Cordoba

The ancient town of Córdoba lies on the Guadalquivir River 82 miles northeast of Seville. Exactly how ancient it is no-one really knows, but there are many who claim it as the Biblical town of Tarshish.

What is beyond dispute is that by Roman times it was an important city. Greek historians seldom agree, but in this instance both Polybius and Strabo, writing a century apart, tell us that during his Spanish campaign in 152 BC, the Roman general Marcus Claudius Marcellus chose the fledging town as his winter quarters. The ball of History was rolling. When Pompey and Julius Caesar came to blows and plunged the Empire into civil war, Pompey chose Corduba, as it was known then, as his base, which led naturally to the sacking of the city by Caesar in 45 BC, and the slaughter of 20,000 of its inhabitants. The fact that there were 20,000 inhabitants available to be slaughtered demonstrates how large and important the place was already becoming.

Most of what is now Andalucía was, to the Romans, the province of Baetica, and Corduba was one of its four judicial centres. The most obvious relic of the time is the bridge which leads across the river from the city’s old quarter.

By the end of the 1st Century BC, Corduba was firmly established as a commercial and cultural centre. Its geographical location played a large part in its success. The agricultural land amid which it stood was fertile and abundant, and the hills were heavily mined. Most important of all, the Guadalquivir was navigable as far as the city itself, and from there, excellent roads connected it with important towns in the north. It was the kid who had it all.

Yet important and impressive as Roman Corduba was, the best was yet to come. It lost much of its glitter under the Visigoths, and was ignored by the Byzantines, who hardly stayed around long enough to notice anything. But then, in 711 AD, came the Moors, and Córdoba was about to blossom as never before.

But not overnight. When they first took the town, the Moors virtually destroyed it, and for years thereafter inter-tribal rivalry precluded any serious attempt at rebuilding. Eventually, in 756, the Umayyad chieftain, Abd ar-Rahmãn, rose to power and made Córdoba his capital. He and his people needed somewhere to worship, and to this end he created one of the greatest architectural treasures of his or any other era: La Mezquita – the Great Mosque. He chose to build it on the site previously occupied by a Roman temple to the god Janus, and the construction took twenty years, by which time Abd ar-Rahmãn had been succeeded by Abü Ámir al-Mansür. The use of a double horse shoe arch allowed a large enclosed area to be covered for prayer, and this was enlarged over the years to accommodate Córdoba’s growing population, which soon numbered more than half a million. By comparison, the populations of London and Paris in medieval times were each below 50,000.

After 929, when Abd ah-Rahmãn became caliph of the West, Córdoba came into full flower as the largest and indisputably the most cultured city in Europe. Arabs, Berbers, Jews, Christians, thinkers of all races and creeds came together in harmony. Arabic was the language of scientific and literary debate and in the Moslem world only Baghdad was more revered.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Córdoba at this time. Not only a byword for scholarship and the best in every branch of the arts, it was also a great industrial centre. Its leatherwork, jewellery and silks were in demand throughout the civilised world, and architecturally the city was fast becoming a masterpiece. With the whole of the Mediterranean as their back yard, the Umayyads took whatever they wanted from previous civilisations for use in their palaces. Abd ar-Rahmãn built a palace as large as a city, Madïnat az-Zahrã, which was roofed with silver and gold and had fountains of mercury. It must have been a magnificent sight, but the self-indulgent folly was destroyed in 1013, though its ruins are still visible 5 kilometres east of modern Córdoba.

Long before Tony Blair, education, education, education was the thing for the Umayyads of Córdoba. Students from all over Europe were welcomed, whatever their beliefs. Córdoba was a powerhouse of intellectual ferocity which fuelled the rebirth of classical learning in Europe. One victim, whose demise none of us should mourn, was the clumsy Roman system of numbering, which during this period gave way to the far more elegant Arabic system familiar to us today.

Even the most beautiful of summer flowers is doomed to die when the winter comes, and for Córdoba the winter came early in the 11th Century when the caliphate was torn apart by civil war. One sect after another took control of the once great city, and although some degree of stability was restored by the Almoravids in 1091, and the Almohads in 1172, both rules were marked by the kind of artistic and religious intolerance which classical Córdoba had tried so hard to eradicate. Córdoba retained some of its power and influence but it was increasingly competing with upstart kingdoms, taifas, such as Seville,MálagaGranada, Murcia and Denia.

When the Christians took Córdoba in 1236, the city’s glory days were finally over. Those few artists and philosophers who were left, clinging to the echoes of a long lost dream, finally departed, and the city became not only a political has-been, but a cultural backwater. Its only importance was as a military base in the continuing war against Granada. When that was finally won, Córdoba was left as a quiet provincial town of genteel people – the equivalent of Cheltenham or Bath.

For one thing, at least, we may be eternally grateful. On capturing Moorish towns, it was the Christian’s custom to immediately destroy the mosque and replace it with a church. In Córdoba this didn’t happen. Even to the most fervent of Christ’s soldiers it was obvious that La Mezquita was a masterpiece. It was allowed to stand, but within its walls the Christians built a Baroque church of their own. Vandalism, perhaps. Profanity, certainly. The high alter and choir sit uncomfortably amid the stark simplicity of the mosque. Yet the bizarre result is magnificent in its inconsistency. Córdoba never cared much for convention, and La Mezquita proves it never will.

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