A spark of History
The grandest European city in the 10th century was NOT London, Paris, Venice, Rome or Naples. At least 10 times bigger than these cities, it surpassed them in Arts & Sciences. Its University had a huge library of Greek & Latin manuscripts; and taught mathematical concepts from India. At night, the city shone brightly under Street-Lights, while Europe did not even know what they were! Irrigation, public water works and agriculture were at their technological best: “exotic” fruits and vegetables hitherto unknown in Europe were cultivated freely. Ole! It was CORDOBA!! ¹ It was clearly the jewel of Islamic culture; yet, under the liberal Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman-III, Jews and Christians flourished.
I feel embarrassed to say this: despite knowing the richness of Cordovan history, our tour plan for Cordoba was just a day trip from Granada. We merely covered the major sights: even that turned out to be amazing!
I am glad we made the trip to Cordoba by Bus. It is ever a pleasure to travel in the Spanish highways, and the Road transport network is superbly organised. The unexpected bonus was the scenery— because we traveled through Olive Country. Spain produces almost half of the world’s olives, and most of it is produced in this region – Andalusia. ² So, we saw miles and miles of gentle sun-kissed hills fully covered with Olive trees. Occasionally a castle would stand out — perhaps built by a feudal warlord to protect his Olive Orchard.
Olive Orchards on the Sierra Nevada Hills (note the distant castle in every pic.)
Where the Past is not forgotten…
As soon as we landed in Cordoba, we boarded a Hop-on-hop-off Tourist bus. Its route covers all the tourist attractions; you can get off at any site and take the next bus to any other site. Traveling in the open-top bus, it was clear that in Cordoba, the ancient past co-exists brilliantly with the present…
The Torre del Malmuerta and the Palacio de la Merced are both on main streets
The old chimney of a polluting factory that has been converted to a housing colony, and the Road to the Roman Bridge
The Roman heritage
The Romans conquered Spain around the 2nd century BC.By Julius Ceasar’s time, Cordoba was the capital of Andalusia (then called Hispania Baetica). It produced many intellectuals, including Seneca ( Roman philosopher and Nero’s teacher). The Romans built roads, bridges and aquaducts. A few of their legacies remain even today.
Built in the 1st cent. BC, the Roman Bridge over R. Guadalquivir still stands strong
A view of the Mezquita-Catedral from the Roman Bridge
Street Musicians performing at the Roman Bridge in the afternoon sun
The Moors & Christians
The Umayyad Moors stormed into Cordoba in 711. Nominally, it was subordinate to the Caliphate of Damascus; but soon the Umayyad kings declared themselves an independent Caliphate. The glorious period of Moorish Spain had begun! In 784, Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman-I decided to build a mosque more beautiful than the ones in Mecca, Baghdad or Damascus. He bought the site of the old Visigoth Church (and allotted another site to the Christians) for this project. Huge quantities of Gold, Copper, Brass, Onyx, Ivory, Jasper and building materials were used to raise the Grand Mosque.Then, successive generations of Moors kept adding more beautiful structures to it. At the time of Abd-ar-Rahman-III (929-961) it was arguably the most beautiful Islamic building in the whole world!
In 997, the Moors made a daring attack on Santiago de Compostella (the holiest Christian shrine of Spain) and looted the Bells of its church. The Christians got their revenge in 1236, when King Ferdinand defeated the Cordovan Moors: the Grand Mosque was soon converted into a cathedral! Yet, for nearly 3 centuries they did not alter its basic character significantly. Then, King Carlos-I allowed parts of the Mosque to be rebuilt as a shrine in the Renaissance style. ³ So it became the Mezquita-Catedral or Mosque-Cathedral. Once inside, you are spoilt for choice: Christian and Islamic art, each better than the other, constantly demand your attention! Gates, Ceilings, Walls, Arches and Corridors… go ahead, get confused and overwhelmed !
Although the Christian Renaissance part of the Mosque is very beautiful, you cannot help wondering: if they had preserved the entire Islamic structure in its original form, would it not have been even more outstanding? ³
Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of Oranges)
The Minaret for the Muezzin-call — converted into a Bell Tower
Arc de Triomphe and the Triomphe del San Rafael
At the height of the Umayyad rule, the Jews flourished. There was a prosperous Jewish quarter — Juderia — near the Grand Mosque. But after the Spanish Inquisition, they were harassed and persecuted; so they converted to Christianity or fled. But the quaint Jewish quarter still exists, and it has many nice souvenir shops and cafes.
The cobbled streets of Juderia (the Jewish Quarter)
The Souvenir shops
The Calleja de las Flores : the neighbouring restaurant had more flowers!
All Tourist Manuals were gushing about the beauty of Calleja de las Flores (Flower Street) in the Jewish Quarter. We went crazy trying to locate it. When we finally located it, it was an anti-climax. It was a narrow street and it wasn’t even the blooming season. It seems the nearby restaurant had more flowers than the whole street!
Parting is such sweet sorrow
By now it was almost time to return to the bus-stop for our return journey. Sadly, we could not see many other attractions that Cordoba offered. Never mind, for a brief interval, we had traveled back in a time-machine. We are grateful for that!
1. The Spanish Exclamation OLE is derived from the Arabic ALLAH or Oh God! Such was the Moorish influence in Spanish life.
2. I had always thought that Italy was the biggest producer of Olive Oil. Wrongly, of course.Spain is undoubtedly the leader. But what gives Italy the edge is that it has invested heavily in the blending business and has a huge import-export business. And I suspect that the Spanish have poorly promoted their Olive Oil: just the way they have poorly promoted their wines.
3. It is believed that King Carlos later regretted his decision to let the Christians alter the Mosque: he was horrified by the change and exclaimed “you have destroyed something that was unique in this world”. I am not so sure if he said that or even understood what it meant. Spain of the 16th century was quite blinded by the Inquisition!