First there was a line. There always is—especially if you’re like us and don’t plan your trip ahead of time. The queue curved from the entrance, through the front lawn full of palm trees, and into the sidewalk.

We were waiting to get into the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (Alzázar of the Christian Monarchs), yet another castle in Spain with Moorish origins.

The fortress that stands now was built in the year 1328 under the reign of Alfonso XI of Castille. By then the city of Córdoba—the erstwhile capital of Al-Andalus, the Arabic name for Muslim Spain—had been under Christian rule for 100 years. The present edifice was built over the Alcázar de los Califas, a fortress which had served as the seat of Al-Andalus’s government since the Muslims conquered Spain in the 8th century.

Córdoba and the Cathedral, seen from the Alcázar

The name of the current Alcázar stems from its use as a military base by the Catholic Monarchs during the Reconquista of Spain. Ferdinand and Isabel stayed in this castle for eight years as they directed their military campaign against Granada, the last Muslim power on the peninsula.

The “Reconquista” is the name given to the lengthy, unsystematic, and disorganized invasions of Muslim-controlled Spain by Christian forces, which took place over hundreds of years. Do not imagine that all of the Catholics up in the north of the Iberian Peninsula got together and decided to start pushing the Moors out. The reality was far more complicated. There was infighting between both the Moors and the Catholics; Muslim fought Muslim and Christian fought Christian almost as often as they fought each other. Religion was just one factor in a spectrum of conflicts of interests and ambitions as rulers jockeyed for power.

This was especially true during the so-called taifa period. A “taifa” is the name given to the small kingdoms and emirates (often little more than city-states) that divided up the peninsula after the collapse of the Caliphate of Córdoba in 1031. Until then, Córdoba had served as the center of power on the Iberian Peninsula—first as an emirate (from 759 – 929) and then as an independent caliphate (929 – 1031). Its collapse split the continent into a patchwork of warring factions, during which time the Muslims gradually lost ground to the Christians.

The last phase of Moorish Spain is called the Nasrid period—named after the dynasty that ruled Granada up until 1492, the year when the Moors were expelled. It was this dynasty that was responsible for the Alhambra.

The Ruins of a Roman Temple, only unearthed in 1950

This long period of interaction—from 711 to 1492—produced a rather different attitude towards Muslims in Spain than existed elsewhere in Europe. To get a taste of this, read The Song of Roland and then The Poem of the Cid. The first is French, the second Spanish. Both are Medieval epics that include battles between Muslims and Christians in their narratives. And both are based on historical events, but include much distortion of facts—not to mention purely fabricated material.

The French poem treats the Muslims as the incarnation of evil; they are little more human than the orcs in The Lord of the Rings. Thus the battle is a struggle between light and darkness, with the Christian protagonists Roland and Charlemagne -the champions of all that is good.

But it is obvious that whoever wrote the poem had scant knowledge of Islam, as he has the Muslims invoking the name “Apollo!” during battle—which is simply ludicrous. An added irony is that the historical event that this poem was based on didn’t even involve Muslims; rather, Charlemagne’s forces were ambushed by a bunch of Basques as they crossed the Roncevaux pass through the Pyrenees. Thus, the conflict had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the invasion of land.

The Poem of the Cid is hardly more factual. It tells of the exploits of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, otherwise known as “the Cid,” a military commander who lived in Medieval Spain. In this story, however, the Muslims, though they are sometimes enemies, are not the inhuman beasts of The Song of Roland. They are people just the same; and in one scene they even cheer as the Cid liberates their city and allows them to live in peace. The reality behind this story is even more complicated; the real Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, a bit of a mercenary character, spent some time fighting for Muslims against Christians.

But however complicated the reality may have been, and whatever mutual tolerance may have existed, the Moors were eventually pushed out. The whole process came to a close in 1492, when the last Muslims were forced to flee, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, and when Columbus set out on his voyage across the Atlantic.

This year marks the beginning of Spain as we know it. The Middle Ages had come to a close, and the newly united country was entering its Golden Age as a global superpower. And since the Catholic monarchs directed their final military campaign from this castle, and since Christopher Columbus proposed his ocean voyage to the King and the Queen as they stayed here, the Alcázar of Córdoba can be said to be at the center of this story. Next came the infamous Inquisition, which used the Alcázar as a dungeon—converting some of the old Arab baths into torture Chambers—and the Conquistadores of the New World: two of the ugliest chapters in the country’s history.

But this long story of wars, persecutions, and conquests seemed very distant as we stood in the gardens of the Alcázar on a beautiful sunny Andalusian day, after waiting in line for an hour. A stream of light-blue water trickled down the center of a walkway lined with palm trees and green bushes. The only hint of historical significance is a statue commemorating Columbus’s visit. He is shown standing before the king and queen, a scroll of paper in his hand.


