This was once the greatest city in the world!

Cordoba is Andalusia’s most precious gem… 

An hour and a half or 140 km from Seville will take you at Córdoba, the erstwhile capital of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), where you can witness intriguing remnants of its glory years that lasted from 756 to 1031. Along the road, large yellow faces of thousands of sunflowers bend joyfully towards the sun, welcoming you cheerfully, as if saying, “choose happiness”. Feel the comers of your mouth tilting up unconsciously in a broad smile as you are reminded that they crave warmth too.

Stop first at the original Muslim Alcazar, which was later converted into a castle for the Christian Kings in the 1300s. Roam the impressive mosaic halls, airy patios and original roman baths in the basement, comparing the royal abode to the Seville Alcazar…they are both grand, but worlds apart in terms of exotica. Castle walls connect four corner towers with walkways…enclosing the delightful Moorish gardens filled with ponds, fountains and aromatic plants. Here, Columbus had once sought sponsorship from Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand to embark on discovery of the New World. Gaze upon near his statue in the gardens and contemplate…this was the starting point, literally!

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Then embark on a delightful stroll through Córdoba’s old Jewish quarter., a fascinating network of atmosphere-drenched narrow lanes. Rows of whitewashed buildings deflect the hot summer sun, their walls scribbled with inky black Spanish quotes and typical andalúz phrases. Pass rows of quirky restaurants and Arabic-style tea shops. Countless inner courtyards with wells, fountains, citrus trees everywhere…those with most picturesque floral patios open them up to the public in a contest during May every year. Peek into each serene, outdoor oasis behind elaborate ironwork gates…roses, geraniums, and jasmine spilled down whitewashed walls.

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Centuries back, fountains played and caged birds sang in these mini-paradises…not much has changed since then! Men strum guitars on folding chairs in corners…oblivious to the your inquisitive eyes and clicking cameras…lost in their own music, light fingers flying unthinkingly over the strings. Square metal signs indicate historic homes and stone bumpers on street corners protected buildings against reckless drivers. Smooth river-stone cobbles carpet the lanes with drains running down their middle. Córdoba at its peak was home to an estimated 100,000 people, when no other European city exceeded 50,000…the largest and greatest city in Europe, a seat of power and enlightenment. Today, as the second largest old town in the continent, it is possibly the largest urban UNESCO protected World Heritage site in the world.

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Hidden in a small street close to La Juderia is the 13th-century Chapel of San Bartolome…a wonderful example of Mudéjar style interiors (from the Arab word mudaÿÿan, meaning ‘tamed’) and a curious blend of Christian structure and Arab decoration. Specially notable are the tiled pedestal, the geometric forms, the plastering and the Gothic vaulted ceiling, and my favourite…a  lovely midnight blue altar embedded with gold stars. Arabian nights! In complete contrast is the nearby Synagogue in Calle de los Judios…one of only three originals remaining in Spain… blank white walls and plaster work with Hebrew inscriptions and plant motifs…a very simple structure. Reflect on the approach of the two religions…and the symbolism of the place of worship itself.

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Unleash yourself for lunch at La Juderia. Pick local specialties at an old taberna…Salmorejo (cold vegetable soup made with tomatoes and sprinkled with hard-boiled egg and Serrano ham) and flamenquínes (mouthwatering pork fritters shaped like large breaded sausages). Later, browse in the pretty souvenir shops showcasing traditional crafts of leather and metal work, glazed tiles and textiles…once the roots of Cordoba’s booming economy, now desirable ‘take-me-homes’ from a foreign vacation. I satisfied myself with a large hand-painted ceramic wall plate, typical of the region…a piece of Andalusia to grace my kitchen wall. Maybe you will, too.

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And then its time for the piece de resistance…the 10th-century Great Mezquita (Mosque). Built during the time Córdoba was at its zenith, outshining Byzantium and Baghdad in science, culture and the arts…this is a magnet that draws visitors from far and wide. A classic Islamic courtyard, Patio de los Naranjos, replete with orange trees arranged in neat rows, the deep green of their foliage serving as a vibrant splash of colour against the dusty monochrome of the walls and the ground. A balustraded, tapering bell tower at the north-west corner reminds of Giralda. One of the largest mosques in the world…the huge sand-colored building measuring about 250,000 square feet seems rather undistinguished and its size is deceptively concealed by its modest height of 40 feet. No matter how many pictures you may have seen, you will be completely unprepared for the magnificence that awaits you inside!

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The vast space sprawled out in front of you, is filled with red-and-white colored giant arches resting on 856 columns made of granite, jasper and marble pillars, the alternating brick and stone, creating an unending maze-like forest of distinct red and white striped trees. The bottom half of the pillars is discolored…as if millions of hands had embraced them over the centuries. Sunlight streams in from windows in four cupolas above…and combined with thousands of small oil lamps, gives the red-sandstone maze a surreal glow. It is unbelievable…this structure is preserved like it has just been completed…despite four unrelated expansions since 800 AD!

