A millennium ago, an enlightened Islamic Caliphate ruled in Western Europe. Today, the streets of Córdoba tell the story of a progressive, tolerant caliphate, that had come and gone within 100 years.


I had always wanted to explore the Moorish sites in Córdoba. Not for the colourful patios with Islamic influences, or sherry infused sauces which invigorate the dishes at local tavernas – although both are very fine. I came to uncover the story of the Caliphate of Córdoba – the only Islamic caliphate to have resided in Western Europe.

I found this story lurking in the waves of undulating arches at the Mezquita; in the tight alleyways and cramped houses of the Jewish Quarter; and in the crumbling walls of the ruined caliphal city of Madinat al-Zahra. And when I had learnt to look a bit deeper, I found it in the culture, in the people of Córdoba and the buildings in which they lived.

Walking the moorish sites I uncovered a caliphate of Córdoba, that although it lasted less than 100 years, accepted all religions, yearned for scientific advancement and spread knowledge across backward Christian empires. An Islamic caliphate that was a role model for enlightenment in the middle ages.

UMAYYAD PRINCE, EMIR OF AL-ANDALUS, RULING FROM CÓRDOBA

I first glimpsed the mosque (mezquita) of Córdoba as it flickered across the ends of the narrow windy streets of the Muslim quarter. Alleyways whose cobbled stones have been polished by centuries of walkers and whose imposing walls are interrupted with majestic wooden doors, unchanged over centuries.

The mezquita was commissioned in 785 CE by Abd al-Rahman, the emir of Al-Andalus. But this emir was no ordinary king. He was descended from the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyad family had ruled, as caliphs, over the entire Islamic Empire for almost 100 years. But in 750 CE in Damascus, the Umayyad’s were slaughtered by their arch-rivals, the Abbasids; only Abd al- Rahman survived. As the Abbasid family proclaimed itself caliph and ruler of the entire Muslim world from their new capital in Baghdad, Abd al- Rahman fled his ruined homeland, journeyed through the deserts of the Maghreb and sailed across the Mediterranean Sea.

He found himself in the Iberian Peninsula. In a corner of Europe that had been occupied by Berber Muslims for some 40 years. Abd al-Rahman – with a rightful claim to be ruler and caliph of the Islamic world – rallied troops to his Umayyad name and swept the Berbers aside. Victorious, he proclaimed himself emir of Al-Andalus from his capital in Córdoba. Abd al-Rahman would build a powerful kingdom, and the Mezquita that would take 200 years to complete, would be a monument to its success and the first of my Moorish sites in Córdoba.

As I left the cool shaded lanes of the Muslim quarter and entered the wider Calle Cardenal, the full majesty of the Mezquita opened up before me. It came as a shock. Instead of an airy bulbous domed mosque, a zig-zag roof covered an expansive prayer hall. Low lying and unadorned, it stretched for hundreds of metres in each direction. Right in the middle of this mosque, punching its way through the roof, towers a Christian Cathedral.

The Mezquita I stared up at today is not the mosque as it was in Islamic times. When the Christians brought Islamic rule of Córdoba to an end in 1236, the mosque was converted into a church. Initially, the structure was left largely untouched but, in 1523, King Carlos V authorised a Christian Cathedral to be built within the Mezquita.

Wanting a better view, I climbed the steps of the bell tower.  Reaching for breath at the top, I peered between the bells and down upon the prayer hall and cathedral. I was left in no doubt of the statement of intent. One was a place of reverence and piety where the faithful could pray, the other, reaching for the heavens, proclaimed its power and might.

I headed back down and as I entered the Mezquita, the bright sunny morning that had warmed my back was vanquished by the chill interior. The broad open space of the courtyard replaced by a dark brooding interior. But as my eyes adjusted to the lack of light I found myself staring up at thousands of intricately tiled mosaics adorning the roof. The roof is held up by rows upon rows of columns supporting double red and white arches that undulate like waves. Light filters through occasional windows creating semi-circular patterns across the polished stone floor. It’s peaceful, quiet, yet daunting in its size.

