Córdoba is a city in Andalusia in southern Spain, on the banks of the Guadalquivir River. The river has its source in the Cazorla mountain range to the east and its mouth at Sanlucar de Barrameda near Cadiz and the valley it has carved through Andalusia is the most fertile part of southern Spain. The Guadalquivir is the same river upon which Seville is built and it has played a significant part in the history of both cities. In Roman times, it was navigable all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to Córdoba, giving the city great strategic importance and helping to make it the largest city in all of Roman Spain. Olive oil, wheat and wine were shipped from here back to Ancient Rome. Later, during the Islamic period it was the capital of the Moorish kingdom of El-Andalus and was famous for its coexistence of Muslims, Jews and Christians. Today, the city’s most famous landmark is the huge Mosque-Cathedral.
The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba
Seeing and experiencing the enormous Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba was another ‘wow’ moment for us all. As we entered its dimly lit interior and our eyes fell upon the myriad of red and white arches, stone pillars and hanging lanterns, we were all transfixed. And it is not just that this place is beautiful to look at, it also has a calm and spiritual atmosphere, bestowed on it by the simplicity and harmony of its design, and heavy with the devotion of all the people who have worshiped here over the centuries.
This is indeed an ancient place of worship: the first building on the site was actually a Christian temple, built by the Visigoths in the mid-sixth century. But then the Muslims took control of this part of Spain and in place of the Christian temple Abd al-Rahman I (786-788) built the original mosque here. For several centuries the mosque and minaret were extended and improved, until it was over four times its original size. Then in 1236 this part of Spain was reconquered by the Christians and the mosque was consecrated as a Catholic Church. The new rulers of the city so admired the beauty of the mosque that instead of demolishing it as we have seen in other locations, they looked after it and built their own cathedral in the midst of the Islamic arches and columns. The result is the extraordinary building that exists today and it is incredible to note that Holy Mass has been held here every day since 1236.
What I love about the Islamic architecture we have seen so far (in the Alcazar in Seville, the Alhambra in Granada and now Córdoba) is the detailing. You look through beautiful archways with intricate plasterwork and see beyond them more archways with further patterns and interest beyond, layer after layer, making a complex and yet compatible whole.
The Muslim Prayer Hall
And it is the same in the Mosque-Church in Córdoba: the double arches with their alternating brick and stone form a simple, bold and highly individual design. Below them are over 850 pillars made of coloured granite, jasper, onyx and marble. The effect is to give the Muslim prayer hall a depth and uniformity that is quite stunning: the space seems to be magnified by its repeating geometry. As you move around the prayer hall, the perspective changes: at first the arches are offset, but move slightly to one side or the other and they create a multi-layered symmetrical scene. Slightly further still and they line up like a tunnel disappearing far into the distance. I could’ve wandered around all day admiring and photographing the different patterns and light.
On one side of the prayer hall is the Mihrab, which is a niche in the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca and is the direction in which the congregation face to pray. The Mihrab here at the Mosque-Cathedral is particularly large and is covered with rich mosaics and ornamental decoration. Above it is an equally dazzling dome covered with gold mosaics in a pattern radiating out from its centre.
When it was initially converted to a Christian church, the mosque wasn’t altered much at all. The openings that led out to the orange tree patio were closed and the area around the edge was sectioned off into side chapels, but otherwise it was utilised as it was, with Christian symbols and paintings added. It was much later, in the 14th and 15th centuries, that the internal chapels (the Villaviciosa and Royal Chapels) and cathedral nave were added.
The Renaissance Cathedral
In the centre of the original mosque sits an equally magnificent Renaissance and baroque cathedral, built in the early 16th century. Standing at the point where the two meet, the difference in the architectural styles is striking. You step from the relatively low ceilinged prayer hall into a towering nave with an elaborately decorated ceiling. It is a dramatic scene: the intricately carved mahogany choir stalls and dark alterpiece contrast sharply with the pale stone of the nave, which is illuminated by skylights in the transept and central dome. The result is that the cathedral feels much lighter and loftier than the dimly lit prayer hall, but it also feels busier and less restful because there is just so much going on, all the different elements competing for attention.
