Saturday, September 07, 2013

Al Andalus - Cordoba

Driving north across the plain from Seville, two bright lights parried my vision. The first, unremarkably for this non-dreary part of the world, was the sun. The second I could not quite figure out. Blindingly bright and drawing ever nearer from the horizon, it did not lag far behind the sun in its intensity. As we drew closer, it became apparent that this was not a single light, but a myriad of separated groups of solar beams firing in an ordered pattern between the earth and a single point in the sky. A bit like a monolithic disco ball.  Drawing closer still, I could see the large concrete tower which housed this giant reflecting (or receiving) object. My best guess is that this forms part of an ambitious solar energy complex.  Remarkable and quite unlike anything I have seen before.

Apart from the disco ball, the road to Cordoba was largely forgettable. Cordoba itself was anything but.


We were staying on the other side of the Guadalaquivir river from the old city. Leaning out of our window, I was astounded by the view. A partially reconstructed Roman bridge spans a wide fast flowing stretch of water, broken up by copse-laden and ruin-strewn islets. On the far side, the bridge lands beneath the imposing city walls, with the Mezquita, the jewel in Cordoba’s crown, dominating the view above. More of that later.
Around the Mezquita are a warren of wonderfully preserved medieval streets. My uncle, whose opinions I respect above most on such matters, thinks it is the best preserved medieval city in Europe, and I certainly had no reason to argue. Once past the tourist tat of the immediate vicinity we lost ourselves in the winding alleys of whitewashed stone work, occasionally sneaking a peak at the inner courtyards of 500 year old mansions. It is an endearing feature of pre and post-colonial Spanish architecture that the true grandeur of buildings is enticingly hidden from view.  Inner gardens and terraces which resemble, and presumably originate from, the Moorish style.
Once out of the old town, the picturesque nature of the city quickly diminishes, but it is still full of surprises. Meandering through busy shopping streets, an ugly road interchange is interrupted by a Roman temple. Just up the street, an unattractive square is brought to life by a bunch of chicos playing Spanish guitar and singing. Nothing special you might think, but these guys weren’t part of an act or busking. They were just sitting in a cafĂ©, chilling out, smoking fags and making music for their own enjoyment. The little ones absolutely loved it.

My favourite place in Cordoba was Plaza de la Corredera. A large seventeenth century square hemmed in by four-storey town houses. A little run down, it was populated by a rag tag of friendly restaurants selling tapas and beer at a song, students playing guitar and old men watching the world pass by. A little out of the way and seriously charming. We came back each day of our stay, chowing down on chorizo in vino tinto and patatas bravas (Niko’s favourite word in Andalusia quickly became “patata-patata”)


A unique treasure and one of the most impressive structures in Europe, it is hard not to spit superlatives about this place. Like many of the cities in these parts, Cordoba has Roman roots and a Visigothic past, but the Moors made the place, with Islam at its core.
Cordoba was the capital of a powerful caliphate. At its height, it was the most sophisticated and cultured centre in Western Europe. The Mezquita was its pinnacle. From our perspective, a gift to the future. From the perspective of the Moors, the centre of Islam and life in Al Andalus. A place to submit to the God who delivered to them and their kin lands stretching from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

Originally started in the eighth century on the spot of a Visigothic church and expanded over subsequent generations, the mosque followed the normal pattern of minaret, ablution garden and prayer hall. Beyond that it is anything but the norm. A supreme combination of scale, minutiae and, most of all, balance. One of the largest buildings erected in Europe between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, yet decorated with such painstaking intricacy. This attention to detail is especially apparent in the oldest parts. Indeed, it is said you can see the slow decline of the Caliphate in the mild degeneration of particulars as each new section was built.

What is most striking about the Mezquita is its internal symmetry and harmony.  Entering from the garden of ablutions through grand carved doors, you step into the vast prayer hall and encounter row after row after row after row of parallel, adjoining Islamic arches, each decorated in a simple red and white pattern. It has a different impact to the vast cavernous space of a cathedral. More intimate, yet no less impressive or imposing. It affected me like very few buildings have. A place of heightened calm. I felt momentarily lost drifting around the fringes of this huge rectangle space.

After the Reconquista seized back Cordoba, we have the Catholics to thank for not tearing down this masterpiece of human ingenuity and endeavour. They took the building in the name of their own god. On the flip side, the Catholics almost unforgivably tore a huge hole in the heart of the Mesquite and threw up a gaudy cathedral. In another context it would no doubt be an impressive building, but entering from the serenity of the surrounding Islamic arches it just resembles expensive tack. A bit like throwing up a Disney World at the heart of Tuscany. 
This violation was not lost on contemporaries. Charles V famously remarked "they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city". One can only try and imagine how more magnificent this structure must have been before the Christian monstrosity.


After a walk around the beautiful gardens of the old fort, we made our way back to the river as the sun was setting. Stepping onto the bridge we took a moment to stop and stare. Narrowing shards of sunlight disintegrated into the thin mist which hung to the rapid current. To our right the remains of a Roman watermill. To our left, crumbling fortifications. Left, right and centre, hundreds of cormorants circling, swimming, dipping into the flow or, wings flung wide, basking in the glory of the end of the day. Far ahead loomed the fortified hills which showed the way to Granada.

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