As I headed deeper those first impressions of peace and quiet fade and are replaced by a sense of conflict. Christian crosses joust with Arabic calligraphy; Christian paintings compete with Islamic mosaics, and a Christian altar contests an Islamic prayer niche. The unquestionable highlight is the Islamic prayer niche. Lit from a dome portal, it appears alive, sparkling with gold. Its edges surrounded by intricate horseshoe-shaped carvings. The chapels Capilla Real and Capilla de Villaviciosa, inserted by the Christians when they first conquered Córdoba, expound opulence. The frescoed Parroquia del Sagrario built in 1583 and tucked in the furthest corner, further intoxicate the senses.

As I strolled the corridors of the Mezquita and the Cathedral, plunged within it, I was reminded, not just of religious conflict, but of the truly remarkable achievements of mankind. And I thought perhaps it is the symbiosis of two religions in one place, that makes it the Mezquita-Catedral so unique.

MOORISH SITES IN CÓRDOBA: AN ENLIGHTENED CITY SHINING

Leaving the chill interior of the Mezquita-Catedral I headed back into the sunlight, through the Patio of Los Naranchos, under the monumental doorway arches and into the myriad of alleyways that is the Jewish Quarter of Córdoba.

For almost 200 years the Umayyad dynasty had brought stability and wealth to Al-Andalus. By 929 CE Cordoba had almost 500,000 people and was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe; bigger than Constantinople. It boasted public baths, beautiful patios and glittering fountains.

The success of Córdoba was built on its people and their talents. The liberal Umayyads encouraged scientific exploration, aesthetic endeavours and granted the “Peoples of the Book” (Jews and Christians but not pagans) freedom of religious conscience and practices. For Jews, in particular, this was a dramatic improvement over the persecution they had suffered in the final centuries of Roman rule. The result was a burgeoning Jewish quarter in the heart of an enlightened and liberal city, a bright light in the European Middle Ages.

The Jewish Quarter is now, much as it was then, a warren of cobbled streets that suddenly open up on wider squares, before quickly disappearing into narrow lanes again. Its whitewashed walls protect you from the heat, and its wooden doors conceal tranquil patios. Each corner brings a new sight in Córdoba: a sun-drenched café filled with morning coffee drinkers; a Synagogue barely noticeable except for a simple sign. As I explored I found hints of the enlightened past this area had once enjoyed. Such as Maimonides: astronomer, physician and philosopher who was one of the foremost thinkers on Jewish law and ethics, immortalised in bronze.

A little further north, is Casa Andalusi, a 12th-century home. Lurking in the basement are 10th-century ruins and bas-reliefs of Visigothic times. But most importantly in the back room over the rounded black and white stones of its tiny yet serene patio, is a wooden scale model of the first paper factories in the western world. The Islamic Empire, stretching across much of Eurasia, collected skills and knowledge from its neighbours, whether paper manufacturing from China or philosophy from Greece, translated them into Arabic, and transferred them across its empire. In Al-Andalus, this knowledge was stored in a library of around 400,000 volumes. Some found its way into Christian Europe whose largest library consisted of only 400 manuscripts.

Heading east I found Casa Ramon Garcia Romero. A tiny store on a little square. The proprietor was as excited to see me as I was to see him. His store sells embossed leather, but it also acts as a museum with a downloadable audio-guide explaining this 10th-century technique and giving insight into the artisanal skills and aesthetic beauty valued in Córdoba at the time. The embossed leather is for sale, although not on my holiday budget.

THE ISLAMIC CALIPHATE OF CÓRDOBA

Next day I left the Moorish sites in Córdoba and headed to Madinat al-Zahra, the ‘shining city’. It is about 8km to the west of town. The ‘shining city’, purpose built in the 10th century, not just to be the seat of government for the emir of Al-Andalus, but to be the beating heart of an Islamic Caliphate in Western Europe.

The Caliph is the sole Commander of the Faithful, Successor to the Prophet Muhammad and ruler of the entire Muslim World. The Umayyad family, who had been usurped as caliphs in 750 CE, had governed their corner of the Muslim empire under the tacit permission of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. But in 910 the Fatimids, claiming to be descended from the Prophet, announced a competing Fatimid Caliphate in the Maghreb.

While being subject to a single caliphate, thousands of miles to the east in Baghdad, was one thing, being subject to a competing caliphate, just across a narrow stretch of sea was another. So, with troubles brewing on their borders, in 929 CE, Abd al-Rahman III, Umayyad heir and emir of Al-Andalus, proclaimed himself caliph. Three caliphs now fought for control of the Islamic Empire and Western Europe would, for the only time, have an Islamic Caliphate based within its borders. And this Islamic Caliphate of Córdoba needed a glorious capital to demonstrate its supreme spiritual power.

