Getting to Know You Córdoba

Community Highlights Europe Getting to Know You Córdoba

What to say about our week in Córdoba? On a practical level, it was great to be able to do a laundry! But once that was done, we set out to discover this incredible place. I will cover the “bigger things” we did in this post and other things in a subsequent post.


If we don’t have the sea, we like towns with rivers flowing through them and bridges to traverse. It gives them some definition and one side is usually quite different than the other. Córdoba was built where the largest river in Andalucia, the Guadalquivir was no longer navigable. It was founded as a Roman settlement in 164 BC and 200 years later was as glorious as Rome, the Imperial capital.


The fall of the Roman Empire that coincided with the height of the Visigothic culture and the arrival of the Moors to Spain in in 711 made Córdoba the most magnificent city in the known world. The Great Mosque of Córdoba was built in 785-786 with later expansions. In the 10th and 11th C, Córdoba was one of the most advanced cities in the world, culturally, politically, financially and economically. It was a centre of learning and at one point had over 80 libraries and institutes of learning. An estimated 60,000 people lived in 11th C Córdoba. It now has a population of about 350,000. Córdoba became the object of a bloody civil war between Moorish factions and finally, as occurred elsewhere in Spain, in 1236, the Christian army led by the King of Castile took Córdoba and the Mosque, and the most important monument of the Spanish-Muslim culture was consecrated it as a Christian temple.

Later, a Cathedral was built in the centre of the Mosque, which is what makes it such a unique and dramatic building today. The following centuries saw great development according to the Christian aesthetics. Córdoba became an agricultural and artistic centre, 19th C writers and travellers discovered it and baroque churches and palaces were built.

In Córdoba, the very muddy Guadalquivir River has two bridges spanning it - Puente Nuevo that we rode over into Cördoba and the Puente Romano. From the river, you see the walls and Moorish architecture of the Mosque-Cathedral with the Puente Gate leading you to it on the right bank of the river with the nearby Triumph of Saint Raphael monument, San Rafael being the guardian angel of Córdoba and also occupying a place on the Puente Romano.


We walked over the Puente Romano several times, during the day and a night when it is lit by lanterns. I love walking in the old cities at night, when there are fewer people about and you can feel the weight of time and the ghosts of the centuries. This bridge was originally built in the 1st C by the Romans and the Via Augusta, connecting Cádiz with Rome, most likely passed over it. But bridges being typical targets of destruction in conflicts, much of the present structure actually dates from the Arab reconstruction in the 8th C. with the arches being typical of Islamic architecture. With additional restorations and expansion in subsequent centuries, the bridge was completed restored between 2006-2008 with a budget of 13.6 million euros, not apparently without controversy as the appearance was substantially altered.


Regardless, it’s a beautiful pedestrian bridge to walk over and from it you can see the old water mill, the Alboafia, that may have Roman foundations but was a common feature of the Islamic world. Four Roman mills are believed to have been built here, connected to a weir that controlled the water and directed it to mills. This mill brought water from the river to the city and the Alcázar, the royal palace. On the sunny day when we walked closer to the mill, we noticed that feral cats were using the slats of the water wheel as sunny, safe places to sleep.


On the old town side of the bridge, just below the walls of the Mosque-Cathedral is the 16th C Renaissance Puenta del Puente or Gate of the Bridge, built on the site of the previous Roman gates that linked the city with the Roman bridge and the Via Augusta. You can walk along the river from here in both directions.


I had read that you could visit the Mosque-Cathedral, the biggest attraction in Córdoba, free Mondays to Saturdays between 8:30-9:30 am. While I don’t object to paying admission to these huge edifices that cost a lot to maintain, I thought we might avoid the tour groups that I find so obnoxious in that they take up a lot of space, are oblivious to other people trying to get by and they are loud. However, I thought it might be a busy time. We had a nice early morning walk to the entrance and were happy to find that we were waiting with a small group of people for the doors to be opened.
The street sides of the walls display a variety of beautiful doors topped with decorative horseshoe arches.


