Controversial Religious Sites Due to Context

Jordan Dudden and Emmett Walker


Context is the most controversial aspect in relation to religious sites for both their creators and their inhabitants. When looking at built religious sites, much controversy is found due to one power wanting to conquer a system of beliefs for symbolic reasons. Whether it is to show that one system of beliefs is “better” than another or to prove that one system has power over the rest, the end result is often construction or destruction of a previous architecture. Throughout history, we find that the symbolic power of either constructing context or destroying it is where the real controversy lies.


Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, 1536, Abd al-Rahman I


Controversy in architecture spans back hundreds of years.  The Mosque at Cordoba is an example of a religious site where one religion undermined preexisting beliefs in order to get what they wanted. Originally, Cordoba was home to a Catholic Church built by the Visigoths on top of an old Roman Temple. Around 800, the Islamic conquest led to the destruction of the Catholic Church and a rebuilding of an Islamic Mosque. The intention of building this Mosque was to create a structure that outshined the Mosque of Damascus, one of the holiest Islamic sites. It became a place of importance to the Islamic people because of its central location in the city, as well as its religious significance. The mosque was beautifully designed architecturally and was a symbol of the achievements of the Islamic faith. About 300 years later, when King Ferdinand III of Castile conquered Cordoba, the mosque was reverted to a Catholic Church. Defensive structures were built along with the plans of the church because of constant threats by those who were opposed to the Christian Church.


King Ferdinand III used this religious site to control one group of people by demolishing the old mosque and changing it to meet the needs of one specific religion, Christianity. This occurred previously at the same site when the Islamic conquest destroyed the previous Christian Church. Destruction plans of the Islamic Mosque immediately brought opposition to the project, especially to all the Islamic people who had used this mosque for religious worship on a daily basis. Eventually, the insertion of a Gothic cathedral in the center was accepted in addition to the rest of the building plans. The rest of the city was built around this religious center. This proved how much power and significance religious sites had on the people in that specific location. The constant destruction and construction of this religious site had a large impact on the people who lived in Cordoba because the architects were blatantly insensitive to the context of the religious site. In this particular case, it is clear that religion has power over architecture and architecture has power over religion, making controversy very difficult to avoid.


The Mosque of Cordoba, A church within a mosque
The Mosque of Cordoba, A church within a mosque.
(. Wikipedia. film strip,órdoba_desde_el_aire_(Córdoba,_España).jpg.)


Plan of the Mosque of Cordoba.
Plan of the Mosque of Cordoba.


Spanish Missions of California, California, 1769-1833


The Spanish Missions of California are another example of a controversial religious site because they used religion as a tool to conquer and standardize the indigenous peoples. The Spanish Missions were a series of religious settlements by the Spanish Catholics. The missions spread the Christian faith by threatening the Natives. The Spanish then started building settlements around California. By colonizing the groups of Native people through architecture and the beliefs that it symbolized, Spain’s ever-expanding holdings in the New World could continue to progress. The main structure they needed to build at the start of the missions was a church. The position of the church marked the central location and the rest of the mission complex was laid out afterwards. The placement of other kitchens, workspaces, and living spaces was in a form of a rectangle or square similar to the layout of the Mosque of Cordoba, where the church was the center and the rest of the city was aligned in a square surrounding the religious site. Once the city was built, there were threats from other religions, so the Spanish built tunnels as a means of emergency if there was an attack. Here, the power and control was formed due to the architecture.


By building the religious center first, the indigenous people are instantly forced to conform to the methodology of the religion that they now have access to. Also, by building the settlements in a specific area of California, the indigenous people were restricted to one space and therefore colonized without being aware of it. This is another example of religious power over a group of people causing change. A specific site from the Spanish Missions was the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma. This is the last mission in the chain of northerly missions in California. The mission served as a Spanish outpost against the Russians. Similarly to the previous example, it caused a rebellion. The building was replaced with a larger building, torn down 1o years later, and finally rebuilt again. The destruction of old and construction of new architecture proves to have a symbolic meaning to the site at hand. The indigenous people disagreed with the destruction of their property, but the controversy was easily managed due to power of one group of people over the other. The built environment was forced to be destroyed and reconstructed without consciousness or sensitivity to the inhabitants of the area before the Spanish invaded.

Solano Mission located in Sonoma California (. MTY County. compact disc,
Mission Santa Ines Programatic Plan (. PBS. Web,
Mission Santa Ines Programatic Plan
(. PBS. Web,

Kristallnacht, Nazi Germany and Austria, 1938


More recently in history, in November 1938, the events of Kristallnacht were another example of how a powerful political ideology attempted to eradicate a religion. Kristallnacht was a series of coordinated attacks against the Jews by the Nazis. The German authorities allowed this to happen even though they were aware of the severity of what they were doing. As seen there, similar to the Cordoba case and the Spanish Missions of California, the Nazis who were destroying these Jewish homes, synagogues, businesses, etc. with blatant insensitivity to the Jewish community on a religious level. The incident was originally referred to as die Kristallnacht, referring to the large number of glass windows broken throughout the evening, mostly in the synagogues. The riots damaged everything that symbolized Jewish lifestyle.

During this event, the destruction of a particular type of architecture associated with a religion was at the heart of the controversy. One site specifically was the Oberramstadt synagogue. The Jewish people were forced to watch this well-known synagogue burn to rubble right before their eyes. The firemen were instructed to let the synagogues burn, but to prevent the flames from reaching nearby houses. This was also true for Jewish cemeteries. The act of watching these sentimental buildings be destroyed was devastating. Nazi political power and destruction of a building was used to symbolize the effectiveness of a single religion. The events of Kristallnacht were extreme and emphasized that religion was a problematic cause of controversy. Unusually compared to the other two historical events, the Nazi’s were not trying to conquer the Jewish cities for their own use. They were destroying the towns because of utter hatred and to prove their superiority. They did not want to conquer the Jewish land or rebuild their own German sites on top of the old. Although, it is interesting to note that the main sites the Nazis came to destroy were religious. This act symbolized that the Jewish religion should “die” and be burned due to their opposition to the Nazi Party. The architecture was symbolic of the Jewish people, and the destruction of the architectures showed the Nazis’ arrogance to religious sensitivity.


1 of the over 1000 Synagogues destroyed in Nazi Germany
1 of the over 1000 Synagogues destroyed in Nazi Germany (. Wikipedia. compact disc,


Map of effected areas (. Holocaust and Humanity. Web,
Map of effected areas
(. Holocaust and Humanity. Web,


Religion is a sensitive topic in any location. This is the case, whether it is the site of the church, mosque or synagogue. In all three examples, religious sites were either built or destroyed in order to prove power over another group of people. These changes caused uproar between those who originally inhabited the area and those who were trying to take over or prove their power. Religious sites symbolize a “home” or common gathering place for people who share the same beliefs. When the architecture is altered, problems often arise due to the context of the area. As seen in these three cases, controversy cannot be avoided when power is used to change religious holy ground.








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