Cordoba, Spain – where three cultures flourished

A 45-minute ride on the comfortable AVE fast train separates Seville from Córdoba (or Cordova, in English). The train follows the route of the Guadalquivir River, the only navigable river in Spain, and cuts through rural and agricultural lands that are said to be the most fertile in Spain.

The great artery of Andalusía, in medieval times the Guadalquivir was the dividing line between the Arab-occupied Al Andalus (hence Andalusia) in the south, and the Christian kingdoms in the north. The area was the stage of countless wars and bloody conflicts between Muslims and Christians for centuries, but looking out from my train window, in February of 2020, it was hard to imagine that turbulent time – all I could see were rolling hills covered with orange trees on all sides, extending all the way down to the river.  

Reasons to go to Cordoba:

  1. The Great Mosque of Cordoba, the Mezquita-Cathedral
  2. The Jewish quarter (Juderia)
  3. The history & culture
  4. The food
  5. The patios
  6. The Synagogue
  7. The Calahorra Tower
  8. The Sephardic Museum 
  9. The Arab Baths
  10. The Moorish architecture
Cordoba seen from the Calahorra tpwer

Córdoba was once the capital of Islamic Spain and Western Europe’s largest and most cultured city. During the time it was occupied by Muslim Arabs from North Africa, the Moors (711 to 1492 AD), Córdoba even surpassed Constantinople as Europe’s most sophisticated center. It had 70 libraries and over 300 public baths, running water and street lights. It rivaled Damascus and Baghdad, cities of great economic and intellectual prosperity in the Islamic world at the time.

As an important place for education and learning, Córdoba attracted artists, philosophers and scientists. The Córdoba Caliphate (929 to 1031 AD) was more advanced and civilized than anything else the world had ever seen. That was also a time of religious tolerance, when Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted peacefully. Historians today speak of that Córdoba with admiration – it was a magnificent city with lakes and parks, grand mosques and enormous palaces. In the words of a visiting German in the 10th century, ‘Cordoba is the ornament of the world’.

Cordoba viewed from the Mezquita tower

Although this golden era happened more than 1000 years ago, enough of ancient Córdoba remains in place, which more than justifies a visit. Now a modern and prosperous city of 300,000 people, Córdoba still offers cultural depth and intensity. It’s true that the legacy of the great emirs, philosophers and scientists of the days of the caliphate far outshines the city’s current commercial and political relevance; but with history at every turn, rich Moorish architecture, great food, charming medieval houses, quaint patios and good museums – allied to low prices – a stop in Cordoba is a must to get to know Spain.

Modern-day Cordoba

Roman ruins in Cordoba

Our hotel was in the center of town, close to Roman ruins (the Romans founded Córdoba in 152 BC) and to a lively plaza – Plaza de las Tendillas – surrounded by stores, banks, trendy hotels and boutiques. The plaza, the main square and the heart of modern Córdoba, was also an easy 5-minute walk to the city’s most visited part, the medieval quarter called the Juderia – and the famous Great Mosque of Cordoba, the Mezquita.

The Mezquita at night

The Juderia (Jewish quarter)

Located in the historic center of town, the Juderia is one of Cordoba’s most visited areas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking those narrow, winding streets lined with medieval houses behind wrought-iron gates is like being transported back to the time when it was home to a prosperous Jewish community.  

The Juderia

That all ended in 1492, when a decree by the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Fernando II gave the Jews the option of either converting to Catholicism or being expelled from Spain. Those who didn’t convert had 3 months to leave, without taking any of their possessions. Most who left settled in North Africa, the Balkans, Turkey and, later, Latin America. They would never go back to Spain again. Interestingly, in 2015 Spain passed a law to atone for this brutal act, offering Spanish citizenship to those who can prove a family connection to Jews expelled from the country 523 years ago! More than 127,000 people applied.

