I was also drawn to Cordoba because of its history as a scholastic and scribal center as far back as the 8th century. Under Muslim rule, Spain celebrated a golden age of economic and cultural revival. Christians, Jews and Muslims worked side by side in the scribal houses, translating the world's works into their respective languages. It was among the most diverse and religiously tolerant city of its time.
My taxi drops me off at the front door of Los Patios, across the street from the Mezquita.
Los Patios Hotel and Restaurante
C/.Cardenal Herrero, 14
Tel: 1 40003-CORDOBA
What a happy little hotel! The enclosed courtyard is filled with palms and tables, with 23 fully furnished hotel rooms overlooking it from the second floor. My room is the only one with a balcony. The concierge tells me that admittance to the Mezquita is free in the morning (Sunday) and that my meals in the hotel are discounted by 10%. I take advantage of that offer by sitting down to a dish of squid in ink sauce and my first Sangria before setting out to explore the city...
Near my hotel is a horse stable and a poster advertising the equestrian festival which begins the day after I leave. The stable is locked but I find a piece of screening that had been torn away enough to be able to slip a camera through. I can just barely see the heavily vaulted ceilings and iron railings that separate the stalls.
The next street leads me through Los Patios District. The origins of these courtyards date to Roman times, when houses were built round open air 'agora's. The Moorish term is casinillo, with their additions of fountains and flowers. The photo at left is typical of the courtyards here, the owner of this one charged 50 cents to those who wanted to come in and have a look. They are almost always whitewashed, and every lateral inch is covered with potted plants and flowers, predominantly geraniums. It is cool and incredibly fragrant.
Heading north takes me into the Art Nouveau District, where the architecture is a mix of Nouveau and Deco facades. Turning a corner suddenly brings me into the stark ruins of a Roman temple dating to the 1st century.
The city of Cordoba dates back to about 160 BC, when it served as a Roman trading port. It remained a Roman city for 8 centuries. It became an Emirate in 756 and a Caliphate under Abd-ar-Rahman in 929.
I tour the Palacio de Viana, a series of twelve courtyards and a garden taking up 6,500 sq.m. of space surrounding a 14th century manor house named after the Marquises of Villaseca, who lived here until the 19th century. Among my favorites was the Courtyard of the Cats, the oldest documented community courtyard in Córdoba, known in the 15th century as the Houses of Puentezuela de Tres Caños. The Courtyard of the Orange trees was based on a Muslim model, with citrus trees and fountains. I was not able to take photos inside the palace, though I did take a few of the kitchen, including an interior water well, a version of which I would see again in the Jewish Quarter.
See more photos of Los Patios and the Art Nouveau districts here.
I cross the wide, brick paved Roman Bridge to the Museum of Three Cultures. There are buskers and a few craftsmen stationed along the bridge, and a statue of Saint Raphael, guardian angel of Cordoba. This tower at the end of the bridge hosts a museum, which begins with a 'talking wax statues' presentation, which, although interesting, was a little tedious. The rest of the museum is mostly panoramas of various aspects of Islamic life.
I finish my day with dinner at an outdoor cafe, where my lack of Spanish thwarts my efforts to order tapas. I notice the tent card on the table for pre-packaged flans, custards and ice creams, that are delivered to your table in their wrappers. I would find identical menus at nearly every restaurant I ate at here, and was amused with the concept of restaurant menus for freezer-case desserts.
Breakfast the next day is toast and pate that tasted like a spam product, peach juice and plain yogurt with a separate sugar packet, all served in individually pre-packaged servings. I share the dining space with sparrows who are scavenging crumbs from underneath the tables, and bathing in the fountain, two tables over.
Ready for my day, I walk across the street to the Mezquita. Admission is waived on Sunday mornings so locals can attend Mass. Walking through the 800+ Islamic arches with Latin liturgy echoing in the background remains one of my most memorable experiences, which I share with you at this video link.
The Mezquita was the largest mosque in the Western world, measuring almost 24,000 square meters. It was built in stages between 785 and 987 and would be considered the most important sanctuary of Western Islam. It was inspired by the Mosque of Damascus and built from materials gleaned from the 6th century San Vicente Basilica.
The original mosque was divided into two parts: an open courtyard for ablution (the ritual washing prior to prayer) and this covered hall, with a capacity for over 10,000 worshipers. The archways, built of brick and limestone, are a Visigoth influence and add structural integrity to the building. The architect was Ahd er-Rahman, who was also the first independent Emir of Andalus.
Walking from one end to the other is a tour through history, as you can discern the ages of the various naves by the differences in the columns and the structure of the arches.
The nave of Al-Hakim II was the second extension of the mosque during the late 10th century. It houses the private chapel for the Caliph, and the mihrab, the elevated pulpit where the imam delivered sermons. After the Reconquista of Cordoba by Fernando III in 1236, the Muslims were expelled and the Mezquita was consecrated as Santa Maria la Mayor, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. A large silver lamp once hung over this area, which held just over 1400 lamps containing perfumed oil. It was destroyed during the building of the Christian chapels in the 14th century.
Further destruction occurred the following century during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, when a great center portion of the mosque was destroyed to make room for the Grand Chapel. Although the Council of Cordoba issued a public proclamation to stop this work, Bishop Don Alonso de Manrique (who was in charge of the construction) petitioned King Charles I of Spain to continue, and was granted that permission. When Charles later passed through Cordoba and visited the mosque, he said "Had I known what this was, I would not have allowed it to reach the ancient part, as what you are doing is already done elsewhere, but you have undone what is unique in the world".
The Grand Chapel was finished in 1766 and remains to this day an active cathedral. The altarpiece is red Cordoban marble, paintings by Cordoban artist Palomino. The chandelier was donated in 1629, measures nearly 2 meters across and weighs close to 150 kilos, crafted by Cordoban silversmith Sanchez de la Cruz.
Guards are posted around this area during Mass to prevent tourists from taking photos. You are free to wield your cameras once prayers have concluded.
I admire the fretwork encased windows, many of which are reproductions. At the other end of the building are a number of glass cases housing artifacts ranging from Visagoth carvings, to bibles with silver fittings, and what I believe is the gearwork for a clock or chime tower, as tall as me and about 8 feet long. It's a pretty impressive clockwork.
Photos of the Mezquita can be viewed here.
It was difficult for me to leave this mosque. I leave the dark coolness of the Mezquita and step out into a brilliant sun, filtering through palms onto a hard-packed yellow clay where most public places would have either pavement or grass. I'm off to the Andalucia House...