I came to Madinat al-Zahra to see that caliphal capital. While not quite the gleaming glory of the 10th century, the 20th-century site entrance is impressive. A modern building, built into the hill, shimmers like so many of Spain’s new buildings. The courtyard, decked with orange trees, surrounded by walls of glass and burnished metal, invited me to overcome my past experiences with museum coffee. Inside a film recreates images of the city past, from the ruins of today. The museum next door explores the history of the Caliphate of Córdoba through the objects found during the excavation.

A bus, running every 10 minutes, took me from the museum up to the crumbling ruins. The Caliphate of Córdoba was run at the highest level up the nearby hill, with other government offices and residential houses below. It took an hour to stroll the broken slabs of stone patios, and what is left of the ornately decorated arches that once impressed foreign dignitaries.

Sadly, the city lasted less than 100 years. The Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba was on its last legs. Domestic rivals were claiming the throne. Christian forces were agitating in the north. And less secular, more fundamental Muslim forces were gathering to the south. In 1009 CE Berber mercenaries, sensing their opportunity, sacked and destroyed the city. As I got back on the bus I glanced back at the ruined palaces, shattered patios and overgrown gardens and recognised them for what they are, a broken monument to a glorious Umayyad past.

THE FALL OF THE UMAYYAD CALIPHATE OF CÓRDOBA

On 17th January 1024, the people of Córdoba rose up and executed Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Rahman V. Within a few years the Caliphate had fallen, power had drained from Córdoba and the city-state of Seville had risen up in its place.

In 100 glorious years, the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba had come and gone. While Muslims ruled in Al-Andalus for another 500 years, it would never return to the enlightened times of the tenth century. Yet in such a short space of time, Córdoba had left its indelible mark.

I came to explore the Moorish sights in Córdoba, wanting to learn about the only Islamic Caliphate in Western Europe. I found a place that had supported philosophy, science and religious tolerance. I found a time Islam, not Christianity, Judaism or paganism was the guiding force of progress and enlightenment. I also found how transient such times can be. For all of the Caliphate of Córdoba’s wealth, knowledge and power, its bright light succumbed to darker more illiberal forces. I realised that, unless we too are careful, the freedoms we have gained over the last few hundred could, just as quickly, disappear.

MOORISH SITES IN CÓRDOBA / INFORMATION

Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba/ Price: €10 entry; Hours: 10:00 – 19:00 Mon to Sat; 8:30 – 11.00 and 15:00 – 19:00 Sun. (Free entry: 8:30 – 9:30 Mon to Sat) Bell Tower/ Price: €2; Hours: 9:30 – 13:30 and 16:00 – 18:30 Mon to Sat.

Casa Andalusí/ Price: €5; Hours: 10:00 – 19:00.

Casa Ramon Garcia Romero/ Price: Free; Hours: 11:00 – 14:00 & 16.30 – 20.00 Mon to Sat.

Madinat al-Zahra/ Price: Free for EU citizens, otherwise €1.50; Hours: 09:00 – 21:00 Mon to Sat & 09:00 – 15:00 Sun; Directions: Bus from Córdoba leaves from outside the Almodovar Gate at 10.15, 10.30, 11.00 and 17.15 returning 13.30, 13,45, 14.15 and 20.15; Bus: €9.

MORE CÓRDOBA READING

  • Many of the attractions in Córdoba have free entry at certain times of the day and certain days of the week. For all the details of when and how to get free access to Córdoba’s sites, see our article here.
  • For a run down of how to put all these sights together in 2 days, read our itinerary which contains all the information we think you’ll need.
  • For some inspiration and to discover some of the beauty of Córdoba’s patios and palaces, see our article here.

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A millennium ago, an enlightened Islamic Caliphate ruled in Western Europe. Today, the streets of Córdoba tell the story of a progressive, tolerant caliphate, that had come and gone within 100 years.

A millennium ago, an enlightened Islamic Caliphate ruled in Western Europe. Today, the streets of Córdoba tell the story of a progressive, tolerant caliphate, that had come and gone within 100 years.

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