Córdoba is a fascinating city, and the highlight of our Spanish trip. We loved it. It’s dripping with history; the intersection of Christianity and Islam is most vivid here. It was an outpost of the Roman Empire, but by the time of Julius Ceasar it had become Rome’s regional capital. The Visigoths took over in the late 500’s, but in the early 700’s it was captured by the Moors. Then it flourished! In the 900’s it became the regional capital of the Muslim world, and surprising to me, the world’s most populous city and it’s intellectual center (the rest of Europe was mired in the Dark Ages). It was famed for its artistic expression, dedication to philosophy and science, and its religious tolerance (although Islam was preeminent, Judaism and Christianity co-existed [and it still has an historic Jewish Quarter]). The “Ornament of the World”, it reportedly had 3000 mosques, splendid palaces, 300 public baths, and the largest library in the world, housing as much as a million volumes. All of that changed quickly with a new hard-line ruler in the late 900’s. Gone was religious tolerance, books on philosophy were burned to please the Muslim clergy, and the other volumes were sold or lost in the ensuing power struggles/battles (some things don’t change in the Muslim world). The city declined steadily, and in the early 1200’s it was captured in the Christian Reconquista. Today, Córdoba’s big draw is the mosque-turned cathedral called the Mezquita. Remarkably well-preserved, the Mezquita gives a fabulous glimpse into the Muslim world of the 900’s, and stands in stark contrast to the Catholic religion that replaced it. It’s visually and emotionally breath-taking. It blew us away. You’ll see.
Modern Córdoba is an attractive city (see below) but we’re staying in the medieval town,
quite striking in it’s own right (picture on the left). Sevilla has taught us well (June 24, ’13, “Sevilla – Getting there”); we’re getting used to driving and parking in impossible places; as you can see in the picture below, medieval streets are narrow and make right-angle turns with little room for error, and we’re driving these streets and not even breathing hard! Well … maybe a little. Maybe an occasional “Eeek …. Eeek!” from Ginger. Much better than the screaming and beating I was getting before.
The barrio is quite attractive, although many of the stores have a decidedly tourist nature to them. The jewelry in some of these stores is actually pretty amazing; artisans are at their benches. Much of the area has white-washed walls, with flower pots hanging everywhere. We haven’t been to Greece yet, but we think it must look something like this.
Residential areas are quite attractive, and courtyard gardens are a big deal here – which is also reflected in the greenery in some of the restaurants, as shown in the last two photos below.
First we’re going to show you the Alcazar – Castle of the Christian Kings. It’s an impressive fortress from the outside and the inside gardens are attractive. We didn’t pony up the admission fee, but did buy tickets for an evening concert being held on the grounds, hence the evening pics of the gardens. Alas, the concert was cancelled when it started to sprinkle just before starting time (musicians have expensive instruments).
Now for the Mezquita. We are going to show you a lot of pictures, because it is such an amazing place. It was built and expanded from the 700’s to the 900’s so it’s – what? – about 1300 years old. Today it’s one of Europe’s most breathtaking examples of Spanish Muslim architecture; back then it was the heart of what was the grandest city of the
medieval world. From the pictures above, you can see that the mosque is absolutely massive! It goes on forever. Also note that the walls are far from plain; even after 1200 or so years the (no longer used) entrances are impressively beautiful, shown below.
Now let’s go inside. One enters first through a grand portal into the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Oranges) where Muslims would perfom a ritual washing before entering to worship. The massive bronze door at the entrance looks exactly like the one in the cathedral in Sevilla (July 11, 2013, “Sevilla and its Cathedral”). It’s magnificent.
From the courtyard, with its orange trees arranged in spaced rows, one enters the mosque – into a forest of delicate columns that line up with the rows of orange trees in the courtyard, essentially joining outside to inside. The 900 columns, some from as early as
AD 780, seem to recede to infinity, in all directions, as if reflecting the immensity and
complexity of Allah’s creation. These are double arches, made from alternating red brick and white stone, sitting on top of marble, granite and alabaster columns (many of the materials are recycled from Roman ruins and Visigoth churches). The arches are a neat engineering trick: supporting the ceiling with such thin columns required extra bracing using double arches.
At the start of this post we mentioned in passing that this mosque is now a Catholic cathedral. During the Reconquista (which arrived in Córdoba in 1236), the normal process for dealing with a conquered populace was to destroy existing mosques and build Catholic churches on the ruins – making a subtle statement! With a mosque so beautiful, the conquerors chose, instead, to simply reconsecrate the mosque as a Catholic church. It acrued only minor changes over the next 300 years, but in the 1500’s King Carlos I was prevailed upon, over city council objections, to build a cathedral on the site. The workman, however, respecting the beauty of the mosque, chose to build the cathedral smack dab in its center, thus leaving at least a portion of the mosque for future generations. The juxtaposition of these two religious buildings is jarring (which we’ll revisit later). For now, let’s note the ongoing Muslim/Catholic conflict at this site; the mosque was actually built on the ruins of a Visigoth church – there are stone carvings and mosaics from that period within the Mezquita, pictures below. Muslims want more say
concerning the Mesquita, including its use for prayer again. The Catholics argue that the Mezquita was always a Christian church, and the Muslims were just temporary residents (for 500 years!). The battles continue ….