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Approach the magnificent Mihrab, and you may just be overcome by a compulsion to kneel in divine prayer. The Imam’s words would once have amplified through this shell-shaped ceiling carved from a single block of marble and side chambers flashing with exquisite Byzantine gold mosaics. Hundreds of pilgrims would have crouched on their knees where the stone flagstones are worn out today. The brilliant shafts of sunlight would have filtered through the hundreds of columns, making illuminated paths along the sacred floor, travelling through all nineteen naves into the orange courtyard…until the Mosque was consecrated as a Christian Cathedral when Cordoba was re-conquered in 1236.

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As if this extraordinary vision isn’t enough, there is a bigger surprise concealed at the very heart of the monument…a great Renaissance cathedral constructed in the early sixteenth century, followed later by a royal chapel, nave, pulpits and choir in Gothic style. This is no ordinary cathedral…its imposing high altar and elaborate gothic ceiling are a picture of pure splendour.

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I stood in the centre of the cathedral, gazing at the renaissance walls on either side blend into the neighbouring Islamic arches. Then, moving to one side, I placed one foot on the cathedral floor and the other on the floor of the mosque, imbibing the experience of the shared space and shared history of two religions. Both originated from Judaism and now were like competing siblings, struggling for world supremacy. On this spot, though, their contrasting ideologies appear to co-exist peacefully…the low building of the mosque symbolising submission to Allah; and the soaring church indicating pursuit of heaven. Try it. Close your eyes and feel the space. And trap thus unreal vision in your heart and mind. Forever.

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84 thoughts on “This was once the greatest city in the world!

  1. I was there about five years ago and it was charming. One tip: the Mezquita is normally about 10 euro per person, but certain days it’s free until about 10:00 a.m., because they have to let people in for the (Catholic) church services. Would-be travelers should google this themselves, to confirm what days and the exact time. Once you’re in, you can stay as long as you like.

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  2. I have been wanting to go to Spain for awhile, we considered living there this spring but that fell through. I would love to visit all of these incredible attractions you’ve shared in this post! I especially love the Chapel of San Bartolome’s architecture!

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  3. I am thinking Dorn from Game of Thrones as I read this. Ok, upping my intellect a little. Spain, especially Moorish Spain seems more African than European. It makes you wonder what would have happened if Hannibal won? What would Pax Catharana look like? Instead, we just get glimpses and whispers of a possible past echoing down the streets of Cordoba like music from an old guitar.

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  4. You’re right! The Great Mezquita definitely seems like the highlight of a trip to Cordoba. I can’t believe all the detail and artistry that went into it. I’m sure your photos don’t even do it justice.

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  5. I’m am so excited to read your article on Cordoba. My husband and I will be there in a few months. We are walking the Camino (500 miles!) then road tripping through Spain and Portugal spending a few nights in Cordoba. Cannot wait!!

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  6. Cordoba is an area of Spain with such fascinating history because of where it sits at a cultural crossroads. I love the mix of religions and how different cultures show themselves in the architecture and the food. It’s definitely a part of Europe on my list to explore.

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  7. It looks gorgeous! Its really interesting to read about how you really immersed yourself into Cordoba and its culture there. I can feel the passion behind these words for Cordoba. You convinced me to visit Cordoba in the future. I love seeing the history and the ancient buildings.

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  8. I have to admit, Cordoba is one of my favorite Spanish cities. Like your photos show, it’s so beautiful. People really care about decorating and keeping it nice. I love the shot of the planters on the wall and think it’s indicative of the local spirit. Oh, and yes, great sites to see, too!

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  9. I have loved the parts of Spain I have seen, but haven’t been to Cordoba yet. I will probably get back to Spain in the coming 12 months so shall look forward to trying to see if I can include Cordoba.

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  10. I had no idea how massive Cordoba used to be, and so powerful. It’s funny because even though it is such an important place historically, I know very few people who have actually been there (including me!)! Next time I’m in Spain I will definitely (and finally) check it out!

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  11. What a hidden gem! I love find places like this to roam, and the architecture is beautiful. It’s especially exciting to see both Islamic and Christian places of worship coexist in this way – I’d really love to visit!

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  12. That’s cool that it is one of the largest urban UNESCO protected World Heritage sites in the world! I love the architecture, all the the bright colors and patterns, and the contrast between the Islamic and Christian places of worship. Would be such a cool old town to explore sometime!

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  13. Spain is always a great tease for me. So far from my home and so much I would live to see there in the future, like the gorgeous buildings, fascinating cities and of course football. It looks as though Cordoba can be added to a city I need to see.

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  14. The Spanish always knew how to make things amazingly beautiful! The first few pictures look like a palace fit for a queen. The detail in the pool…I would love to have that in my own backyard haha. A girl can dream.

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  15. I am reminded of my walk there. The only monument in the world probably where both muslims and Christians have offered prayers. Loved your clear pictures, I was struggling because of low light.

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  16. Cordoba seems like a fascinating city. I had no idea it was so historically important. It must be very interesting to go there and see Muslim and Christian architecture side by side. I hope to go one day and see the mosaics myself.

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  17. The castle looks so amazing. Particularly the intricate work all over. Cordoba definitely looks like it would have been the king of places in an era. But I was unaware of it’s historical importance. Such a journey!

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  18. This is such a gorgeous place. I am most fascinated by the Muslim Alcazar and the Jewish Quarters. The latter definitely has a lot of unusual things that help know more about the culture. WOuld love to walk through that .

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