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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I was shocked to see graves under my feet

Tombs on cathedral floors…

I craned my neck to marvel at the grandeur of the Gothic 225-feet high western twin towers of the 700-year old Westminster Abbey. Steps away, across the road, were the stately Big Ben and the illustrious Houses of Parliament. It was difficult to decide which was more impressive…London’s premier worship portal or the political powerhouse.

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