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An ancient echo of NYC mosque debate in Córdoba, Spain

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At its height, Córdoba was considered by some to be one of the greatest achievements of the medieval Islamic world – a center of art, architecture, and scholarship.

For much of the Islamic period, Córdoba was a bastion of tolerance. It ushered in a renaissance for Jews in Spain, who were persecuted by Christian rulers in the 7th century. The great Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar Maimonides was born there around 1134.

That Maimonides's family fled Córdoba for North Africa when he was a boy after an intolerant Islamic dynasty conquered the city is one of the reasons that US politicians like Newt Gingrich deemed the original name an "insult." There were also periods in which large numbers of Jews or Christians were killed.

Unique Córdoba: mosque and cathedral in one

The Great Mosque today is one of Spain's most visited attractions. The complex, which includes a massive prayer room of white and red painted archways plus an outdoor orange grove, was built in four phases over 200 years starting in the 8th century.

To be sure, early disputes were over aesthetics as much as they were over ecumenical values.

In 1523, well after Spanish Christians had conquered the city, the Roman Catholic Church decided to knock down several rows of arches to build a cathedral almost in the center of the rectangular mosque. At first, the city rebelled against the plan, but King Carlos V sided with the Church – until he saw the result: “You have done what has been done elsewhere, and you have undone what was unique in the world,” Carlos reportedly said.

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