Category: Cordoba.

Córdoba: the city that changed the world

Bustling Roman metropolis, jewel in the crown of Arabic Andalucía and cultural custodian during the dark ages, Córdoba witnessed the dawn of western civilisation
Bibi van der Zee

The bell tower of the Mezquita in Cordoba. Photograph: Anna Gordon

There are many nuns in Córdoba. After Fernando III recaptured Córdoba for the Christians in 1236 he seeded the area with convents and monasteries, intending to flush out any last remaining Islamic tendencies, and some of the convents survive to this day. In their cool, grey modern habits the nuns still pass by the glorious golden stone of the Mezquita, the stern arches of the Puente Romano (Roman bridge) and the silver-shadowed streets of the Judería to reach their ancient convents. Although they do not think of themselves this way, they represent the last wave of conquerors to fall upon Córdoba, 600 years ago.

This is a place where I feel as if I could arrive at the huge modern train station and, by journeying into the historic centre, travel backwards through time. After all, the city of Córdoba was once one of the great capitals of the world. Even now, after hundreds of years as a fairly quiet provincial town, it holds the keys to huge tranches of our past, both spiritual and intellectual.

First the taxi whisked me through the wide avenues of the modern city, as full of shops and bustle as Madrid or Barcelona. Yet Córdoba is one of the cultural capitals of Spain, declared a world heritage site in 1984. More than that, Córdoba is a Andalucían city, with the nightlife crammed with all the flamenco and tapas and el paseo (the evening promenade) that you would expect. Some of Spain’s greatest flamenco stars were born here, including Paco Peña and Joaquín Cortés; during the summer nights, when the heat of the day finally begins to cool from the stones and buildings, the Spaniards and tourists wander together through the squares, eating tapas and drinking cold beer at the bars, listening to the thrum of the flamenco guitars snaking out of doorways, enjoying the warm air of an Andalucían night.

Now we enter the narrower streets of the Judería, the medieval Jewish quarter. Here the taxis need special cards to pass through barriers. Most of the roads are too narrow for cars, and besides the Spaniards know that too many cars on these ancient pavements will wear away their heritage. Like so many Andalucían towns, the houses here are whitewashed, the streets cobbled, the roofs covered with the traditional crescent tiles that cleverly keep homes cool beneath the beating Mediterranean sun. Strolling along these narrow streets you can peer into the intriguing doorways and arches to either side, and glimpse gorgeous patios and courtyards. When the Spanish conquistadores travelled to Mexico and from there into South America, they took these courtyards and tiles with them; here they are filled with fountains, flowerpots bursting with geraniums and slender trees; always cool and inviting.

The Mezquita

Finally at the very centre, with the Puente Romano leading up to its sandy walls, we arrive at one of the greatest mosques ever built; the Mezquita, lying like a huge golden pearl in the white shell of the Judería and the Roman remains. The thoughts and prayers of scores of previous generations can be sensed within the walls of this extraordinary building, in the tranquillity of the endless pillars and arches. This was once the greatest centre of worship in the westernmost Islamic state in the world. In these halls aspects of religion, philosophy, anatomy, geometry and countless other intellectual disciplines were weighed and considered, and that learning handed on into Western thinking.

All these cultures and religions intersect here. They have not simply lived side by side, they have influenced each other, and in Córdoba you can see the living proof of this in the architecture. The pillars of the Mezquita, famously, came from ruined churches and roman ruins all over the Arab-ruled world. The illusion of meditative symmetry is broken up a little bit on closer inspection; each pillar seems to be different to the next, and the story goes that the famous double arch innovation – there’s not one but two red-and-white stone arches bowing between each pillar – was because the pillars were all of different lengths and the architect needed to find a solution to the problem. (There are even two pillars given as a gift by the Byzantine empire – a tribute from the last hours of the Roman world to the early hours of the Arab.)

