re­turns to Cor­doba and finds the charm of what was once the world’s largest city is undi­min­ished

The Jewish Chronicle - - TRAVEL -

MY FIRST VISIT to Cór­doba was made, i n a d v e r t - e n t l y , i n 1973, when I was tak­ing my fam­ily on a sum­mer hol­i­day to Málaga. Af­ter jud­der­ing along a pot-holed road from Madrid for 11 hours in the 100-de­gree fur­nace that was a di­lap­i­dated hired Seat, we threw in the towel and rec­on­ciled our­selves to an overnight stay in Cór­doba.

A month or so back, I re­turned, de­lib­er­ately this time. The jour­ney took one hour 40 min­utes from Madrid on a 180-mph bul­let train. Spain has now over­taken Italy in per capita GDP and the re­cent in­au­gu­ra­tion of the MadridBarcelona high-speed rail link is de­fin­i­tive proof of this turn­around.

But high-speed rail links apart, Cór­doba re­mains, in many ways, the city of 35 years ago. In fact, the Cór­doba of the 12th cen­tury — when, with its one mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, it was the world’s largest city — is still very much in ev­i­dence. Small won­der the Span­ish gov­ern­ment has pro­claimed it the great­est of its na­tional trea­sures.

One need look no fur­ther than Tiberi­ades Square in the old Jewish Quar­ter — des­ig­nated a Unesco World Her­itage Site in 1984 — with its statue of Moses Mai­monides, the 12th-cen­tury rabbi, physi­cian, philoso­pher and cod­i­fier of Jewish law, to re­alise how steeped in cul­ture this city re­mains. In 1985, Cór­doba hosted the First In­ter­na­tional Congress on the Life and Works of Mai­monides.

The congress was held in the city’s syn­a­gogue which, that year, saw its first re­li­gious ser­vice for five cen­turies. The syn­a­gogue is lo­cated in one of Cór­doba’s twist­ing, nar­row streets, ap­pro­pri­ately named Calle Judíos. It is the only re­main­ing me­dieval syn­a­gogue in An­dalu­cia, as well as the purest in the Mude­jar style of the three which sur­vive in Spain.

Fol­low­ing the ex­pul­sion of the Jews in 1492, the syn­a­gogue went through sev­eral bizarre meta­mor­phoses, from a hospi­tal for ra­bies vic­tims to the guild­hall of shoe­mak­ers and, in the 19th cen­tury, a nurs­ery school. In 1885, the re­formist gov­ern­ment of An­to­nio Cáno­vas del Castillo de­clared it a na­tional mon­u­ment.

Not a great deal re­mains of the old syn­a­gogue, apart from two cham­bers, a small en­trance hall and a prayer room. The up­per walls re­tain their raised, or­na­men­tal dec­o­ra­tion in the form of four, six and eight-pointed stars, and de­signs of plants in the Moor­ish style. A small cu­bi­cle bears an in­scrip­tion of the syn­a­gogue’s founder Isaac Mo­heb, “son of Efraim Wadawa, in the year seventy-five”, and a space in which the ark was once kept.

A charm­ing gate­way to un­der­stand­ing Cór­doba’s Jewish tra­di­tion is the Sepharad House, op­po­site the syn­a­gogue. I heard a lute and vo­cal con­cert of Sephardic bal­lads in the court­yard of this 14th-cen­tury man­sion, known as the Home of Me­mory. A private ini­tia­tive, it traces the his­tory of Sephardic cul­ture and its de­vel­op­ment in the di­as­pora with a per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion on the Jews of Cór­doba, Sephardic mu­sic and the women of An­dalu­cia.

The at­trac­tion that steals the show in Cór­doba, how­ever, is the eigth-cen­tury Mosque, de­scribed by the travel writer Ger­ald Bre­nan as “the most beau­ti­ful and orig­i­nal build­ing in Spain”. Along with gems like Gre­nada’s Al­ham­bra and the gates of Toledo, it is tes­ti­mony that the great­est mon­u­ments of Is­lam are not to be found in the Mus­lim world, but in Spain.

A Unesco World Her­itage site, the mosque was con­structed over the ru­ins of an an­cient Visig­oth church by the emir Ab­der­rah­man I in 785, dur­ing the eu­phoric days of the Mus­lim con­quest of Spain. Five cen­turies later Cór­doba fell to a Chris­tian army and the mosque was re­con­se­crated as a cathe­dral.

To drive home their point, the con­querors erected Gothic and Baroque chapels and pan­theons inside the mosque, none of which de­tract from the build­ing’s for­mer grandeur.

The world’s third largest mosque, it has 900, arched pil­lars made of coloured brick and stone and clev­erly de­signed to dis­trib­ute the weight of the build­ing side­ways — a phe­nom­e­non vis­i­ble in sev­eral bayed ex­te­rior walls. Sun­light streams in from win­dows in the four cupo­las, cre­at­ing a mag­i­cal ef­fect when com­bined with

The Square of the Old Town in the cen­tre of Cór­doba

The bare walls of what re­mains of the old syn­a­gogue in Cór­doba

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