Cordoba had been an important settlement since Roman times, but it was the Moors’ conquest in 711 a.d. that transformed it into one of the world’s leading center of Islamic education and learning. By the 10th century, it had grown to be the largest city in Western Europe. Then its importance steadily declined after in was captured in 1236 by King Ferdinand III of Castile as part of the Christian Reconquista.
While a number of interesting monuments remain from its long history, from the massive first century b.c. Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir River to the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (Castle of the Christian Kings), the fortress constructed in 1328 by King Alfonso XI, one building alone is reason enough to put Córdoba on our Andalusian itinerary.
The Mesmerizing Mezquita
One of greatest works of Islamic architecture still in existence today, the Great Mosque of Córdoba (or Mezquita in Andalusian Arabic) is a unique symbol of the sophisticated culture that flourished here more than a millennium ago. It is impossible to overstate the beauty and serenity (despite the throngs of tourists) of its monumental interior.
The building consists of a forest of 865 columns of granite, marble, onyx and jasper, many of them repurposed from a Roman temple that once occupied the site, as well as other nearby monuments. The columns support soaring horseshoe-shaped double arches in perfectly symmetrical patterns to create the illusion an immense grove of palm trees. The sides of the sanctuary also include elaborately carved and gilded prayer alcoves. In its original mosque incarnation, it became the hub of Islamic community life in Al-Andalus ( as Andalusia was called then) for three centuries, serving as a teaching center and courthouse as well as a place of worship.
Although it was promptly consecrated as a Catholic church upon the Christian conquest, its basic structure was mainly unchanged even as some 40 chapels were inserted into the prayer alcoves. The main alteration didn’t occur until the 16th century when Charles V authorized the construction of a large Baroque cathedral within the center of the former Muslim prayer hall. This caused some destruction, but it also ensured the preservation of the complex. It is estimated that 70 percent of the original mosque survived.
Officially, the name of the complex is now Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption), or “Mosque-Cathedral,” although it is a Catholic church exclusively, but neither are commonly used outside of administrative circles. It is widely known as simply la Mezquita, so that in Cordoba churchgoers go the the mosque for mass.
A Royal Stronghold
With its thick defensive walls, the Alcàzar of the Christian Kings, or Alcàzar of Córdoba for short is a metaphor for the history of the Andalusia. Here, Roman, Visigoth and Moorish ruins mingle in an imposing fortress that was in turn a favorite residence of the successive rulers of the area. However, by the time Ferdinand III of Castile took the city, the former Caliphal palace was in a state of advanced deterioration. It was his successor, Alfonso X who began building the present day palace on the site of the old fortress. It went on to fulfill varied functions, from serving as one of the primary residences of Isabella I of Castile and her spouse Ferdinand II of Aragon, (15th century), headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition (16th century) and more recently as a prison (first half a the 20th century).
The most interesting feature of this blocky fortress is its small baroque chapel, now the Hall of the Mosaics, where a series of impressive Roman mosaics, discovered in the 1960’s during excavations of the nearby Corredera Square, are now displayed around the room. Beneath this hall are the Arabic-style baths divided into three rooms with vaulted ceilings with the familiar star openings.
Although Alfonso used only a fraction of the remains of the original Moorish structure in building the Alcàzar, he chose a Mujerar-style for his palace and gardens – which preserved the Moorish feel of the site.
The Gardens of the Alcázar
The gardens occupy a vast part of the palace grounds. Located on the Southwestern side of the property, it is believed that they were originally laid out by the first Islamic rulers (Abd ar-Rahman II – ruled 822-866) to complete the space destined to the Royal Harem, in a place close to the baths. The gardens were subsequently abandoned when his successor moved his residence to a countryside locations some 10 kilometers (6 miles) away, until the arrival of the Christian Kings gave them the appearance we enjoy today.
They are laid on three terraced levels. On the top terrace, two large bassins collect water routed from the nearby mountains and channel it down to the long fountain-pools flanked by cypress edges of the middle and lower terrace. On the side of the terrace closest to the fortifications wall, boxwood planted in a grid pattern provide the framework for a series of rose gardens adorned with statues of Isabella and Ferdinand – story has it that it is where they granted an audience to Christopher Columbus to hear about his project for a new route to the Indies. Despite their slightly formal layout and huge popularity with tourists, the gardens are an inviting place to wander, and my favorite part of the Alcàzar.
Just north of the Mezquita, the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba is the medieval part of the city where the thriving Jewish community lived throughout the middle ages until the 15th century. At the heart of the quarter, the synagogue, a Mudejar construction and one only three original ones remaining in Spain, is now a small museum offering a glance at the Jewish culture’s impact on Spanish history.
Today the charming tangle of narrow lanes and secret courtyards, a must on every visitor’s itinerary, has succeeded to preserve an intimate feel – so far.
Good to Know
- La Mezquita may be seen in a couple of hours – although lovers of religious art could possible spend half a day here. Opening hours, November through February, Monday through Saturday: 8:30 am to 6:00 pm – Sunday and religious holidays: 8:30 am to 11:30 am and 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm. March through October, Monday through Saturday: 10:00 am to 7:00 pm – Sunday and religious holidays: 8:30 am to 11:30 am and 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Mezquita tickets are sold on-site only. However, because the size of the site, there is no limit to the number of visitors allowed per day, and the ticket-purchase process is fast and efficient. If possible, avoid the 11:00 am to 3:00 pm time-frame as most day-tripper tour groups visit during these hours.
- The Alcàzar of Cordoba is a municipal building run with the mindset of a public office rather than a site of touristic interest. Opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 8:45 am to 3:15pm. Closed on Monday. Other than confirming the opening hours (which could vary for organizational reasons), their website is near useless. Attempts to purchase advanced tickets send you to another clumsy website. Click “on-line booking” then “monument visit” and at this point your English language option shifts to Spanglish with a strong emphasis on “Span”. You may also get error messages through the booking process but persevere – It took me many tries over several days to finally secure my two tickets. However, to my knowledge, it is the only site that will give you the option to purchase entry tickets without expensive guided tours attached. The other alternative is to show up early in the morning and hope you’ll beat the lengthy lines.