The 14th-century synagogue, meanwhile, is decorated in mudéjar style, the name given to the intensely Arab-influenced style of Al-Andalus. Around the high-ceilinged room, with windows near the ceiling collecting a cool refracted light from above the neighbouring rooftops, the synagogue’s walls are covered in stucco tracery of plant motifs and Hebrew words, but all done in a style that briefly makes you believe you might be looking at the Arabic language rather than the Hebrew. (Interestingly, after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the synagogue was used as a hospital for hydrophobes – people who were unable to swallow water.)

As you walk through the Judería, you come across an Arabic archway here, a 600-year-old, thick wooden door there. Tucked into one patio are the Moorish baths, tucked into another is a modern-day pizzeria. In this quiet, unhurried part of the Iberian peninsula, it’s easy to imagine the waves of conquerors and invaders that have broken over the rocky peninsula of Spain.

Before the Romans arrived, the Carthaginians had passed through; as the Roman empire collapsed, the Vandals and the surprisingly polite Visigoths were arriving. Most potently symbolic of all, following the defeat of the Visigoths in 712 by the Arabs, Spain became the entrance point to Europe for the empire of Muhammad, the first setting for the encounters between Christianity and Islam that continue to rock the world today.

Roman Córdoba

The Romans had loved Córdoba. In 152 BC they had founded the elegant city of Corduba, and made it the capital of their Hispania Baetica. Seneca, the philosopher who went on to tutor the insane Emperor Nero, was born here, as was the poet Lucan; for the Romans, Córdoba was not some barbaric outpost, like Londinium or Tingis (modern-day Tangiers), but a centre of their civilisation, where true Romans lived and raised their families.

In the elegant gardens behind the Alcázar de Los Reyes Cristianos, you are reminded of this day-to-day life; parts of this garden still follow the lines of the Roman original, with cypresses, the tree of Rome, standing tall alongside shady paths. The Roman bridge still crosses the Río Guadalquivir (one of Spain’s most important waterways), there are fragments of Roman wall here and there, and several mosaics preserved perfectly inside the Alcázar. But as the empire of Rome crumbled in the 5th century, cities like Córdoba were abandoned by the central administration and left to the advancing Vandals and Visigoths, who built their own living spaces, their own churches.

And then came the new conquerors. Less than 90 years after Muhammad’s death the Arabs had been making raids on Spain from their new territories in North Africa, testing the strength or weakness of the Visigoth kings. Finally they invaded along the spine of the country through Toledo and right up to Zaragoza in the north. By AD712, most cities had fallen. The governors sent from Damascus to keep an eye on this new conquest settled in Córdoba, and peace briefly reigned.

But after a bloody coup in the heart of the empire, Damascus, the one surviving member of the ousted Ummayad family, Abd Al-Rahman I, made his way to Córdoba, and took over there. At this point the links between Al-Andalus, and the home of Islam were severed. Now Córdoba was a superpower in its own right, capital of a large Islamic country, and soon to become the location for one of the greatest Islamic buildings in the world, the Mezquita.

At the crossroads of history

To visit Córdoba is to be confronted with a new version of the past. Most westerners learn of the Greeks, the Romans, the European colonies. It is a strictly occidental viewpoint. Our learning has, we assume, come to us in a direct line from the Greeks. But in fact this is wrong. The significance of Córdoba in the world’s history springs from two things. First, it is the place where, for a few centuries, Islam and Christianity coexisted relatively peacefully, in the years before the more brutal fundamentalisms of the Crusades. But second, it is where the culture of the Arabs was brought into contact with the west, where Islamic thinkers gave consideration to the works of Aristotle, where they carried the flame of these works while the rest of Europe struggled through the dark ages. Islam too has played its part in the long history of rationalism; as Richard Fletcher has put it: “Modern science begins in 13th-century Europe, based firmly on the plinth furnished by translations from Arabic and Greek.”

By the 9th century, Córdoba was the largest and richest city in Europe, with a tradition of learning and discourse that overshadowed Baghdad (the city that had taken Damascus’s place as heart of the Islamic empire).

And throughout turmoil, battles and civil wars, the mosque, somehow, remained an intellectual centre. Luiz Recio Mateo, both historian and my guide around Córdoba, showed me how, half-crouching, half-leaning against the pillars in the last enlargement by al-Mansur, scholars would discuss matters of anatomy, astronomy, botany, and philosophy.