It was a perfect time to visit this astounding space as we were able to see it almost empty. However, we only had one hour and while you could see into the inner Cathedral from three sides, you could not go in and sit on the benches as it is being readied for Mass. Apparently, a good time to go is 2 hours before closing time and a night time visit when the interior is dramatically lit is very worthwhile. I am sorry we did not get a chance to do that.

This is a structure that has been built and expanded over centuries, with the original mosque being built between 785 and 988 AD by the lone survivor of the Umayyad royal dynasty in Syria when it was overthrown there. Abd Al Rahman was only 19 when he fled Syria, eventually reached Spain, conquered Córdoba and became the first Emir of Arab Spain. Thirty years into his rule, he began construction of the Great Mosque on the foundations of a 6th C Roman church. The Mosque grew under 4 expansions, the last in 987. In 1236, Córdoba fell to the Christian forces of Ferdinand III of Castile in what is called the Reconquista. Fortunately, instead of destroying the Mosque, Ferdinand added chapels and then 3 1/2 C. later, a monumental Gothic cathedral was built into the centre of the Mosque and that is what you see today, this bizarre and gorgeous mix of Islamic and Catholic-Christian architecture and art.

The ‘forest’ of red and white striped, double-stacked arches is mesmerizing as you walk through the Mosque, and there is all the delicate lacy carved stone, the Byzantine mosaics and the different columns scavenged from other Roman, Byzantine and Visigoth structures.


Then there is the Gothic cathedral in the middle with its over-the-top Catholic baroque decoration, and the especially beautiful ceiling. There are also many elaborately decorated chapels, over 50 I think, representing the evolution of art in Córdoba over the centuries. around the walls. I must say I found the Islamic architecture and decoration much lighter and more restful with its omission of the human form anywhere, compared with the Christian dark and torturous human images and excessive layers upon layers of ornamentation and ostentatiousness gilding. You admire the workmanship but it is the opposite of life-affirming to me.


We exited the Mosque into the Patio de los Naranjos, one of the oldest walled gardens of the Islamic world that exists today, filled with oranges trees, palms and fountains. Within this very large landscape is the 17th C Christiana Tower built over the remains of the Arab minaret, topped with another St Raphael sculpture. We did not go up the Tower (200 steps) though it would have great views.


We also did not visit the medieval Alcázar de los Reyes Christianos or the Castle of the Christian Monarchs which was one of the primary residences of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. The palace, baths and gardens were constructed by the Arab rulers and then after the Reconqista, the present day structure was built in the Mudéjar (Spanish Islamic) style. The Spanish Inquisition used the Alcázar as one of its headquarters in 1482, converting much of it, including the Arab baths into torture and interrogation chambers. Christopher Columbus had his first audience here with the Catholic Monarches, Isabella and Ferdinand and it served as a garrison for Napoleon’s troops in 1810. I particularly regret not seeing the extensive gardens here which were first established in the 10th C. I think we were running out of steam a bit for monumental sites.

Just to round out the religious history, we came upon the Cördoba Synagogue one night as we were wandering through the old Jewish quarter. Built in 1315, it is very small, with high curved windows below a beautiful wood ceiling, and walls and horseshoe arches decorated in the delicate carved stone of the Mudéjar tradition, just as we saw in the Mosque-Cathedral. It is thought to have been the synagogue of a wealthy family or a study hall but it is one of only 3 synagogues remaining in Spain - the other 2 are in Toledo) - and the only one left in Andalusia after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. The Jewish history in Spain was not something I knew much about. The realization what a terrible and thorough purge this was adds to my understanding of the longing for a homeland that Jewish people feel. This synagogue has been restored after many other uses, including as a hospital for people suffering from rabies and in 1935, the first Jewish prayer service in 443 years to occur openly and with the full knowledge of authorities was held there. In Spain, so many layers of conquest and destruction.


This featured blog entry was written by Jenniferklm from the blog Cycling in Andalucia.
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By Jenniferklm

Posted Sun, Mar 17, 2024 | Spain | Comments