Cordoba has experienced dramatic peaks and troughs

The major cities of Andalusia - Cordoba (330,000 inhabitants), Seville (700,000) and Granada (240,000) - have a fascinating history and are packed with magnificent buildings to visit.

Although Charles V only travelled to Andalusia once, in 1526, he was married in Seville and had a brief stay in Cordoba on his way to Granada, where he spent the first few months of his married life and his heir, Philip, was conceived.

Cordoba has experienced dramatic peaks and troughs in its history of over two thousand years. At the end of the first millennium, under the Muslim Umayyad dynasty, it was the largest city in Europe, with estimates of its population ranging from 350,000 to one million. It boasted a magnificent mosque, the largest library in the world and offered a considerable degree of toleration to Christian and Jewish minorities. By 1800 it had declined so far that it was merely a provincial backwater of less than 25,000 inhabitants. Industry and tourism have grown in the late 20th century aided by the ease of access by road and rail. The ‘Historic centre of Cordoba' with the Mesquita/Cathedral at its heart, was designated a world heritage site in 1984(Photo 1). Cordoba now has a population of 330,000.

Cordoba - Official tourist website

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Places to visit in Cordoba

The key building that must not be missed is the Cathedral, formerly the Mesquita (Great Mosque). Its great beauty, its atmosphere and the fact that its story gives us a clear insight into much of the history of the city as a whole – growth, culture, artistic inspiration, tolerance, increasing hostility and major changes – make it one of the great buildings of the world. The exterior, with its Islamic/Mujedar doorways such as the Puerto de San Miguel, hides a splendid interior which has a stunning impact. The first building on the site was the Christian Basilica of St Vincente, build by the Visigoths. A small part of the west wall still remains as part of the outer wall of the mosque around the door of St Stephen (Puerto de San Estaban) (Photo 2).

The first part of the Great Mosque was built in 785-7 by the architect Sidi ben Ayub, under the orders of Abd al Rahman I (r.756 - 788), on the site of the Visigoth cathedral, most of which was demolished. It had eleven aisles open to the Patio de los Naranjos, the purification court to the north. The pillars used in the construction were taken from older Roman and Visigoth buildings. The variable height of these pillars meant that the bases of some had to be sunk into the ground. The builders then added to these a second set of columns from which come the arches that support the roof. (Photos 4 and 5). Abd al Rahman II (r.822-852) extended the mosque to the south (towards the river) so that the mosque could accommodate over 9,000 worshippers. Over one hundred years later Al-Hakam II (r.961–976) was responsible for the finest of the additions. The aisles were further extended and the superb mihrab or prayer niche, the focus of prayer, was constructed.

The final extension under Al Mansur (Almanzor) (r.978–1002) added a further eight aisles to the east side of the mosque, clearly distinguishable by its red tile, as opposed to marble, floor. The mosque could now hold 40,000 people but as a result the mihrab was no longer in the centre of the end wall, an unusual feature. Al Mansur was a military leader who was feared throughout Spain. Having raided Santiago de Compostela in the extreme north-west (Galicia), he removed the bells from the cathedral and used them as oil reservoirs for huge lamps in the Mesquita. The bells were subsequently restored to Santiago after the conquest of Cordoba by Fernando III. It is believed that Al Mansur’s raids against the Christian principalities to the north motivated them to unite, first to resist the attacks and later to invade al-Andalus.

The features that make such an impact on entering the Mesquita are the vast numbers of columns, the lower, horseshoe shaped arches, below the semi-circular upper ones, and the magnificent use of alternate stone and terracotta brick in the arches giving the distinctive red and white striped pattern (in Al-Mansur’s extension this design is painted on the stone). The whole effect was perhaps meant to be one of palm trees stretching away into the distance, reminding worshippers of the oases of the deserts in northern Africa and the Islamic heartlands. Figurative art is very rare in Muslim buildings, but what replaces it is fine stucco plaster work, superb ornamental calligraphy and repeated, complex geometric patterns.

Another glory of the Mesquita is the mihrab (at the south end facing the main door now rarely used (the Arch of Blessings). It has ‘a horseshoe shaped arch, enclosed by a rectangular frame...The entire arch seems to radiate, like the sun or moon gradually rising over the edge of the horizon...The radiating energy and the perfect stillness form an unsurpassable equilibrium. Herein lies the basic formula of Moorish architecture’ (T. Burckhardt: Moorish Culture in Spain - 1972) (Photo 5).

