Journeying back to al-Andalus: When Cordoba was Europe’s most enlightened city

To understand the history of Cordoba in a nutshell it is only necessary to visit one building. The Mezquita is the oldest Islamic structure in Spain and one of the greatest ever built for the religion the world over. Intriguingly now housing its Christian cathedral, nestled inside this awe-inspiring structure, it reminds us of the time when Cordoba was the most enlightened city in Europe.

When London was a dangerous warren of dark, disease-ridden streets in the 10th century, Cordoba had countless libraries, public baths, street lighting, paved roads, patio gardens and hundreds of mosques. It was also a city of tolerance, with Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisting peacefully.

And right at the heart of bustling medieval Cordoba was the Mezquita, which visiting today seems almost like a town in its own right given the scale of the walled compound (it covers an area of six acres and if it was still a mosque today it would be the fourth largest in the world). Before you reach the great building itself you pass through a vast shady courtyard – Patio de los Naranjas – with fountains and a variety of trees where ritual ablutions before prayer were performed.

Inside Cordoba’s Great Mosque

At the time it was a mosque men prayed on a sand covered floor (now its marble) beneath a gold encrusted ceiling which was supported by terracotta-and-white striped arches standing on 1100 columns. Sadly only 850 of these remain given the destruction later caused when the centre Mezquita was ripped out in the 16th century to build the city’s cathedral following the re-conquest of Spain by the Christians.

The mosque was extended a number of times over the years so as visitors explore the complex today they experience a range of different styles. But the most important surviving feature is the 10th century mihrab prayer niche consisting of gold mosaic cubes shaped into flower motifs and decorated by inscriptions from the Quran. Nearby, the maksura, where the caliphs prayed, boasts the most lavishly decorated arches in the entire building.

It is in the cobbled streets branching off from the Mezquita that the city feels at its busiest, lined with hordes of tourists moving from one souvenir shop or restaurant to another. The distances across the passageways were designed to be deliberately narrow in order to provide shade, yet cars today try to squeeze past the tourists. Meanwhile former bathhouses where the city’s great and good washed and conducted business deals, now have a variety of new uses (I popped my head in one where nightly flamenco shows are held).

Cordoba may be a popular place for tourists to visit, but its very centre still feels lived in. Step just a few streets away from those lined with tourists and it’s clear that you’ve entered a residential area. Yes, Cordoba could probably do with a few more hotels (when I booked a good few weeks in advance availability was low and prices seemed much higher than in other Spanish cities), but this approach not only helps ensure rents for residents remain affordable, it also limits the crowds.

Roman foundation, Islamic invasion

Cordoba’s importance as a settlement goes back two millennia, having originally been established in 152BC as a strategic provisioning point for Roman troops before being made capital of the most southerly of three Roman provinces on the Iberian Peninsula in the first century AD. Bordered by a river one side and mountains on another, its natural defences provided protection for the city’s inhabitants.

Most of Corbuba – the name for this important walled Roman settlement – lies several metres under the narrow cobbled streets that tourists walk today, but some visible ancient traces remain. The temple on Calle Claudio Macelo, covered in scaffolding during my visit, was discovered when the neighbouring modern municipal hall was being built.

And while the bridge spanning the Rio Guadalquivir near the Mezquita has been re-built many times over the years, its foundation was Roman. It formed part of the ancient Via Augusta road which stretched from Cadiz to Girona in the north. Nowadays, crossing the ‘Puente Romano’ in the evening provides a wonderful view of the old medina as all Cordoba’s most important historic buildings are lit up.

But after falling into decline from the third century AD, in 711 the city fell to Islamic invaders who had pushed across the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa. They called their newly conquered land al-Andalus and made Cordoba its capital. In the years that followed the Roman-built city walls were strengthened (a good-sized section on the western side of the old city survives, along with two of the original seven gates).

The emir on the Iberian Peninsula didn’t go unchallenged however. In 756 Abd ar-Rahman I, the grandson of the caliph (successor of Prophet), left Damascus for Cordoba following the overthrowing of the Umayyads by the Abbasids some 16 years earlier and set his sights on seizing power in al-Andalus. He was offered marriage of the sitting emir, but wasn’t to be fobbed off and managed to defeat his would-be father in law in battle outside Cordoba, beginning some 250 years of the dynasty’s rule on the Iberian Peninsula.

