A long turn in the road and then great Córdoba, shining Córdoba, appears far down across the plain: “lejana y sola”, as in the Lorca poem, far off and alone.
This was how Caesar saw it, and Sertorius, and Pompey, and all the great Romans as they marched up the Roman road from Málaga.
And this is how many Arab historians see it now—a kind of mirage on the horizon. Córdoba was the capital of a fabled empire, where wise kings ruled in courts like universities, and the three great religions lived in harmony. They called it Al Andalus.
In 711 the Arabs invaded Spain and quickly conquered most of it. They made Cordoba the capital of their new empire.
By the tenth century about as many people lived there as do now, roughly 300,000. That made it one of the largest cities of the time.
It was rich and one Caliph outdid another in magnificence. Philosophers and poets produced beautiful and lasting work in the courts of Abd ar-Rahman I, Abd ar-Rahman III, Al Hakam II, and Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir. The Muslim scholar Averroes brought about a revival of classical culture which changed the West. All this while the rest of Europe was barely surviving.
And the best of their architecture, the great Mosque, still stands to prove the dream was true, Al Andalus was really that splendid. The Mezquita, as it is now called, was the work of many Caliphs and is a sort of Muslim St. Peter’s. (It is in fact a Catholic Church today.)
The Great Mosque
A walk through the quiet forest of marble columns, many of them lifted from ruinous Roman buildings, takes you back a thousand years. There is nothing like it–perhaps the greatest show of splendor surviving from that shining time. The arches go on and on out of sight and they are inlaid with colored bricks and decorated with infinitely fine plaster reliefs.
Those are the original cedar beams on the ceiling, carved and gilded by generations of master carpenters.
The whole temple is so huge that the Spanish Christians, once they had conquered Córdoba centuries later, built a cathedral inside it. And that cathedral, large as it is, seems only like a kind of intrusive chapel in the vast Mosque!
There is a strange feeling of peace and timelessness as you sit under one of the orange trees in the courtyard outside the Mezquita.
Tradition has it that there was once harmony between the religions. Jews were allowed to contribute to the learning of the time and some of the greatest poets, philosophers, and scholars of Al Andalus were Jewish. Maimonides was born and lived his best years here, and the poets Yehuda Halevy, Moses and Abraham Ben Ezra, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, and others.
A monument to Maimonides in a tiny Córdoba square
The End of a World
Christian kings finally took Córdoba away from the Caliphs in 1236.
Today most Spaniards think not of its distant history but of its beautiful snow-white patios with the walls all hung with pots of geraniums.
And the pretty, narrow streets of the Old Jewish Quarter, where you might hear this copla from another time:
Adónde vas, bella judía
Sola y a deshora?
Voy en busca de Rebeco
Que está en la sinogoga
Where are you going, beautiful daughter of Israel
All alone and so late?
I’m going to the synogogue
To meet Rebecco