Below are pictures of some of the beautiful ceilings in the mosque. There are many, many patterns in these decorated ceilings, some of them similar, but we couldn’t find an actual repeat. They’re gorgeous.
In the center of the pictures below, you’ll notice three highly decorated arches, distinct from the red and white striped arches seen in the rest of the Mesquita. This is the
approach to the mihrab, the mosque equivalent of a church’s high alter. The mihrab is a decorated niche/room where the imam would stand facing toward Mecca, with his back to the crowd, and read from scripture, give sermons and pray; the dome of mihrab was specifically designed to amplify the voice of the imam throughout the mosque.
The mihrab is spectacular!!! This artwork, done in the AD 900’s, still sparkles and bedazzles more than a millennium later! Its beauty and its amazing intricacy are mind-boggling. It is impressive from afar, but even more impressive the closer you get. Decoration is on everything, everywhere you look, yet the effect is not excessive. Reflecting the incredible wealth of Córdoba, the art was fashioned by Byzantine mosaicists using 3,000 lbs of glass-and-enamel cubes to depict stylized leaves, flowers and quotations from the Quran. The pictures below do not do it justice, but they should give you a hint of its exquisite beauty (This artwork is also the wallpaper background of this blog). The surrounding stone carvings are also amazingly beautiful.
The mihrab is mirrored on both sides by studded doors each topped with a similarly beautiful arch. Even the grates above the arches are gorgeous.
I hope you’re suitably impressed. Now return to the mihrab; with all that beauty in front of you, there is yet more to see by looking up! The effect is the visual equivalent of surround-sound, a full-amp display of sparkling beauty.
Looking up at the dome, it’s fascinating! Eight beautiful intersecting arches form bays for eight skylight windows and frame a scalloped octagonal dome. Within that interior space the dome’s intricate ribs create a flower, the petals inscribed with beautiful flowers themselves. It’s spectacular! Curves within curves, octagons within octagons – the Muslim artisans were masters of geometric design.
The mosque is absolutely vast – it could hold 20,000 people on their prayer rugs – yet the low ceilings and nearby columns create an intimate, enclosed and worshipful atmosphere. Well, when the mosque was turned into a church, what to do? No way were the Catholics going to be able to get 20,000 attendees from a Muslim city already in steep decline. So initially the conquerors did very little, replacing just 16 Mezquita columns with Gothic arches to make a small chapel. In the late 1300’s a Royal Chapel was built for the tombs of the now Christian Kings; it was never open to the public, and isn’t now, but I was able to take pictures from afar; the well-preserved Mudejar walls and dome are beautiful, as shown below.
Peripheral regions of the mosque were re-purposed for Christianity, such as the incorporation of small chapels, tombs, baptismals, and the Treasury, examples shown below.
In the early 1500’s came the decision to build a grand Catholic cathedral in the Mezquita’s center. It was done in late Gothic style, with towering Renaissance arches and a beautiful ceiling. It’s an attractive church, really, but in my mind it’s a disaster! The comparisons that it invites do it no favors. One enters a mosque, and the Catholic church is nowhere to be seen; it’s lost in the forest of (beautiful) columns. When you do find it, it
appears suddenly and awkwardly, hidden by the low ceiling of the mosque. While the mosque is about 30 feet high, the cathedral is 130 – 4 times the height! I did not take many pictures of the cathedral, due to my very negative emotional reaction. Here are the pictures:
Yes, the cathedral is beautiful. There is an extensive, if not bombastic, display of wealth and greatness and grand vastness. Emotionally, however, we were shocked. Within just a few feet we could immerse ourselves in the Muslim environment or the Christian environment. The evoked emotions were radically different, and our Christian roots were challenged! Surprisingly, going from mosque to cathedral was almost revolting! The mosque with its low ceilings and close columns was all intimacy with Allah and awe at the world’s beauty and endless repetition. The cathedral with its vast vertical space and elaborate, ornate displays of wealth evoked feelings of being small (and poor) before a distant, rich and very powerful God. I may not be able to express the evoked feelings well, but the difference in aesthetics and psychology between the two religions that leaps from this juxtaposition was easily felt by both of us.
However, I would be remiss if I did not show you the truly amazing Baroque-era choir stalls in the cathedral, made in 1750 from New World mahogany, one of the masterpieces from this time. Each stall features a scene from the Bible.
We’ll close this looong post with two final sections on the old city, interesting given that in the 900-1000’s it was the world’s greatest city (who knew?). Below are a drawing and a model of a portion of the city from that time, showing some of the city wall, to the right the Mezquita, and to the left the Alcazar (fortress) of the Caliph, the top Muslim ruler of the region. This was a city of maybe half a million people (!), and the Mezquita wasn’t big enough, so Córdoba had many more mosques (!), two of them (the twin mosques), located between the city walls as shown below. Note in the model the large waterwheel bringing water from the river into the city.
Today there are still remnants of the old city, as shown below.
Finally, we’ll quickly visit what remains of the baths of the Caliph, where apparently a lot of the Caliphate’s business was conducted. The baths were pretty fancy, as shown in the sketch, and involved the normal cold, warm and hot rooms, heated from under the floor (wear wooden sandals). The sketch shows it was an impressive facility, but today the ruins offer only a hint of that glory.
That’s enough! What a fabulous city! Hope you enjoyed it.
Next stop: Grenada and the famous Alhambra!