Why a visit to Cordoba, the Capital of Muslim Spain and Umayyad caliphate, left me emotionally exhausted
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]S with all our hotel reservations, the one for Cordoba was made online, researching just enough to ensure proximity to the Mezquita(mosque)-Catedral – the present-day name of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. We ended up in the most ideal of neighborhoods; for most of the places that were on our to-see list, we never had to leave the area. And the bell tower of the Mezquita was literally right opposite our hotel!
Juderia, where our hotel was located, is the historic downtown area of Cordoba. It harbors not just one of the most impressive examples of Arab architecture, but has also maintained an enchanting Andalusian touch. A typical maze of alleyways, it is home to several hotels, restaurants, cafes — and dainty tourist shops that I absolutely fell in love with.
A leisurely stroll in search of a good cup of tea took us on cobbled pathways, and into narrow, winding streets. Lined up in these were dainty, whitewashed houses with exquisite flowers growing out of magnificent balconies, and some true artisans basking in the sun as they worked their hands to make crafts.
Cordoba cannot be enjoyed unless one has read up its past, for the city has enjoyed a long, glorious period of eminence in history.
The city spent centuries under Roman occupation, and many vestiges of that period are still noticeable. The elegantly-arched Puerto Romano (Roman bridge) over the Guadalquiver River, and the remains of a temple, probably one of the most important ones in the city, are extremely popular amongst tourists. In fact, besides offering some fabulous views of the Mezquita, the Roman bridge also remains a significant waterway of Spain.
The Visigoths of Germany took over Cordoba from the Romans. The Moors from North Africa in turn defeated them in the eighth century. They ruled the city for the next four centuries, initially as a Muslim emirate, but eventually as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate.
During this period, Cordoba developed into one of the most advanced cities of world. It became into a beacon of learning, as well as a great cultural, political and economic center – at a time when the rest of Europe was in darkness, so to speak.
Hakam II, the second ruler of the Caliphate is credited for the capital’s unparalleled ethnic, cultural and religious harmony during his tenure. He ensured that the Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in peace.
A learned man, he also ordered the translation of several ancient Greek and Latin works, earning the title of a patron of knowledge in the Muslim world. Ground-breaking achievements were made, in the areas of Mathematics, Medicine and Astronomy. Famous thinkers from this period, such as Ibn Massara and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and the Jewish Mosheh bin Maimoon (Maimonidea), the most prolific scholar of Torah, eventually helped usher medieval Europe into the renaissance.
In its prime, Cordoba had more than 3000 mosques, and the largest library in the world, said to have housed 400,000 to 1,000,000 volumes. These books were purchased and painstakingly brought from Baghdad, Basra, Kufa, Damascus, Cairo, Makkah and Madinah.
Sadly, this precious, priceless collection was destroyed — not in the Spanish Inquisition — but long before that; Al-Mansur, a subsequent Muslim ruler who was ultra-orthodox, deemed the library useless, full of ‘ancient science’ books, and ordered that they be burnt.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba dates back to this Caliphate, with expansion work carried out in four stages lasting two centuries to give the world the most adept form of Moorish architecture.
We set out to see the Mezquita-Catedral early morning, crossing over from our hotel into the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Orange Trees). It was here that the worshippers washed at the fountain before entering the mosque, but of course that was before it was consecrated and converted into a cathedral.
The incongruity of the situation is striking – there is a church inside the mosque. But despite the fact that many inhabitants of Cordoba refer to it as the Mezquita, the former Grand Mosque is a Christian place of worship – where mass is held, and which accommodates a cathedral nave right in its center.
It has several chapels with pictorial depictions and statues of events and people, and a bell tower (exquisitely splendid on its own) that has taken place of the former minaret. In fact, it was the pealing of the bells that woke me early morning – not the muezzin’s call for prayer.
So I, for one, had no such longing as is exhibited by some over-zealous Muslims, to sneak two Rakahs of prayer in there. Let’s face it – this grand monument of Islamic history has been handed over, albeit unwillingly, to the Christians. And while I was willing to mull over the reasons behind the decline and downfall of Muslim rule here, I refused to get carried away and long to pray in a Cathedral.
In fact, it is perhaps the mosque’s conversion into a church that has allowed it to withstand the ruthless destruction of Islamic heritage in other parts of Spain. Even Al Hambra, the jewel of Granada, stood pillaged and plundered for centuries after the Christian takeover, before foreigners and historians emphasized the importance of preserving the architecture.
The new rulers were indeed not very magnanimous towards the city’s Muslim and Jewish inhabitants; forced conversions were followed by the latter’s eventual expulsion from Spain.
As I walked into the vast prayer hall of the Mezquita, I was stunned into silence by the forest of nearly-900 red and white onyx and marble pillars supporting double-arches, arranged so cleverly as to run in complete symmetry.
The richly-gilded mihrab is a domed shrine, and still a masterpiece of art, with intricate Quranic verses, and designs of plants and flowers carved into mosaic. But somehow, it seemed less grand when compared to the oddly protruding (in the otherwise flat structure), but nevertheless exquisite, and extremely central chapel nave built in Renaissance style, along with a dense Baroque choir.
It was bitterly cold, and a strange morose gripped me as I stood inside. The darkness only added to my gloom, for the windows of colored glass that let in sunlight in the past are now sealed, making room for windowless chapels on all four sides of the rectangular building.
Shivering as I walked out, I sat in the courtyard for a while. I rubbed my hands to warm them, or perhaps I was just wringing them in despair – for I so wanted to relive the three centuries that saw Cordoba at its zenith, with the Mezquita as the central focus of the city.
In the afternoon, we had a visit scheduled to Madinat al-Zahra, the archaeological remains of the Arab-Muslim palace-city just a few kilometers away from Cordoba.
Built at the foothills of the Sierra Morena range, the various constructions of this complex show a hierarchical arrangement, with preeminence of the palace to the mosque, followed by the city.
Similarly, the three terraces that are distinguishable, show the residential areas of the Caliph on higher ground, followed by the administrative offices and houses of the viziers, and then the city proper. The tell-tale double arches supported by red and white pillars were found here too, although there was more white marble employed here.
A museum built at the edge of the site is loaded with artifacts and the story behind this palace-city.
Madinat al-Zahra flourished for just 65 years as the capital of the Caliphate. Although legend has it that it was built for a favorite concubine of Caliph Abdurrehman III, the city was probably more an assertion of power and status at a time when the Umayyad Caliphate was at loggerheads with the fast-rising Fatimid dynasty.
In less than a century, however, the beautiful city lay plundered and abandoned, as a change of rulers saw the shifting of the capital back to Cordoba. Excavation work did not begin until 900 years later.
In the 12th century, when all but Granada were left in the hands of the Muslims, Ibn A-Khatib, the famous Spanish poet who enjoyed much fame in the Moorish royal courts, wrote:
Generous are the clouds, if they should shed tears
For the past ages which link us to Andalusia.
This link can now be only in a dream, which cheers,
In sleep, or in a fleeting deceit or idea.
These, alas, were my thoughts exactly as we ended our journey to trace the remnants of Muslim architecture and heritage. While there was an abundance of exquisite architectural wonders of the Arab times sprawled all over the Andalusia region, much has indeed been lost forever.