Chief among these thinkers was Averroes, as he is known in the west, or Ibn Rushd as he is known in the Middle East, one of the foremost thinkers of the age. Born in Córdoba in 1126, Averroes has also been called the founding father of secular thought in western Europe, and described as one of the key influences on scientific and philosophical thought during the transition from ancient to modern methods. His work, along with the works of Moses Maimonides and Aristotle, would become crucial to the great universities of Europe.

But by the time of Averroes the Muslim empire had begun to crumble, and in 1236 Córdoba was taken by the Christians. A bishop ritually cleansed the mosque, and declared it the new cathedral. The heart of Al-Andalus had been taken. Over the next 600 years, beginning with Columbus’s conquering of the New World, the Christian European world would spread.

The nuns of Córdoba, though they may not think of themselves this way, were among the first of these Christian colonising forces. But what they remind us of now, in the streets of Córdoba, before the Mezquita, a golden pearl given to us by a previous empire, is of that most chilling and inescapable human fact: all empires, no matter how enormous, no matter how great, eventually pass. And this, too, will pass.
The marvel of the Mezquita

It’s best to think of the mosque as a series of extensions, beginning with a simple rectangular shape built on the site of an older church in the 8th century. It is important to understand that Muslim worship, unlike Christian, does not depend on a priest or leader, but requires that every worshipper faces towards Mecca and takes themselves through their own worship.

You enter through the Patio de los Naranjos, a large, graceful patio where orange and lemon trees grow, where the worshippers would traditionally wash themselves before prayers. From there you enter the Puerta de los Deanes at the southernmost tip of the patio. You are now coming into the oldest part of the mosque, built by Abd Al-Rahman I in the 8th century: it is quite simply jawdropping. Graceful red and white pillars lead the eye forward, deliberately mimicking the palm trees of an oasis. In front of you is a small gap in the floor, encircled by a bit of modern wooden railing. As you near it you see that here, perhaps a couple of metres below floor level are the greying remains of a Roman mosaic, preserved from an era that had ended hundreds of years before the Arabs arrived.

As you walk forward note the mihrab on the south-eastern wall (all mosques have a mihrab – a niche – in their eastern wall to indicate the direction of Mecca). But in the case of the Córdoban mosque this wall is not actually directly east-facing, as Al-Rahman I chose to retain one of the walls of the Visigoth church he had bought as a site, in order to save money perhaps. You are now passing through the successive extensions of the mosque added over 200 years. Running along the whole north-eastern side of the building is the final extension by al-Mansur in the 9th century, while in the centre of the complex is the cathedral (pictured left), which led King Carlos V to say to the priests who built it: “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.”

But they have not destroyed it. It is tempting to imagine how it must have looked with no cathedral there, just long, pillared vistas drawing the eye and lifting the mind. But the cathedral may have allowed it to be preserved when other mosques were being levelled. And still, you have the exquisite beauty of the bejewelled arch of Córdoba’s mihrab, renowned as one of the most lovely in all Islam. This, the worn stone floors, the coolness even in the scorching heat of Córdoba, makes the Mezquita very clearly a spiritual sanctuary, a true holy place. It truly is unique in the world.
Christopher Columbus and the Córdoba connection

It was here in Córdoba that Columbus obtained permission for his historical journey across the Atlantic.

The relatively modern statue in the garden of the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos shows Columbus standing before the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabelle, asking them for the money to begin his voyage, which he believed would open up a much shorter trading route to Asia. The Genoese navigator had already been trying to raise money for his journey for seven years. Initially Isabella said no. But as Columbus was dejectedly leaving the court, the story goes, Ferdinand intervened, and the decision was reversed.

The journeys of Columbus began the colonial era, which inflicted suffering, slavery and death on indigenous peoples around the world. The diaries of Bartolomé de las Casas, the young Spanish priest who accompanied Columbus on his second journey, are eloquent, anguished records of the “cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see”. It seems ironic that on the ruins of perhaps one of the most civilised and beautiful Islamic courts ever to exist, flowered the most brutal and bloody era of Christianity.

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Category: Cordoba
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