From the outside, the great mosque in Cordoba, Spain, La Mezquita, is pure Muslim. Its arches and cracked stone are Moorish in origin and look, though a bit battered by time and weather. However, the dilapidated facade belies the treasure inside—and mostly hides the war within.

Inside, the mosque is a treasure, its ceilings held up by row after row of red and white-striped Moorish arches (850 of them!). Built between 784-786 by Abd ar-Rahmán I, who made Cordoba the capital of Moorish Spain, it is one of the largest Muslim sacred structures in the world. Its design is simplicity itself, directing the mind toward the business at hand. As you walk, you wonder how many arches there are; it looks as though they go on forever, pulling you on and on down those 19 aisles. Somehow it feels as though they are directing you toward Allah and higher things than the mosque itself. The effect is soothing, stripping away jangling thoughts as you lose yourself in the arches. And then you come to the center, and you stop dead, staring in astonishment and wonder, for there is beauty here too, but holy cow, is it ever at odds with the rest of the place.

When Cordoba fell under Christian rule in 1236 the Cordoba Mosque became a cathedral, consecrated to God instead of Allah. Four hundred years later, a zealous church decided to make it more "Christian" by adding a 300' tall belfry, a choir, and numerous chapels. The result is pure Renaissance homage to the glory of God as that zealous age understood it. The simplicity of the Cordoba Mosque gives way to elaborate carvings and statues. Soaring white marble punches a hole upward with blithe disregard for the careful symmetry of the Moorish arches. It lifts the eye up and up, a small cathedral pointing to God. Its beauty is breathtaking; alone, it would be glorious. Stuck in the heart of a place equally devoted to worship and beautiful in its own right, it jars. It neither diminishes the Muslim religion nor burnishes that of the Christians; it simply . . . intrudes, and so is a sobering reminder of the culture clash that reverberates down the ages even into our time.

The mosque is a must-see if you go to Cordoba; an ancient and delightful place in its own right. Its two warring hearts have a strange innocence that both delight the eye and enlighten the mind.