The Juderia is a maze of narrow streets

From the 11th century, due to internal rivalries and the disintegration of Muslim power in Spain, part of the cultural success of Córdoba was lost, although it remained a center for learning. An example are the writings of philosophers Averroes and Maimónides, in the 12tn century, which had a major influence on the intellectual life of medieval Europe.

An important part of that old Cordoba, the Juderia now is a quaint and atmospheric place full of jewelry and souvenir shops, good restaurants and happy hour bars ideal to unwind after a day exploring the city. The main streets are lively, full of Gypsies selling their goods and tourists – lots of them. But walk few blocks away and the peace and quiet will make you feel like in a different century.

The Synagogue

Ruins of Cordoba’s Synagogue

Walls being restored at the old Synagogue


Sign outside the Synagogue

The Juderia is home to one of only three medieval synagogues left in Spain (the other two are in Toledo). Located on Judios Street, the exterior of the synagogue looks like a doorway to a regular house. Its interior is modest and small, but its high walls are covered with Hebrew inscriptions dating from 1350. This is the only synagogue in Córdoba that survived the centuries of Jewish persecution, and only because it was converted into the Hospital de Santa Quiteria. Later, in 1558, it became a Catholic chapel. It’s now undergoing restorations to bring it back to what it once was. This small but moving place speaks volumes about the community that once prayed there, until it was forced to leave.

Sephardic House

Sephardic Museum

Spanish Jews gave the Hebrew name “Sepharad” to the Iberian Peninsula, so descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal still call themselves Sephardi Jews. The Sephardic House (Casa Sefarad) is a small private museum with a big goal: to recover and restore the Judeo-Spanish story and identity as a fundamental part of Spanish history. Located next to the Synagogue, in the heart of the Juderia, Casa Sefarad has many smartly organized rooms that show different aspects of Jewish communal life in medieval times. 

The Inquisition room

The rooms are organized by subject: a Music Room, containing the instruments of the time; a Juderia Room, explaining and illustrating life in the community; a Jewish Festivities Room; a Synagogue Room; a Jewish Women of Córdoba Room (dedicated to great female thinkers, poets and doctors of the time); a Life Cycle Room (a collection of items that accompanied the life of Jews); and a somber Inquisition Room, a collection of original documents and illustrations of the Spanish Inquisition.

Sign in the Inquisition Room

Instituted in 1478 by Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel “to purify the people of Spain from heresy,” the Inquisition burned about 2000 Jews at the stake, and was also responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of Moriscos (Spanish Muslims who had been baptized as Catholics). By the end of the Inquisition, the original Sephardic population of Córdoba – and that of Spain – had almost completely disappeared. 

Statue of Maimonides

Maimónides

Not far from Casa Sefarad there is a statue of Moses ben Maimónides, a Jewish doctor and philosopher (1138-1204) who was a rabbi, intellectual and humanist. His works included the Mishne Torah and Guide for the Perplexed, and he was commonly known as Maimónides or by the acronym Rambam. Born in Córdoba (he died in Egypt), he became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. Also a preeminent astronomer and physician, his quote, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” is one of the best known and widely used quotes of all times. 

The Mezquita – Cathedral

Interior of the Mezquita
The Mihrab facing Mecca

Above it all in Cordoba is the mesmerizing mosque, the Mezquita – Cathedral, one of the world’s greatest Islamic buildings and a symbol of the rich culture that once flourished there.  Stepping into the prayer hall, I couldn’t help but exclaim a heartfelt “holy cow!” It’s impossible to exaggerate its beauty: an outstanding example of architecture that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, the Mezquita has an artistic and cultural synergy that transcends time.

It was built in 785 AD by prince Abd al-Rahman I, who fled Arabia at the age of 18 after his royal family was assassinated in a coup. He came to Cordoba after a dangerous journey across North Africa, and became the ruler of a city that was almost collapsing when he arrived. He brought irrigation to the region, totally transforming the landscape, and set out to rebuild the city. In four years, Cordoba was a different city, the wonder of all Al-Andalus (Andalusia). But his greatest achievement was the Mezquita: with 850 columns of marble, jasper, granite and onyx, and the size of four football fields, the Mezquita was then the largest Islamic temple in the West.