It was Abd ar-Rahman I who is recorded as initially purchasing half of the church of San Vicente for the Muslim community’s Friday prayers (some mosaics from the mid-fifth century Christian building can still be seen through a section of glass floor panels), before later, in 784, buying the other half so that he could start building the wonderful Mezquita. When the Umayyads were in Damascus they followed a similar strategy, so given they wanted to create in al-Andalus what they lost had to the Abbasids in Syria they decided to repeat it here.

The Mezquita continued to be added to until nearly 1000, but its main look was established by Abd ar-Rahman I, who died at his palatial retreat at Rusafa just outside Cordoba in 788, from the outset and his prayer hall can be found nearest the door by which visitors enter today. The builders recycled a considerable amount of Roman materials for the project.

Between 833 and 856 the Mezquita was enlarged by Abd ar-Rahman II in order to accommodate the increased number of Muslims that had moved to Cordoba. By 855 Cordoba had advanced considerably, according to Maria Rosa Menocal in her excellent book, Ornament of the World. “Cordoba was all bustle, a prosperous boomtown, new construction of every sort everywhere, its peoples, cultures, and landscapes reshuffling themselves along with the changing landscape..,” she wrote.

“Andalusians were profoundly indebted to and appreciative of the material, intellectual, and artistic emanations from the eastern capital,” Menocal added. “The long first Umayyad century in in al-Andalus was thus predicated on a healthy respect for the murderous, usurping Abbasids, for their political prowess and stability as well as for their cultural leadership.”

Al-Andalus’ heyday

Al-Andalus came a long way following the arrival of Abd ar-Rahman I in 756, but its heyday was under Abd ar-Rahman III (who assumed power in Cordoba in 912, aged 18, and ruled till 962). He appointed himself calpih in 929, adding religious responsibilities to the political and military duties that emirs before him had had. With the advent of the Cordoba caliphate, the city became the biggest in Europe, with a population estimated at between 250,000 and 500,000.

Abd al-Rahman III began in 940 building Madinat al-Zaharaw, a palace-city some 8km from Cordoba, but he did not forget about the great city itself. As soon as he became caliph he announced the expansion of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. And it was Abd ar-Rahman III who built the minaret that, after being heightened by the Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries, became the cathedral’s bell tower. Standing 554-metres high, it is the tallest structure in the city and offers visitors outstanding views of Cordoba.

The Mezquita was expanded again between 962 and 971 by Al-Hakam II who extended the prayer hall nave and added a new beautiful mihrab (prayer niche), which was lavishly decorated by a mosaicist sent by the emperor of Byzantine who imitated the designs in the Great Mosque of Damascus.

“Al-Hakam’s legacy, his addition to the landscapes and skylines of Umayyad ascendance, was to make the Great Mosque a different order of great, not simply enlarge it, as had been done several times before,” wrote Menocal. “His vision of how to take the already striking mosque to the next level, a level commensurate with the claims of primacy of the young caliphate, was creatively traditional, very much in the Umayyad style.”

Compound of Cordoba’s Great Mosque

When Al-Mansur (Almanzor), a ruthless general, came to power at the end of the 10th century the Mezquita was enlarged for the last time. He used paid fighters from North Africa to launch a destructive raid onto Santiago de Compostela during which church bells were carted away to Cordoba for use as mosque lamps.

It was the death of Al-Mansur’s son in 1008 that the caliphate descended into anarchy, with Berber soldiers looting the city and Cordoba became merely a minor part of Seville.


What perhaps defined Cordoba in its heyday however was its tolerance for other cultures. Jews had lived in the city since the second century AD, but it was under the Umayyad rule that their social status and everyday lives improved. They remained devout and did not forget their religious language, but they also became Arabised and in doing so held important posts such as doctors, jurists, administrators. One Andalusian Jew even became the caliph’s foreign secretary.

That the juderia (old Jewish quarter) lies so close to the Mezquita demonstrates how important to the Umayyad to the smooth running of al-Andalus. Exploring this part of the city today, it’s clear that despite persecution in more recent years and the arrival of tourist joints, the community’s heritage hasn’t been completely lost. Around 60 years ago, the mayor of Cordoba recreated a Jewish souk, with a patio surrounded by small shops at ground level and private homes leading off the upstairs balcony.

