In a City called Olissipo

Lisbon, Portugal
January 9, 2018

The mosaic pavements, slick storefronts, hum of traffic and rattle of streetcars may make Lisbon appear a modern European capital but it has roots that stretch far back. Arguably among the oldest cities of Europe, second only to Athens, this city has its beginnings among the Celts. The spacious natural harbor attracted Greek and Phoenician trading posts as far back as 1200 BC and they, in turn, were quickly followed by a long stream of others – Carthagians, Romans, Visigoths and the Moors.

It lay firmly in the hands of the Moors until 1147 AD, when after a long siege of the castle atop its hill by Afonso I, it returned to Christian rule and remained so. The rise of the Portuguese empire in the fifteen and sixteenth centuries saw wealth from its colonies pouring into Lisbon, gilding the capital. But like all other ancient lands, it has seen more than its fair share of anarchy, bloodshed, natural disasters and the dubious distinction of the longest dictatorship in the world.

The lean years of the recent past are history today as Portugal re-surfaces again. The massive funds from the European Community are put to good use as Lisbon’s buildings get much-needed facelifts. There are problems aplenty still, but its neighborhoods slowly emerge into the twenty first century with fresh new faces.

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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.

Alhambra

Granada, Spain

December 24, 2015

The white-washed sprawl of Albaicin staggers up along the slopes and above it all is the brooding red-stoned hulk of the Alhambra. Built by the Nasrid emirate, it is a sprawling complex of a palace and fortress.

At sunrise and sunset when it appears to glow, it is easy to appreciate its name – so called because of the red colour of the stone. Originally started by Mohammad Ibn Yusif Ibn Nasr, it was added onto over the years and it was here that the emirate ruled for some two hundred and fifty years. The two centuries of artistic and scientific splendor that peaked during the reign of Yusuf I and Mohammad V in the 14th century shows itself in the elaborate design of the complex.

High walls with battlements and towers with arrow slits stand guard. Inside the walls stand the various buildings, the grandest being the Nazari palace. Like all Islamic architecture, it is built in the form of vast rectangular spaces, one leading into another in a veritable maze. There are open courtyards in between with lavish fountains and channels of water that trickles in a complicated geometry. Rectangular pools laid out with rigid attention to geometry reflect elaborate arched entryways with their multi-faceted muquarnas. The cavernous halls sport ceilings, some more than ten meters in height and each is made of inlaid pieces of wood in intricate patterns. The geometric patterns, so typical of Islamic art are sometimes made of thousands of little pieces put together painstakingly.

Visited by an astounding two million tourists each year, it is beautiful certainly and fully deserving of all accolades. But somehow it fails to generate the feeling of jaw-dropping awe in me. I keep thinking of the mausoleums and mosques I saw in Iran not so long ago. In both antiquity and beauty this feels like a distant cousin.