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In its heyday, this was the most splendid city of Moorish Spain, equal in wealth to Cairo and Baghdad. It attracts visitors mainly for its Mezquita (mosque), its narrow streets and its perfectly Andalusian atmosphere. Population: 240,000. Today it is mainly an agricultural city, surrounded by well-watered farms and orchards. It sits on the river Guadalquivir, the same river that flows through Seville. (Guadalquivir comes from the Arabic meaning "big river".)

You will always have a guide in Córdoba. The chances are you will be spending no more than a couple of hours in the city, either en route between Seville and Madrid or between Seville and Granada. It is long enough. The Mezquita takes up the majority of the tour, which generally ends with a little stroll through some of the nearby streets of whitewashed houses, such as the Callejón de las Flores or the Calle del Pañuelo. If the group is interested and you have time you might take a slightly longer route through the streets of the Judería, including Maimonides' house and the artisanal shops of the old zoco or Islamic marketplace. Generally, allowing 30 or 40 minutes free time to shop at the end of the tour tends to satisfy. Córdoba is marred by an excess of really tawdry tourist shops (plastic bulls that sing "Viva España" when you squeeze them etc.), and the thrill of them quickly palls.

Entering Córdoba  The coach generally parks on the Avenida de la Confederación by the Puente Romano across the river Guadalquivir from the Mezquita. (If you have a group of resolute non-walkers you can ask the driver to drop you off by the Triunfo and Puerta del Puente, as long as you are sure of the rendezvous time and place. It takes 5 minutes to walk from here to the centre. There is some stuff to point out on the way. At the beginning of the bridge is the Torre de la Calahorra, built in 1369 by King Pedro of Castile when he was laying siege to Córdoba (by then a Christian city). It is now a museum tracing the history of the Córdoba Caliphate. The bridge itself, rebuilt by the Moors in the C8, is composed of 16 arches which still stand on the original Roman foundations. The statue in the middle of the bridge, dating from 1651, is of the Archangel Raphael, patron saint of the city. The ruined buildings sitting on the island in the river to the left are the Molinos del Guadalquivir, mills which are almost as old as the Mezquita. The mill closest to the bridge had a giant wheel, still visible, for carrying water to the Alcázar. The rtiumphal archway at the end of the bridge was built in 1571 for the entrance of Felipe II into the city on the site of the old Moorish town gate. Next to it is a tall column dedicated to the Archangel Raphael. A gilded statue stands on top. Three figures are seated at the bottom, two of them being the first Christian martyrs in Córdoba, killed under the persecution ordered by Emperor Diocletain. The column was built between 1765 and 1781. You are now facing the austere south wall of the Mezquita.

A Little History  In the C8 or C7 B.C., a small settlement stood here on the banks of the Guadalquivir River. Olive growing and olive-oil making was the main activity. The name of the city probably comes from corteb, oil mill. The Romans captured it from the Carthaginians, who had settled here to get at the mineral wealth of the surrounding mountains. The Romans called the city Corduba; it was the most important town in the region of Baetica. The Roman philosopher Seneca was born here, as was Lucan. A fearful battle took place just outside the city: Julius Caesar defeated the army of Pompey in a battle that left 22,000 soldiers dead.

Córdoba under the Moors  In 711 the city was occupied by the Moors, who held it 500 years until 1236. Its agricultural and mineral wealth, and the convenience of the Guadalquivir River for transport, made Córdoba a valuable asset to the Moors, and the city quickly rose in fame. It became the capital of the Moorish land of Al Andalus (hence, "Andalucía") in 719. By the C10 the city had reached a level of prosperity unheard of in Christian Europe. There was a university, a great library with 400,000 books, scores of public baths, 300 mosques, 26,000 buildings, 8,000 shops, and a population of a million (four times today's). Art, literature, and philosophy flourished. The Moorish philosopher Averroes taught here, as did the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Algebra was developed for the first time. Marble was imported from other parts of Spain to build mosques, and cedars of Lebanon were brought in for ceilings (a Moorish speciality).

Decline  Squabbles and intrigues broke out among the Moorish rulers. The original Arab population in Spain had largely died out, to be replaced by the rougher Berbers. The people of Córdoba, lulled into decadence by their prosperity, could not maintain their political independence. The victory of the Christian forces at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) sealed Córdoba's doom. The city fell to King Ferdinand III in 1236.

The Mezquita  This is the great mosque which was the largest in the world when it was built at the end of the C10.

Origins  A Roman temple to the god Janus used to stand here. After the Christianisation of Spain, it was rededicated to St. Vincent. From 711 to 748 (i.e. even after the Arab conquest of the city), it continued to be used for Christian worship. Then the Christians and Moslems shared the building, the former using one half, the latter the other! In 785, the Moors purchased the right to use the whole building, and extensive alterations and additions were made. The Moorish king, Abd al-Rahman, determined to make it the most splendid mosque in the world, and he succeeded. Even after the Christian Reconquest, the people of Córdoba insisted that this treasure be preserved; they re-consecrated it to the Virgin. When Charles V, centuries later, gave permission for a chapel to be placed right inside the mosque, the townspeople protested bitterly, even threatening the lives of workmen.

Exterior  It looks more like a fortress than a mosque on the outside: high battlements, rough stones, and thick walls. But the Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of the Orange Trees) gives you a glimpse of the beauty and luxury of the setting in Moorish times. The patio was the sahn (ablutions courtyard) of the mosque with three fountains for the ritual washing of the feet. Originally, the trees were not orange trees but palm trees, creating a forest of natural arches.

Interior  A forest of columns: some 850 of them, many salvaged from Roman buildings in Gaul (France), Spain, and Africa. (The Moors used to do this a great deal. Columns were expensive and difficult to make; why do it yourself when you could cannibalize Roman temples and villas?) You can tell that the columns are cannibalized if you look closely: they don't match! The most striking feature of the arches supported by the columns is that they're painted red and white, resembling a candy-cane. Precious and semi-precious stones like onyx and jasper are used for decoration. The ceiling is carved cedar. Four thousand bronze and copper lamps illuminate the interior; they were from church bells carried here from Santiago de Compostela when that city fell to the Moors. The "holy of holies" is the mihrab, the shrine of gold and crystal where the Koran was kept. This shrine is an 8-sided niche large enough for about 10 people to stand in. Pilgrims used to go around it seven times on their knees (the stone floor has been worn in places). The niche is designed in such a way that by merely whispering, you can project your voice out through the mosque like a microphone. Why the pilgrims? By making a pilgrimage to this mosque, Moors could avoid making the longer pilgrimage to Mecca — a privilege given to very few Moslem shrines. You'll notice a dazzling mosaic in the vestibule in front of the shrine: it was a gift of the (Christian) King of Byzantium.

Cathedral  The building as a whole is the "cathedral" of Córdoba, but the only part that actually looks like one stands right in the center. It's an awkward-looking chapel built by the Emperor Charles V (16th century) in a rich Baroque style. The clash between the two types of architecture illustrates the uneasy co-existence of Christian and Moorish elements in Spanish culture.

Surroundings of the Mezquita  Quaint streets wander off in several directions, lined with whitewashed houses with wrought-iron balconies on which are hang palm fronds left over from Holy Week. On one of these streets is an old synagogue where the C12 Jewish philosopher Maimonides used to worship. The Andalusian houses have typical leafy patios, where dozens of flower pots are hung on the walls, and watered with long poles. Callejon de las Flores, Callejon del Pañuelo.


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