Permission to build the nave was given by Charles V, King of Castille and Aragon. Interestingly, when he visited the finished cathedral he wasn’t happy with the result and is reported to have said, “they have taken something unique in the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.” I would have to agree with him. Impressive as the cathedral part of this building is, I much preferred the harmony and tranquility of the original mosque.
The Minaret and Patio de Los Naranjos
You enter the Mosque-Cathedral through a lovely courtyard with orange trees and fountains. This is where you buy your entry tickets and where you can also buy tickets to climb up the minaret.
Originally the mosque was open to this courtyard and it is where the Muslim congregation washed and cleansed themselves before entering the mosque to pray. Climbing the minaret/bell tower gives you an interesting view down upon the old mosque and cathedral where the contrast between the low, understated Islamic building and the lofty, grand Christian one is very apparent. The views across Córdoba itself are pretty good too and you get a real sense of history as you climb up some of the tower’s original, eroded steps.
La Sinagoga: Córdoba’s Medieval Synagogue
Córdoba also has another rare religious building: a medieval synagogue built in 1315.
The first Jews are thought to have arrived in southern Spain in the 6th century and during this time they suffered persecution from the Visigoths who ruled here. Later, under early Islamic rule, there was a period of harmony in which Jews, Muslims and Christians lived side-by-side, respecting each others’ religions and holy days. At the time Spain had one of the biggest and most prosperous Jewish communities in the world. With the rise of the Almohad dynasty in the 13th century though, all this changed. The Almohad rulers were more fundamental than previous Islamic rulers and they treated both Christians and Jews harshly. Faced with the choice of death or conversion, many of them fled to the Christian north of Spain. Many returned after the Christian reconquest in 1236, working in banking, medicine, law and commerce. They often worked as tax collectors, which started to lead to resentment amongst the rest of the population and when the Spanish Inquisition started in 1481, they were one of the main groups who were targeted. Many Jews fled the country; many others converted but continued to practice their own faith in secret. The Inquisition aimed to ensure that ‘converters’ were truly practicing their new faith: anyone found or suspected of continuing to worship as a Jew or Muslim was considered a heretic and put on trial. Things got even worse in 1492 when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed a decree that all Jews or Muslims must convert to Catholicism or else leave Spain.
So, this synagogue is significant because it is only one of three synagogues left in Spain from the days before the Spanish Inquisition. It was rediscovered in 1884 when part of its walls fell down, revealing the highly decorated plasterwork behind. It is quite small, consisting of an entrance patio, an inner atrium and the prayer hall, with the women’s gallery above. It is decorated with lovely mudéjar features like multi-lobed archways and all around the walls are inscriptions in Hebrew in the plasterwork. Most of these are incomplete now, but there was something quite beautiful and poignant about this tiny space, given the history of what happened to the Jews in this area.
The synagogue is at the heart of Córdoba’s medieval quarter, called La Juderia, which has lots of narrow, winding streets and picturesque flower-filled squares. Every year the city holds a contest for the most beautiful courtyard and people proudly decorate their patios with flowers and window boxes.
All in all, Córdoba was an interesting place to get to know and taught us a lot about the religious and cultural history of this area. As well as the Jewish quarter it has an impressive Roman bridge across the river, the remains of a Roman temple, medieval walls and a lively modern town.
I also loved all of the hidden courtyards we saw everywhere, glimpsed through an open door or gate. I shall also remember Córdoba as a really colourful city: the brightly painted buildings together with the shops and courtyards with all their beautiful flowers meant that there was colour everywhere you looked. Unfortunately for us, we were there on an unseasonably cold couple of days, otherwise I would’ve liked to linger longer in its old town or walk alongside the river and take in the views.
Instead we headed back towards Granada on a drive that took us past more rolling hills, green fields and fertile agricultural land and then past hillside after hillside of olive trees, making their distinctive patterns on the landscape. We skirted around countless villages and towns, many with ancient castles perched on hilltops like Espejo, Alcaudete and Alcalá la Real. This region really would be a fascinating area to explore further one day. But for now, we were all exhausted and ready to get ‘home’ to the caravan.
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