We’ve spent a couple of days in Cordoba, which was for a long time the capital of Andalusia. The history of Cordoba is in many ways the history of Spain. Every major group in the country’s history has played some part here, and left their mark on this rich, and interesting city.
Although the Iberian peninsula has been inhabited for hundreds of thousands of years, it has been a constant target for colonization. The earliest of these efforts were by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Carthaginians, but it was the Romans who left the greatest standing evidence of their presence. They arrived after defeating the Carthaginians in the 2nd Punic War around the 2nd Century B.C.
Cordoba is second only to Rome in the number of gladiatorial monuments found and it is believed that this was the location of the Iberian gladiatorial school. Today there is still abundant evidence of the Romans’ presence with the Temple of Diana, Roman bridge, theater site, beautiful Roman mosaics and other artifacts. Many of these can be seen around town, but the Archaeological Museum’s lower floor includes a section of the old theater which is brought to life by some excellent 3D models shown in short movie segments.
As Rome’s influence faltered, tribes from Northern Europe filled the vacuum, and in Spain’s case the Visigoths came to town by the 5th Century. Initially they were of a tolerant Christian faith called Arianism and Jews (who had arrived with the Romans or earlier) generally got along well under the early Visigoths. Later, the Visigoths became Catholic and more conservative and started a long succession of anti-Jewish laws and practices. They built their Gothic churches and incorporated decorative elements that were extensions of Roman designs, such as Corinthian pillars and mosaic flooring.
Some believe that the biblical Tarshish, where Jonah goes to escape the word of God, was in fact Spain. This would put Jews in the Iberian province quite early, but they certainly were here with the Romans, initially as free traders and farmers. and later in larger numbers as part of the diaspora after Rome sacked Jerusalem.
The Visigoths had treated the Jews so badly the they likely aided the Moors in their invasion. Tin there is evidence in places such as Cordoba that once the Moors had conquered the town, they left it in the caretaking of a Jewish and Moorish force, or sometimes solely in the hands of the Jews. The Visigoths had broken down politically, which created the opportunity for the Moors to invade early in the 8th Century.
Initially Moorish Spain was run as an Emirate under the control of Damascus, but eventually in the 11th century, they established their own Caliphate of Al Andalus, headquartered in Cordoba. The grand mosque, or Mezquita in Cordoba was expanded by successive rulers until it became a huge complex of 850 arches and pillars. The mosque was a tangible symbol of the might, artistry, and culture of the Caliphate. Notably, the mosque was sited over the remains of a former Visigoth church, and a small section of that church’s mosaic flooring can be seen today.
Jews fortunes ebbed and flowed during Moorish times. The most famous Jew from Cordoba is Moses Maimonides, or the Rambam, a Torah scholar, doctor, and community leader. His family fled Cordoba in 1148 when he was about 13 to Fez, Morocco. He eventually ended up as the court doctor in Egypt and was an astounding philosopher, writer, sage, and rationalist.
Cordoba is one of the few places where you can find historic synagogues in Spain. Depending on what you read, Toledo, Madrid, and Barcelona also have old synagogues, but there are other places with synagogues such as Segovia, and Seville. Most were converted to churches or other uses and leave little or nothing to be seen today, but the Cordoban synagogue from 1315 is restored and you can get some idea of its former magnificence.
Like the Muslim ideal of a Qabba, the shul is almost a perfect cube with an upstairs gallery for the women on one side. The remaining decorations are incredibly beautiful and as intricate as any other Moorish designs we’ve seen.
Nearby is a private museum called The Sephardic House which displays aspects of daily secular and religious life of the Jews of Spain. One of the more unusual items was a goatskin that had on it supplications for Yom Kippur. Never seen anything like it before, but it is apparently a tradition from North Africa. Also learned about something called “Mimouna”, another tradition from Morocco, which is held the day after Pesach and is a celebration of returning to eating chametz.
As civil strife broke out amongst the later Caliphs, Cordoba’s moorish power waned. After the Christian reconquest of Cordoba in 1236, the Mezquita became a church, actually a Cathedral, so today what you see is a Christian church right in the middle of what appears to be a mosque. The Mihrab (niche) is still intact and magnificently decorated. However along most of the rest of the outer walls, the space has been turned over to small Christian chapels. In today’s literature of the Mezquita, the church make it a point that this was originally the site of a Visigoth Church and essentially state that they were just restoring the site to its original use by erecting their cathedral in the midst of the Caliph’s mosque.
Hygeine was very important to the Moors. Outside any mosque, even today, you will find fountains, troughs, etc. for the faithful to wash before their prayers. At the Mezquita, these sorts of cleaning apparatus exist in the courtyard of the mosque. But, the Moors also built many “baths” for purposes of hygiene as well as social, political, and entertainment activity.
Some sources indicate that there were likely several hundred such baths at the height of the caliphate. A short walk from the Mezquita one can visit the caliph’s baths. This is a complex of royal, public, and private baths which were powered by a boiler that blew steam into rooms through grilles and also heated under the floor and through the walls via system called a hypocaust, just like the Romans did.
The baths were elaborately decorated with arches, tiles, and skylights.
The Alcazar de los Reyes Christianos is also near the Mezquita and caliph’s baths. It was a royal fortress and has some beautiful gardens, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of visiting here was seeing the well preserved Roman mosaics that were rescued from other areas of the city.
One of the towers was known as the Inquisition tower and is notably located some distance from the rest of the buildings. You can imagine why.
Cordoba is a lovely town of beautiful winding streets and small plazas. There is very little traffic off the main roads, so it is a great city to walk. The historic district is relatively compact and we’ve enjoyed walking all around.