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