Mosque Cathedral of Idanha-a-Velha
Idanha-a-Velha, Castelo Branco, Portugal
Although built on earlier ruins and reusing Palaeochristian materials, its main construction may date from the Hegira 3rd / AD 9th century, with considerable remodelling in the AH 10th / AD 16th century
Umayyad (rule of Ibn Marwan in the region of Idanha)
Hypothetically built by the family clan of Ibn Marwan, native to the fortress of Marvão, from which the family takes its name. Converted to Islam in the early years, the founder of this family and his heirs seem to have maintained their power in the regions of Idanha and Marvão for over a century.
This is a large basilica-shaped building. According to Palaeochristian or Muslim liturgical guidelines, which were practically the same in the Iberian Peninsula, the basilica was organised into seven aisles. The central nave is distinctive for its width, decoration and the height of its axial arches. The 12 arches, out of the 14 that existed originally, are all horseshoe arches, in a not very emphatic style characteristic of the early period of Iberian Islam. The hypothetical mihrab (prayer niche), at the east end of the central nave, is occupied by a quadrangular chapel predating the Muslim construction or adapted subsequently.
For many years this building was deemed to be a Visigoth cathedral, because a baptistery had been found close to the south façade and also because, from the beginning of the 17th century, the high altar was moved to the north, where it remains to this day, suggesting the possibility that there may have been an earlier Christian liturgical space consisting of three bays.
These hypotheses are now disputed because the baptistery found is reputedly older than the building in question and therefore attached to another earlier church. On the other hand, the existence of a Palaeochristian basilica with its high altar facing north can be excluded.
Having discounted these hypotheses, and in spite of the incongruities, we are left to fit this building into the campaign of construction that was carried out throughout the town in the AD 9th and 10th centuries (AH 3rd–4th century), when Idanha-a-Velha (formerly Egitânia) played an important historical role in the frontier region between al-Andalus and the kingdom of León. Given the constant pacts and disputes of the local lords from the Ibn Marwan al-Jilliqi family, sometimes with Córdoba, sometimes with León, it is quite possible that this religious building underwent a change in programmes and was even the result of a certain syncretism which those who held it always sought when trying to defend their independence.
Except in its proportions, the model seems to have been the great Umayyad mosque of Damascus, with a large central nave and two side aisles in which the mihrab occupies the centre of the side aisle, with the qibla wall oriented towards Mecca. If we allow, for the basilica of Idanha, that the southeast wall is the qibla of a mosque, the abnormal measurements of the building begin to seem less puzzling.
Let us remember that the chronicler Ibn Hayyan considered Ibn Marwan al-Jilliqi 'an ally of the devil and the source of waywardness'. The building of this mosque may be attributed to the time of that Muladi rebel – the end of the AH 3rd / AD 9th century. The basis for establishing such a chronological assertion is several elements which seem significant, although the most obvious are the parallels between the construction techniques of the Idanha mosque with the Church at Lourosa, just over 70 km away, which is dated to 912 (AH 299) by an inscription.
Researchers Manuel Real and António Rei, while not agreeing with this attribution of functions, also draw up a comparison with the plan of several mosques and accept the chronology put forward.
For many years, this basilica-shaped building, known as the Idanha-a-Velha Cathedral, was thought to originate in the Visigothic period. However, a recent hypothesis based on architectural typology holds that the building was a mosque and dates its construction to the Islamic period, around the time of the reign of Marwan al-Jilliqi (AH 3rd-4th / AD 9th-10th centuries).
Although the function of the building is still disputed, it is universally accepted, through parallels with the well-dated Church of San Pedro de Lourosa, that it dates from the Marwanid era.
From the shape of the horseshoe arches and the setting of the stonework which is similar in style to that of the Church at Lourosa, which dates from the early 4th / 10th century.
Almeida, F. de, Egitânia História e Arqueologia, Lisbon, 1956.
Almeida, F. de, História da Arte em Portugal, Vol. 2, Lisbon, 1986, pp.43–6.
Hayyan, Ibn, Crónica del Califa 'Abderrahman III al-Nasir Entre los Años 912 y 942 (al-Muqtabis V), Madrid, 1981, p.187.
Real, M. L., “Inovação e Resistência: Dados Recentes Sobre a Antiguidade Tardia no Ocidente Peninsular”, in IV Reunião de Arqueologia Cristã Hispânica, Barcelona, 1995, pp.66–7.
Torres, C., “A Sé-Catedral da Idanha”, Arqueologia Medieval, no. 1, Porto, 1992, pp.169–78.
Cláudio Torres "Mosque Cathedral of Idanha-a-Velha" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2018. 2018. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;pt;Mon01;5;en
Prepared by: Cláudio TorresCláudio Torres
Cláudio Figueiredo Torres, licenciado em História e História da Arte pelas universidades de Bucareste e Lisboa e Doutor “Honoris Causa” pela Universidade de Évora, é director do Campo Arqueológico de Mértola que fundou em 1978. Foi agraciado com o Prémio Pessoa em 1991.
Depois do 25 de Abril de 1974, durante vários anos foi docente de História Medieval e Arqueologia islâmica na Universidade de Lisboa, chefe da Divisão Cultural da Câmara Municipal de Mértola e Director do Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana. Desde 2004 é coordenador em Portugal do Programa EUROMED- Fundação Anna Linht. Nos últimos 30 anos tem dedicado a sua investigação e publicado vários trabalhos sobre a civilização islâmica em Portugal.
Translation by: Gilla Evans
Translation copyedited by: Monica Allen
MWNF Working Number: PT F