Cordoba, Spain – Crossroads of History

One of the many pools in the gardens of the Alcazar Palace.

One of the many pools in the gardens of the Alcazar Palace.

Our ride inland through the fertile and most populous region of Spain, Andalucía, revealed a checkerboard of golden acres of wheat alternating with verdant fields of sunflowers.  I have never seen or imagined so many sunflowers, and the fields in full bloom glowed with bright yellow made all the more vivid under the shining sun.

The walls surrounding La Mezquita give it a fortress-like appearance.

The walls surrounding La Mezquita give it a fortress-like appearance.

Our ABC Tour (Another Blessed Cathedral) ultimately led us to La Mezquita (The Mosque), now known as the Cathedral of Cordoba.  There is nothing like it in the world and a bit of history is necessary to appreciate its story.

Pushing back the boundaries of a weakened Roman Empire, the Visigoths built a Christian church in Cordoba on the site of a temple honoring the Roman god, Janus.  The Visigoths controlled most of what is now Spain for over 100 years before the Muslim conquest early in the 8th century.

The courtyard of palm and orange trees leading to the entrance of The Mosque Cathedral.

The courtyard of palm and orange trees leading to the entrance of The Mosque Cathedral.

The Muslims (referred to as Moors in Spain) made Cordoba the capital of their Al-Andalus region in 718 AD.  Beginning in 784, the emir of Cordoba ordered the construction of a mosque on the site of the Christian church, which was demolished.  During this period, Cordoba also became one of the most prosperous cities in the world, known for its advancements in science, art and architecture.  The Christians and Jews in the city were welcomed to stay and worship as they pleased as long as they paid a tithe to the Muslim emir.

The array of columns hints at rows of palm trees in a desert oasis.

The array of columns hints at rows of palm trees in a desert oasis.

Over a period of 200 years the mosque was enlarged and enhanced until it became one of the largest and finest mosques in the world.  It is an impressive structure covering some 250,000 square feet.  From the outside the mosque does not appear that impressive.  While ornate by today’s architectural standards, the mosque gives off a distinctly military feel with forty foot high walls and iron gates at its arched entries.

So magnificent was the finished mosque that when the Catholic Church proposed building its cathedral addition in the middle of the mosque, it was over the objections of the people of Cordoba.  Opposition to the cathedral was overruled by King Carlos V without his ever having visited the site.  In 1526, when the king did witness the damage he had unwittingly allowed, he is said to have remarked, ‘You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.’

The Mosque covers an area of over 250,000 sq. ft. with over 800 columns spread throughout.

The Mosque covers an area of over 250,000 sq. ft. with over 800 columns spread throughout.

Once we entered the huge courtyard and the cathedral itself is its grandeur revealed.  Florence and I both looked at each other and simultaneously mouthed, ‘Wow.’  (If only there was a word that equaled Wow to the tenth power.)  The expanse of the mosque is filled with over 850 columns made of onyx, granite, marble and jasper, all holding up brightly colored red and white arches which in turn support much higher arched ceilings.

The Roman Bridge featuring 12 arches connects the Old City with the new.

The Roman Bridge featuring 12 arches connects the Old City with the new.

Cordoba today is a tranquil city with parks and plazas with plenty of fountains and statuary.  It is also one of the premier locations in the world for bullfights.  Many people find bullfighting to be a cruel sport.  In fact, bullfighting has been banned in some areas of Spain, most notably Barcelona in the Catalan Region.  However, bullfights remain popular in Andalucía.  There are fourteen bullrings in Cordoba, the largest of which is the Plaza de Los Califas, which seats 16,900 spectators.  The excitement stems from the possibility of death faced simultaneously by both fighter and bull.  It is worth noting that bulls bred to fight are raised and treated gently and fed only the finest food fit for a bull.  As for the moral principle of bullfighting, I personally find it hypocritical to criticize a fight to the death between man and bull when we as a society raise vast herds of cattle to be unceremoniously slaughtered without giving it much thought.

Strolling the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba with our new British friends, Ruth and Mike Steele

Strolling the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba with our new British friends, Ruth and Mike Steele

We topped off our tour of Cordoba with a stroll through the picturesque Jewish Quarter with its artisan ceramic and leather shops and a synagogue dating back to AD 1350.  We passed the museum of the Spanish Inquisition in which about 3,000 people (some estimates are higher) were executed for their religious beliefs.  We also visited the nearby Alcazar Castle with its spectacular gardens.  The royalty of Spain clearly knew how to live in grand style.

The power of the once mighty Spanish Empire came full circle for me after having seen the Spanish influence in colonial Latin America during our two years touring and living there.  Even though Spain is no longer considered a major world power, its place in history is forever set with an elegance that rivals any country.

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