Inside the mihrab a scallop shell (the symbol of the Quran) was shaped out of a single piece of marble and the surround is decorated with mosaics sent by the Byzantine emperor who also provided artists to work on them. The design of this mihrab has served as the model for many subsequent constructions across the Muslim world. It is unusual in its orientation. Normally, by facing the mihrab, worshippers face Mecca, but the position of the mihrab in the Mesquita means that they face south whereas Mecca is East South East of Cordoba. The probable reason for this was that the original architects had used part of the pre-existing cathedral and this meant that the orientation of the mosque did not match the usual requirements. The mihrab was bricked up after the Reconquista, only being uncovered again during the 19th century, thankfully intact.

With the conquest of Cordoba in 1236 by Fernando III ‘El Santo’ of Castile, the mosque was consecrated as a cathedral. In the eyes of the new rulers this was returning the building to its original use, a place of Christian worship under the Visigoths. Some changes were gradually made over the following 200 years. The first significant ones were the construction of the 13th century Capilla Real, which holds the remains of Kings Ferdinand IV and Alfonso XI, and the Capilla de Villaviciosa, both built in Mudejar style. This was widespread in Spain between the 12th and 16th centuries, a symbiosis of Christian and Muslim architectural styles. The Puerta del Perdon, where penitants were pardoned, now the main entrance to the Patio de los Naranjos, was rebuilt in 1377, again in Mudejar style.

The Muslim courtyard with ablution fountains in the shade of palm trees was altered by the building of cloisters, the planting of orange trees instead of palms (hence its present name), and the removal of the original fountains. Also a tower with a belfry was built over the minaret. Originally all 19 naves of the mosque were open to the patio, giving the impression of the interior columns as an extension of the trees there. All but one of these openings were closed in, making the interior much gloomier than it would have been. Christian chapels were added around the walls, often funded by wealthy local families.

It was nearly 300 years after the Reconquista that the most significant changes to the Mesquita were begun. The cathedral authorities had long wished to construct a new centre for Christian worship. They had been constrained until Charles V gave permission for work to start in 1523 for a cathedral coro (choir) and capilla major (main altar), enclosed structures in the centre of the Mesquita, against the wishes of a town council dominated by the local families who had funded the side chapels. Construction lasted until the 18th century, but early on Charles himself recognised that this was not necessarily going to be a major triumph. ‘You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world’. So complained the monarch who had given the go ahead for the work – too late!

The design by Hernan Ruiz and continued by his successors, inevitably broke the continuity of the mosque’s pillars (Photos 7 and 8) and stands in direct contrast to the Moorish structure. The roof breaks through the original mosque ceiling and is a major feature of Cordoba’s skyline. But the overall impression inside is one of light, unlike many Renaissance and Baroque churches, and where it meets the Islamic columns there is an interesting fusion of two different approaches to religious architecture. Features of note include the 18th century Churrigueresque (a style of Spanish baroque) choir stalls by Pedro Duque Cornejo, made of mahogany from the New World, the Renaissance high altar, and the ceiling of the High Altar, with bas reliefs of the Madonna surrounded by angels, saints and one said to be depicting Charles V.

At the same time as these were being constructed the minaret, which was the model for the later Giralda in Seville and of which only the lower 22 m. survives, was rebuilt as the Torre del Alminar (Photo 9), the 93 m. high bell tower, from which a great view of the city can be had. Later, in the 18th century the Capilla del Cardinal, the treasury and the sacristy were added.

To understand the motivation for this 16th century addition we need to understand the political and religious context. To most modern day visitors it would seem to be an obvious case of cultural imperialism or vandalism, replacing the defeated religion with all the trappings of the victorious one. For many years the building had been shared by Christians and Muslims, so what was there about the early 16th century that changed this? In 1492, Granada, the last Muslim controlled part of Spain had been defeated. This was followed by growing religious intolerance of both Islam and Judaism. Charles saw his role as being the secular leader of Christianity and he was in conflict with the Ottoman Empire, who threatened in Hungary and Austria as well as in the Mediterranean, including the Spanish coast, for much of his reign. Muslims had after all taken a Christian cathedral, 700 years before, demolished most of it and constructed their mosque. Such is the power of history! It certainly gives us plenty to think about.

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Cordoba - Mesquita

The Cathedral/Mesquita is surrounded by souvenir shops, cafes and bars, but it is worth walking around the area on either side and to the north of the Mesquita in order to see the whitewashed lanes, alleys and small squares from which you can look into lovely patios, as in the old parts of many Spanish cities. Streets such as Deanes, Calle Judios, Callejion de las Flores and many others are teaming with visitors, but still retain the atmosphere of the crowded old city, and make a fine backdrop to public celebrations such as the Easter Week parades (Photos 10 - 13) and various festivals held in May.

