14. Ibid.

15. Kroesen, “From Mosques to Cathedrals: Converting Sacred Space During the Spanish Reconquest,” 122.

16. Heather Ecker, “The Great Mosque of Córdoba in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” Muqarnas 20 (2003): 119-125.

17. Ecker, “The Great Mosque of Córdoba in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” 115.

18. Kroesen, “From Mosques to Cathedrals: Converting Sacred Space During the Spanish Reconquest,” 123.

19. Cathedral-Mosque. Images, n.d.

20. Founded by Caliph ’Abd al-Rahman I, and additions and renovations made by Caliph ’Abd al-Rahman II, Caliph al-Hakam II, minister al-Mansur. Great Mosque, Images, n.d.

21. Toledo, "La Blanca Prior to Restoration," in Don A. Halperin, The Ancient Synagogues of the Iberian Peninsula (Gainesville: University of Florida, 1969), 48.

22. Ibid.

23. Scholars have offered conflicting dates: Bloom says 1180 and Mann says 1205. Halperin dates the synagogue to 1260, but the more recent scholarship agrees that the date was earlier even if there remains debate on just how much.

24. Mann, “Synagogues of Spain and Portugal during the Middle Ages,” 152.

25. Halperin, The Ancient Synagogues of the Iberian Peninsula, 49.

26. Jocelyn Hellig, “The Jewish Golden Age Of Spain Revisited,” Religion in Southern Africa 3, 2 (1982): 28.

27. Jale Nejdet Erzet, “Reading Mosques: Meaning and Architecture in Islam,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69, 1 (2011): 125–31.

28. Interestingly, the conversion is what likely saved the building from being lost to time. It was not the intention of the conversion, but this helps the present-day reclamation of Spanish Jewish history.

29. Toledo: Synagogue: Santa Maria La Blanca, Int.: Arches. Images, n.d.

30. Kenneth Baxter Wolf, “Convivencia in Medieval Spain: A Brief History of an Idea.” Religion Compass 3, 1 (2009): 72-85.

31. Ashifa Kassam, “Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral in name-change row,” The Guardian, Dec. 5, 2014, accessed Dec. 16, 2021,

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