Overlapping cultures in Córdoba
Heading north into the Guadalquivir valley, the landscape mellows, with gently rolling hills and flatter topography within which the river can meander. This change results from exiting the collision zone and entering the valley (called a foreland basin by geologists) into which sediments from the uplifted ranges to the south have been deposited. The young sediments here are mostly flat lying and, because they have not been deeply buried, they are not yet very rock-like and are easily eroded to form smooth, gentle slopes. In the photo below, the view is south across the Alcázar, with the river just beyond the trees (note old Roman bridge on left side of photo) and hills on the south side of the river. After some October rains, the landscape is turning green!
“Cultures through the ages” has been a recurring theme of this journey. The evolving cultures have much to do with religious afiliation. For example, we have seen that the so-called Moors were a wide variety of ethnic groups that were united by their religion—Islam. In Córdoba there is considerable evidence of previous cultures/religions right in the city center. The Museum of Archeology is built on a Roman-era theater, whose remains can be viewed in the museum’s basement. The museum contains many wonderful artifacts. The piece of a frieze (below) shows Romans harvesting olives, an activity people have been doing in Spain for a LONG time!
Many well-preserved floor mosaics from the Roman era have been discovered within the city. Some have been mounted on the walls of a room in the Alcázar (top photo; also note Roman bridge on left side). The Romans, of course, were known for having many gods. In the floor mosaic below, the Cyclops Polyphemus is sitting on rock gazing at Galatea while a sea monster beneath her gazes at him menacingly.
The Visogoths, early Christians, came next and built upon the Roman structures. The Museum of Archeology contains some pieces from this time period. But it was with the Muslim arrival in 711 that Córdoba really expanded, becoming the biggest city in Western Europe, where the economy, learning and arts thrived. As the Islamic center in this part of the world, it became a pilgrimage alternative to Mecca and Jerusalem. During this time, there were many public baths, patios, gardens and fountains. This tradition continues; for example, residents take pride in their home gardens, which they often open to the public. We were able to view six home gardens in one small neighborhood of the city. They were beautiful!
What most people come to see from the Islamic period is the Mezquita-Catedral (mosque-cathedral), so called because the Catholics, who reconquered Córdoba in 1236, literally inserted the cathedral into the middle of the mosque! Here is a view from a tower on the wall of the complex looking south over the Mezquita-Catedral, with river and south bank in the distance. The long north- to south-oriented pointed roofs are naves on the north and south sides of the cathedral that are where the arches are located in the photo below this one.
Here is a photo of the Arabic arches in the Mosque part of the complex. In many perspectives, they seem to go on forever. Córdoba’s population may have reached 500,000 people, and it was incredible to stand among these arches and imagine them filled with men on prayer rugs all facing east, the direction in which this photo was taken.
We give the Catholics credit for this—whereas most mosques were destroyed in the process of building cathedrals on the same sites, this one remains partially intact, along with the beautiful carved stucco and intricate tile work that is well preserved because of its position within the cathedral complex. Here is one particularly fine example (the gold parts are all mosaics with tiny pieces), that even retains the Arabic writing.
One group that is often overlooked is the Jewish population. Although their treatment varied depending on which Moslem group was in charge, they, in general, lived peacefully together with the Moslems (and also some Christians) during the Islamic period. When the Catholics took over, it was a different story. One of the few preserved synagogues from the Islamic period is preserved in Córdoba. A museum (Casa de Sefarad) is devoted to the Sephardic-Judaic tradition in Spain. In addition to compelling stories about Jewish intellectuals and musical traditions, there are sobering tales of the treatment of Jews, Muslims, and even some Christians, under the cruel hand of the Inquisition. The patio of the museum (a converted house) has a Star of David that is done in a rock style seen throughout the streets and patios of Córdoba—it’s called “china cordobesa”.
The Alcázar (top photo) is a fortification that previously included the palace where Isabel and Fernando, the so-called “Catholic Monarchs”, stayed when they were in Córdoba. In fact, it was in this building that they finally agreed to finance Christopher Columbus’ voyages! When we heard that Granada fell in 1492, we thought it was a coincidence. It was not, however. Columbus had been begging for funding for years, but the monarchs were preoccupied with the wars of the reconquest. Once Granada was captured, and all of Spain was under their power, they could focus on expanding their empire and they agreed to fund Columbus’ voyages. When Fernando and Isabel were married, the large kingdoms of Castille and Aragón were united; with the conquest of Granada, all of Spain was united, but it came at quite a price for the people who had already been living in Andalucia. Just outside the Alcázar are the emblems of the crown of Castille, which are displayed in many places in Spain.