And Sinagoga in Cale de los Judios survives from medieval times (it was built in 1315), but the building was used as a hermitage when the Jews were banished from the city in the 15th century. It was probably used as a private or family synagogue and was a fairly simple affair with star and plant patterns, and a gallery reserved for women on the upper level.

Ben Maimonides

As you walk around the Jewish quarter there is one name that you will hear repeated time and again. Ben Maimonides was born in Cordoba in 1135, but fled the city at an early age to escape Almohad persecution and eventually settled in Egypt, where he died in 1204. He produced important works summarising the teaching of Judaism.


After a morning tramping around the heaving streets of the medina, the ornamental terraced gardens of the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos offer the perfect place for a peaceful break. Tour groups are certainly present here, but they only seem to be shown the place-cum-prison buildings themselves and then get to dip their toes into this wonderful outdoor space, meaning that there are plenty of opportunities around the carefully sculptured hedges, ponds with fountains and colourful flowerbeds to grab a shady spot and soak in the surroundings.

Built on the orders of King Alonso XI in 1328 to replace a Moorish predecessor, the Alcazar was the residence of Christian kings when they stayed in Cordoba. Two of the surviving towers on the main facade are original, while the ‘Inquisition tower’ was added in the 15th century when the reign of terror towards non-Christians was launched by the Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand. It was also here that the pair met the explorer Christopher Columbus for the first time.

Ornamental terraced gardens of the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos

The Alcazar’s construction followed the fall of Cordoba to Christian Castilla in 1236, which heralded the end of Muslim rule for the city and the tolerance of different cultures that went with it. Mosques were converted into churches, 14 examples of which can be visited today (seven within the city walls and seven outside them). Those that refused to convert to Christianity were executed, sometimes more than one hundred in one day, in Plaza de La Corredera, then the bullring where the mayor’s house on one side was used as a temporary prison but today a pleasant square skirted by cafe tables and popular with tourists.

As for the Mezquita, the building was converted into a church after the city fell to Castilla in 1236, but the main structure was initially left largely unaltered. The bigger changes were to come in the mid-16th century when Carlos I gave permission for work to begin building a Gothic-Renaissance cathedral inside the Mezquita. So intertwined are the two buildings that it is today not possible to visit one without visiting the other.

The cathedral, which took nearly 250 years to build, is pretty impressive and comes as quite unexpected after exploring the main mosque structure. The ceiling is much higher that of the Mezquita so you get the feeling of space. In the mahogany choir stalls, carvings depicting scenes from the Bible were added in the 18th century. And some 50 small chapels can be found in what had been open arches to the outside.

But Carlos I had given the go-ahead for the cathedral project without having visiting Cordoba and, legend has it, that when he saw the demolition that he had approved he was horrified. The Christian building could have been constructed anywhere in the city, but the Mezquita was special and irreplaceable.

Cordoba cathedral, inside the Great Mosque

Ever since the 16th century many others have had their say on the issue, with Menocal describing the “palatial destruction” that took place of the Mezquita’s interior, adding: “The mosque had originally been Christianised in a Mudejar style that harmonised with the Umayyad masterpiece, and this by the medieval Christians who admired and even loved Islamic styles, and for whom Arabic was a language to be neither feared nor despised, even when Muslims were political foes or religious rivals.”

What surprised me however was a licensed guide on a tour that I joined approved of the scheme. “Building the cathedral saved the mosque,” she told our group. It seemed at the time a pretty flippant remark to make, but given it meant that five centuries on the overall structure is in pretty good condition there is probably some truth in it. Had it remained as a purely Islamic monument, would the Christians have taken such good care of it over the centuries? Probably not.

But has the Mezquita really been saved? Spanish Muslims have petitioned the Vatican on a number of times over the years for permission to pray at the site, but on each occasion they have been refused. Given how big the site is, an area could easily be cordoned off for this purpose. For a city that once had 800 mosques, just three now remain. Cordoba may be a pleasant place to visit, but it is not such an enlightened place that it once was. Yet the life and times of al-Andalus have not been forgotten.

Roman temple on Calle Claudio Macelo


Categories: Spain, World

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