The Mezquita-Cathedral

Over the years, each Muslim ruler would add to it. In 912 AD, a new emir of Cordoba – later the first Caliph – called Abd-ar-Rahman III, made some of the most lavish additions to the mosque. Those included an elaborate Mihrab, a richly ornamented prayer niche that held a copy of the Koran and faces Mecca. The worn-down flagstones around it indicate where pilgrims used to circle it, seven times a day, on their knees. He also ordered the construction of the Maksura, a royal prayer enclosure with intricately interwoven arches and domes, created in the 960’s. The decoration of the Mihrab portal included 1600 kilograms of gold mosaic cubes, a gift from the Christian emperor of Byzantium, Nikephoras II Phokas. 

The Mezquita and the cathedral, side by side

Following the 1236 AD Christian Reconquista (Reconquest) of Córdoba by the Castillian king, the Mezquita was used as a cathedral, but remained largely unaltered for nearly 300 years. In the 16th century, Spanish King Carlos I gave authorization to the local authorities to construct a Catholic chapel and a choir, inside the mosque. Legend has it that when the king saw the result, he was horrified, exclaiming, “You have destroyed something that was unique in the world.” The cathedral occupies a small area in the center of the mosque, and it was built by Mudejar craftsmen (Muslims who stayed in Cordoba after the end of the Moorish occupation). Fortunately, its Renaissance style doesn’t clash too much with the rest of the magnificent building.  

The Mezquita-Cathedral – and its sea of red and yellow columns – needs to be taken in slowly and with care, as few monuments in the world are so overwhelming, or have so much historical meaning. It’s the only place where you can go to a Christian Mass in a mosque. Besides its overwhelming beauty, it evokes Córdoba’s golden age, and the peaceful coexistence between faiths that once existed there.  

The Royal Alcazar

Gardens of the Alcazar
The Alcazar

This military fortress and palace was used as the residence of the Christian monarchs Fernando and Isabel for eight years, while they planned and launched the conquest of Granada that happened in 1492. Built under Castillian rule in 1328, this Mudejar-style building is surrounded by splendid gardens. Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, was imprisoned in the Alcazar in 1483. For nearly 300 years, the place served as the Inquisition’s base. It was here that the Catholic monarchs first met Christopher Columbus, an unknown Genovese adventurer, who in 1486 asked them to finance his maritime plans. In 1492, with their support and money (especially the queen’s), Columbus discovered what is now called America. The rest is history.

The facade of the Alcazar

The Calahorra Tower

A maquette showing life in Cordoba under the Moors
The central market in Moorish Cordoba as shown in the Calahorra Museum

On the far side of the Roman Bridge, over the Guadalquivir river, the tower was built in 1369 to guard the entrance to Cordoba. Restored in 2008, it now houses a museum of life in Al-Andalus, with films, videos and architectural maquettes of the city’s history. It shows, in a very interesting way, the daily lives of all the people that made Córdoba the most important city in Europe in the Middle ages. On the top terrace there’s a beautiful view of the Roman bridge with the majestic city behind it. 

The cathedral was built on top of the Arab Mezquita

The Arab Baths

The main Hamman in Cordoba in the golden age, as seen in the Calahorra Tower

To end my stay in Córdoba, I chose to relax in the Hammam Banos Arabes – the town’s beautifully renovated Arab baths. It offers a massage room, many hot and cold water pools, and a room for tea, afterwards. In the quiet resting area, drinking Arab tea and tasting never-seen-before sweets, I couldn’t help thinking what a great sample of Cordoba the Banos Arabes was: at the same time a tribute to the city’s Moorish culture, and a delicious reminder of the sensuous kaleidoscope that the city once was. And, in many ways, still is.    

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