Amanda Bennett: A Year in Zaragoza, Spain

Córdoba: A Pleasant Surprise February 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 5:29 pm

At first sight, Córdoba was a bit disappointing. (Side note: Spanish accents mark where the emphasis falls in the word; hence, Córdoba is COOR-doe-bah.) Although there was a great mudéjar medical college building next door, the other edifices surrounding our hotel were tall and nondescript office and residential types. However, a quick 10 minutes walk across a park and down a boulevard led to first the commercial and then the old part of the city. Walking a straight line led us to the main entrance of the mezquita de Córdoba, the famous 8th century mosque.

The technical name of the breathtaking building is the Cathedral of Córdoba. After the Christians reconquered the city, they built a Baroque cathedral smack dab in the middle of the vast mosque. One of their legitimizing claims was that the Arabs constructed the mosque over a Roman basilica – they have even excavated part of the floor to reveal the Roman mosaic.

When we studied the building in art class, I became angry with the Catholics: how could they ruin such a precious and singular building with just another run-of-the-mill church? I decided that I would dislike the disruptive cathedral…until I saw it.

Against my will, I found the Catedral de Córdoba to be the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen. And although I would have loved to see the mosque in its full and uninterrupted splendor – as a true forest of red and white arches, rather than the hypnotic rows being more like a garden for the Christian centerpiece – I really did enjoy the church. Carlos V (King and Emperor) must have known that in order to destroy the mosque – a polemic decision even in his time – he had to build a cathedral worthy of such a horrible honor.

The mezquita, however, is still the more stunning of the two pieces. After walking through the orange grove patio inside the tower-marked gates, one is faced with a row of 19 (if my memory doesn’t fail me) doors, now closed off with lattices but originally open to the sunlight.

The entrance leads into the original section of the mosque, built when Córdoba was the capital of the emirate of Al-Andalus (the Arabic name for their territory in the Iberian peninsula, where the modern word for southern Spain, Andalucía [Andalusia in English?] comes from). The columns were “recycled” – taken from old Roman and Visigoth buildings – and hence a bit mismatched. But all were topped by parallel rows of stone and brick arches, creating the effect of a red-and-white striped forest of columns.

The city soon grew, and another addition was added on, continuing the rows further. Then Al-Andalus split from the rest of the Arabic empire and became its own caliphate, meaning that the leader now had political and religious power.

This is the period in which Córdoba reached its utmost splendor, and the richest addition to the cathedral was made.

The columns were again continued onward, but this time they were specially made for the purpose, and alternate pink and black. The arches are beautiful as always, but the true gem of the second addition is the quibla – the wall that points towards Mecca.

Well, ideally – technically, the wall points more south than southeast, and the reason for the incorrectness is unknown but well-speculated. The arches become lobed and intertwining, and more richly decorated with the same themes as before: geometric, calligraphic, and organic patterns. The wooden crossbeam ceilings are more opulently decorated, and before the wall they open up into stunning cupolas.

The wall itself, especially the mihrab, a special part of the wall which in Spanish-Arabic art has a recessed apse and also indicates towards Mecca, is especially gorgeous, with its golden paint and bright colors, intricate detail, and horseshoe arch.

Our tour of the mosque/cathedral was followed by a quick run-through of the old Jewish neighborhood, la Judería. The walk was cut short by rain, though, and we took shelter, of course, in a tetería. Seeing as the rain did not let up, we decided to take advantage of Córdoba’s Arab roots and hop to another tea lounge, and after relaxing on the low couches with the Middle-Eastern background music for a couple hours, we decided to search for some Arabic food. We found a delicious and authentic restaurant, which also happened to serve tea although we resisted, and feasted on hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, falafel, harira, and other new delicious discoveries whose names I’ve forgotten. So much time in teterías had got me into the Arabic mood, so at each place I took my leave with a sentence or two in Arabic: Shrukran, ma’salaama, a’shai kaan jayed judan – thank you, goodbye, the tea was very good – which never failed to pleasantly surprise the waiters.

Andalucía was the perfect blend of cultures for me – I fell in love with southern Spain. And although I suffered a bit of a heartbreak on my return to Zaragoza, I know that my new favorite cities will be there waiting for my return.

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