Photos 10 – 13. The Easter Week parades in Cordoba – in the narrow streets and outside the exterior wall of the Cathedral / Mesquita.

In the Juderia there is the early 14th century Synagogue (Sinagoga) (Photos 14 and 15), one of only three surviving medieval ones in Spain (the other two are in Toledo). The tiny synagogue, built in Mudejar style, has a courtyard, hallway and prayer room, and retains its womens’ gallery, Hebrew inscriptions (verses from the Psalms) and a recess for the Ark. Despite many other uses (hermitage and hospital) since the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 you can still imagine the atmosphere of worship and learning.

Further up Calle Judios is the Casa Andalusia, with rooms off a courtyard, its decor, furniture and other artefacts typical of the 12th century, providing an oasis of calm from the bustling street (Photos 16 and 17).

Nearby on the Plaza Maimonides (named after the Jewish philosopher) in a 16th century mansion is the Museo Taurino, dedicated to bull fighting. Tucked away in this area is the Capilla de San Bartolome, built in Gothic-Mujedar style (around 1400) with fine plasterwork and tiles, and nearby is the Puerta de Almodovar, one of the several old city gates that still exist.

Not far from the Mesquita is the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos. During the Muslim era there was a vast royal palace immediately to the west of the Mesquita, little of which now remains. However, it was replaced as a centre of power by the Alcazar. Begun in 1328 for Alfonso XI, It underwent considerable rebuilding in Mudajar style during the 15th century. It is now named after Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V’s grandparents. The Catholic monarchs stayed there in 1480s and 1490s during their campaign against the Moors in Granada and it is said that they first received Christopher Columbus here as he attempted to persuade them to finance what became a world changing voyage. It was established as a base for the Spanish Inquisition, set up in 1478, and used as such for 300 years. It housed Napoleonic troops in the early 19thcentury and in 1821 became a prison until 1951. The buildings are of some interest, with a municipal museum, royal baths and mosaics, but the grounds, added in the 15th century in Moorish style and remodelled in the 19th century, provide a glorious place to rest tired limbs, with shade, seats and flowing water.

Across the plaza from the Alcazar are the Banos Califales, the restored 10th century Moorish bath-house (hamman). Here you can see the numerous bathing rooms and the star shaped windows especially in the Sala Templada with its marble columns. If you want to experience what it might have been like in the baths you can go to the Hamman Banos Arabes to enjoy the bathing, tea drinking and eating Arabic sweets (booking required).

Immediately south of the Mesquita is the Puente Romano with its Roman foundations, originally part of the town walls reputed to be 22kms. long. Part of these defences on the far side of the bridge included the Torre de la Calahorra. Originally an Almohad tower, it was rebuilt in 1369, used in more recent centuries as a prison and a girl’s school, and is now a museum of the city’s history.

A little further afield, walking west past the Alcazar through the area of San Basilio to the Puerta de Seville, with its statue of the philosopher Ibn Hazm, you can lose the crowds and really appreciate the patios, the mimosa (in the spring) and window boxes of a residential area. A little further still, to the north, are numerous Gothic churches built soon after the Reconquista. These are small and their exteriors plain, perhaps reflecting the fact that the many Muslim inhabitants of the time would have found images offensive, but have some fine features inside. Examples are San Lorenzo on Calle Maria Auxiliadora (porch, rose window and frescos) and San Pablo on Calle de los Capitulares (mudejar dome and ceiling).

Other museums include the Museo Provincial de Belles Arte, the nearby Museo Julio Romero de Torres and the Museo Arqueologico. The Renaissance Palacio de Viana has rooms full of art and antiques and many lovely patios as well as a formal garden.

Outside Cordoba

A few miles to the west of Cordoba is the palace-city of Abd al-Rahman III. The construction of Medina Azahara began in 936 to show the power and culture of al-Andalus, his newly declared caliphate. Possibly inspired by rivalry with the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad, it is named after his favourite wife Az-Zahri (the Radiant) and construction took the rest of his reign and was continued by his son, Al-Hakam II. Records show that one third of the state budget was spent on it each year. Ten thousand labourers and fifteen hundred mules and camels worked for over thirty years. In addition to the palace (Alcazar), and hundreds of houses, they built barracks, weapons factories, markets, workshops, mosques, baths, fish ponds and a zoo, all spread over three terraces descending into the Guadalquivir valley. Visitors were intended to be amazed by its opulence. In one room a pile of crystals created a rainbow when lit by the sun’s rays and in another a shallow bowl of mercury rocked by a slave would send sunbeams around the room, giving the impression of the room revolving.

