Layers Upon Layers

Cordoba, Spain

Decemeber 28, 2015

A long time ago in 750 AD, the Umayyuds were overthrown in distant Damascus by a rival clan called the Abbasids. But one of the surviving nobles fled to Spain and soon after established himself as an independent emir of Al Andalus. His name was Abd ar Rahman I and it was his reign that ushered in the golden age of Cordoba as well as other cities like Seville and Granada.

From the middle of eighth century to the middle of the fifteenth century the difference between northern Spain and Al Andalus in southern Spain, was as night and day. While the rest of Europe reeled under the Dark Ages, Cordoba flourished. It boasted beautiful palaces and gardens, universities where science and art, medicine and botany attracted scholars, teachers and students. Cordoba’s markets or zocos hummed with commerce. The emirate practiced an emlightened idea of religious tolerance which meant the mixed population of Christians, Muslims and Jews were allowed to practice their own religions and coexistence reigned.

On the banks of the river Guadalquivir, stood the ruins of an old Visigothic church that itself had been built on even older Roman ruins. Adding yet another layer to the remains, it was here that Abd ar Rahman I began the construction of the massive mosque that is the Mezquita. For some two hundred years, Cordoba flourished and it was during the reign of Abd ar Rahman III, in 929 AD that the city reached its peak of power. He now fashioned for himself the name of Caliph and the Caliphate of Cordoba came to be. It was the largest and most dazzling city in western Europe at that time.

The city still has vestiges of that long-ago grandeur. The Mezquita still stands – in the form of a church that is its latest metamorphosis. Yet another layer added to the ones from before. A patio of orange trees planted in rigid geometry stand like silent sentinels in the open courtyard. At one corner stands the tower, with sweeping views of the city from its top. At another corner is the entryway into the mosque. Stepping inside from the bright sunlight, my eyes take a moment to adjust and I face a veritable forest of pillars supporting an array of horseshoe arches. They bear the distinct alternating stripes of red and white of the stones that they were hewn from. The cavernous hall leads the way to the inner sanctum where lies the heart of the church now. Intricately woven pillars, lavishly decorated domes and elaborate touches makes this as important on the tourist pilgrimage as it once was for religious ones.

Indeed, it is the mixture of different architectural forms, the evidence of continual layers that is possibly the most interesting part of the monument. As it is for other equally intriguing monuments in Cordoba. Across from the Mezquita, lies a bridge across the river. Although restored, this is no new bridge – its origins lie in the misty past of the Roman age.


Just beyond the Mezquita to the west stands yet another monument of old Cordoba. A newcomer, by the standards of the Mezquita, build only in the fourteenth century by Alfobso XI, it is a fortress that started life as a palace. It is at this Alcazar that Isabel and Fernando is said to have received Christopher Columbus and entertained his idea of sailing to find India. Only he never did fins India but fouind the Caribbean and the Americas instead.

To the east and west of the Mezquita are the labyrinthine streets of old Cordoba between walls of houses that loom overhead. Most are only a meter wide and one famous street is only abojut seventy centimeters wide. Souvenir shops, taps bars, boutique hotels and restaurants line the streets now but with little effort I can imagine days of old. The hustle and bustle, the sounds and smells that this metropolis must have teemed with. Intriguing, entrancing and exciting it is to lose myself in this maze.

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