It was unthinkable when it was being constructed that Medina Azahara was only going to be used for another few decades. The collapse of the dynasty, beginning with the death of al-Mansur, (who had himself usurped power) and the failure of leadership after his death, led to the almost complete destruction of the city in 1009-10 by Berber soldiers, and Medina Azahara became merely a source of building materials. It was effectively forgotten as ‘old Cordoba’, until excavations in the early 20th century began to reveal its glories. So far only about 10-15% of the complex has been excavated, around the palace, but there is much of interest. The gradual work of reconstruction is revealing the glories of the Royal house where the Salon Rico de Abd al-Rahman III, with its marble carvings, helps us to imagine the surrounding gardens, mosque and baths as they might have been over 1000 years ago. There is a modern museum and interpretation centre on the site.

A further 10 miles west is Almodovar del Rio overlooked by the castle, originally 8th century, though much altered. It served as a major defensive feature of the region. What exists now is over restored but there is a fine view over the Guadalquivir valley from the battlements and it was used for filming some of the 7th series of ‘Game of Thrones’.

Scholarship and Learning in the ‘golden age’ of Cordoba

10th, 11th and 12th century Cordoba is associated with a number of major figures in the history of philosophy and science.

Abu al-Quasim al-Zahrawi, known as Albucasis in the west (936 – 1013), was born near Cordoba and lived in the street later named after him at no.6 Calle Albucasis marked by a bronze plaque. This physician, surgeon and chemist produced the Kitab al-Tasrif, a 30 volume medical encyclopaedia. Besides being physician to Caliph Al-Hakam II, he made many advances in areas such as dentistry and childbirth, developing forceps to assist in births and 200 other surgical instruments, first using catgut for internal stitches. He emphasised the importance of the doctor patient relationship and is considered Islam’s greatest medieval surgeon, whose texts influenced Islamic and European practices up to the Renaissance.

Maslama al-Majriti (died 1013) was born in Madrid but moved to Cordoba and flourished under the enlightened rule of Al-Hakam II (961-976). His areas of interest were wide, including astronomy (developing new astronomical tables), mathematics, practical surveying and triangulation (developing the use of the astrolabe) and perhaps most significantly chemistry, with, for instance, the concept of the conservation of mass. He also developed the interchange of ideas and knowledge, establishing links with Christian scholars, encouraging their interest in Muslim, and through that ancient Greek, writings.

Ibn Hazm (994-1064) (Photo 19) worked for the last Umayyad rulers and later produced works on philosophy, Islamic law, ethics, theology and history, as well as a book on the art of love ‘The Ring of the Dove’. He is commemorated in a statue near the Puerta de Sevilla.

The 12th century saw the birth in Cordoba of two influential philosophers and physicians, the Muslim Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, (born Cordoba 1126 – died Marrakesh 1198) and the Jew Maimonides (born Cordoba 1135 – died Cairo 1204). Averroes (Photo 20) worked on Islamic philosophy, theology and law, logic, mathematics and a whole range of sciences including astronomy and medicine. His statue is close by the Puerta de la Luna.

Maimonides (Photo 21) trained as a physician but later became better known for his philosophical writings. Both studied and interpreted the work of Aristotle, reintroducing his ideas to a new audience. However, the political, religious and military disturbances of the 12th century resulted in both these scholars and their families, along with many others, deserting the city and pursuing their work mainly in North Africa.

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Cordoba - Official tourist website

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Romans and Visigoths

Located on the R. Guadalquivir, Cordoba lies to the northeast of Seville. The rugged Sierra Morena range is to the north, dividing Andalucia from Castile. To the south is the fertile rolling countryside of the Campina, with its olive groves, vineyards and cornfields, hilltop castles and whitewashed villages. The area came under the influence of Carthaginians, who settled on the coast (Malaga), while the city has a history stretching back to the Roman invasion of Spain in the 2nd century B.C. It initially flourished until sacked by Julius Caesar for backing Pompey in the civil war and then revived as capital of the province of Hispania Baetica, the richest province of Roman Spain, after the reorganisation of the provinces in 14 B.C. The family of the philosopher Seneca the younger (c. 4-65 A.D.) came from Cordoba (his statue is close to the Puerta de Almodovar), while the Emperor Trajan (53 – r.98 - 117A.D.) and the family of his adopted son and successor, Hadrian (76 – r.117 - 138A.D.), came from the province. Three centuries later, as the Roman Empire disintegrated after incursions by the Vandals and others, by 500 A.D. Spain came under the control of the Visigoths. In Cordoba they built the basilica of St. Vincente between the main Roman city and the river in the 6th century.

During the early 8th century most of Spain was occupied by the Moors, including Cordoba in 711, and they continued to control large areas until the 13th century, before finally being driven out of their last base further south in Granada in 1492 by the ‘Catholic Monarchs’. It was during the Muslim era that Cordoba reached its peak. In 756 Abd al Rahman I, the surviving grandson of the last effective ruler of the Umayyad dynasty, just defeated in the Middle East by the Abbasids, established Cordoba as an independent emirate and from that time the city grew rapidly. In the 10th century Abd al Rahman III (r.912 – 961) declared al-Andalus an independent caliphate, with Cordoba as his capital, a confident move since caliph means ‘successor of the prophet’ in political authority. Under Abd al Rahman III and his son Al Hakam II (r.961-976), it became the largest, finest city in Europe. At the start of the new millennium it was said to have 400,000 volumes in the great library of Al Hakam II, 27 schools, 50 hospitals (at a time when there were probably none in Britain), 600 public baths, 1,000 mosques, 80,000 shops and 213,000 houses! Although these figures cannot be regarded as precise, they reveal a city that had no comparison in England, France or elsewhere in Europe.

Praise for the city was lavish. Al Makkari, the early 17th century North African historian, wrote of late 10th century Corboba that ‘it contained more excellence than any other city on the face of the earth’, and that ‘Cordoba is to al-Andalus what the head is to the body.’ For Ash-shakandi, writing in the 13th century, Cordoba had been ‘the repository of science, the minaret of piety and devotion, the abode of magnificence, superiority and elegance; neither Baghdad nor Damascus can compare with it’. Under the Umayyads it was common for Muslims, Christians and Jews to live side by side often in relative harmony and mutual respect. Dynastic inter-marriages took place; Abd al-Rahman’s mother was a Basque princess from Navarre. At this time Christians and Jews were tolerated, though subject to additional taxation. This is the Cordoba which can be experienced in the narrow streets and alleys, the silverwork and jewellery workshops, of the Juderia, south of the modern city centre, around and just to the north of the Cathedral/Mesquita.

However we should not underestimate the inevitable social, cultural and religious tensions and conflicts that exist in any such major city. Early on there was rivalry over the height of church towers as opposed to minarets, each seeking to out-do the other. More seriously, during the 9th century, as increasing numbers of the original population converted to Islam, the dominant religion of the political elite, a number of Christians deliberately courted execution by sustained blasphemy of the Prophet Mohammed, in an attempt to counter the appeal of Islam and its culture to Christian youth. Forty-eight ‘martyrs of Cordoba’ were executed and many church towers were demolished.

With the collapse of the Umayyad rule, the break-up of al-Andalus into small independent states, the constant pressure from the Christian kingdoms to the north, and the subsequent invasions from north Africa of the Almoravids in the late 11th century and the Almohads in the mid-12th century, Cordoba started to lose its significance (see history section on Seville). These military dynasties of Berber Muslims were generally less tolerant of other religions. The Almohads established Seville as their capital around 1170. Their power soon declined after 1212 when defeated by Christian forces led by Alfonso VIII at the battle of Las Navas de Tolesa in the Sierra Morena to the north of Cordoba. In 1236 Cordoba was conquered by Fernando III ‘El Santo’ of Castile, shortly to be followed by Seville (1248), and made part of the growing Christian kingdom.

Cordoba after the 13th century

The Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos (Fortress of the Catholic Monarchs) was constructed in 1328 to consolidate control of the city. Meanwhile the Nasrid dynasty had established Granada as the last base for Muslim control in southern Spain. (See history section on Granada). Much of the Muslim population of Cordoba chose to leave for Granada and North Africa, although those that remained, the Mudejares, did not fare too badly at first. However religious intolerance became a growing problem as Christian settlers gradually moved in from the north. The loss of a skilled and commercially active population, followed later by the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, undoubtedly played a part in the slow decline of Cordoba. From the 16th century the city shared the decline of Andalusia generally (see section on Granada) and by 1800 its population had dwindled to only 25,000. Twentieth century developments have seen the growth of industry and tourism, encouraged by good high speed rail links to Seville, Madrid and Barcelona.

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