It is hard to imagine a view more picturesque than that from the back of the gardens, with the walls and the tower of the tan castle standing over the azure water, its banks lined with red and yellow flowers, little fountains sprinkling streamlets into the air, the intense blue of the cloudless sky above, and every color magnified into vivid shades by the intense sunlight. It is almost unthinkable that this space could once have been used to torture accused heretics and to plan bloody battles. And this shows how easy it is to beautify the past.

We left the Alcázar the same way we came in, passing a line which had by now grown even longer. Our next stop was the Puente Romano, or Roman Bridge.

This bridge, now reserved for foot traffic only, was built in the first century BC. Its squat and splendid form stretches across the Guadalquivir River, one of Spain’s most important waterways. And on any given day the bridge is swarming with people.

The Roman Bridge, seen from the Alcázar

It certainly was this day. A crowd of tourists strolled by in a lazy stampede, ambling along with backpacks, sneakers, cellphones, and cameras, taking turns taking photos of one another. A violinist was playing; a guitarist was strumming; a man was dressed as a Roman legionnaire. Another man had built for himself a box, so that only his head was sticking out; his face was covered in clown makeup, and he was wearing a bright, frizzy wig and a red nose. He would scream and laugh maniacally at you when you passed by. For whatever reason, I think we were expected to give him tips.

The bridge looked too new and spotless to be ancient; I certainly didn’t feel like I was walking on a monument. And, indeed, it has been repaired and restored several times. In any case it is a beautiful bridge; and from the far end you get an excellent view of the city. Siting on little islands in the river below were several of what seemed to be ruins. They did not look ancient, but their presence did give the view a slight tinge of mystery that mixed oddly well with the beautiful sunny landscape, the sparkling river, the chatting tourists, and the cackling clown-head.

The Roman Bridge, with the Mezquita in the distance

But we were hungry. So after just a few minutes, we were strolling back the way we came, past the violinist and the guitarist and the legionnaire, back through the entrance archway and up into the town. We were going to lunch.

Lucky for me, I had mentioned my impending trip to Córdoba to one of my students the week before. It turned out that he was, in fact, from Córdoba; and like everybody, everywhere, he was very anxious that I have a good time in his home town. So on the day of our trip he thoughtfully texted me a lunch recommendation. It was the restaurant where his brother worked.

Though it was December the weather was nice enough to sit outside in a T-shirt. (Córdoba has the highest summer temperatures of any town in Europe.) So we sat beneath an orange tree and had a delicious lunch: eggplant in garlic sauce and spicy paella. My student’s brother soon found me (my student texted him a photo he had taken of me in class) and we had a short—a very short—conversation, since my Spanish is still shaky, and he spoke in the staccato, machine-gun rhythm that all residents of Andalucia seem to speak in.


An hour later we were back on the move, this time to see something which held particular interest for me: the statue of Moses Maimonides in the old Jewish quarter of the city.

Córdoba is a wonderful city for philosophy. In 4 BCE, the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger, a Stoic, was born in this selfsame city. He went on to tutor the infamous emperor Nero, and eventually ended his own life after that disturbed Emperor decreed his death. Much later, in 1126, the Muslim philosopher Averroes was born in this same city; and just nine years later, in 1135, the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides added his name to the list. Though nowadays neither Maimonides nor Averroes are much read, they are two of the most influential thinkers of their epoch.

The statues of Averroes and Seneca (pictured above) are near one another, located outside the old city walls. The statue of Maimonides is found in the Judería, the old Jewish Quarters, one of the loveliest sections of the city. Córdoba was not only home to a thriving Muslim population, you see, but to a flowering of Jewish culture. Many Jews serves as important advisors, counselors, and ministers to the Muslim rulers. Poetry flourished—in both Hebrew and Arabic—and many Jews were notable intellectuals and doctors.

Philosophy: Medieval & Modern

Maimonides himself was a doctor in addition to a theologian. And as I stood there, in the preternaturally bright Andalusian sun, contemplating the bearded face, crowned in a turban, decked in a robe, with pointy shoes to boot, I could not help feeling a certain awe at the intellectual dramas that had played out here, right here, so many years ago, back in the Age of Faith.

The sun beat down upon my back, sweat dripped from my forehead, my feet ached from all the walking. I stuck my finger into my pocket and felt the laminated edge of the ticket we had purchased earlier that morning. It was for the one place we had yet to go.


“No building in Europe,” says the English historian Norman Davies, “better illustrates the cycle of civilizations than the Mezquita Aljama, now the cathedral church in Cordoba.”

We walked inside and stopped in our tracks. It was incredible. Rows and rows of double arches stretched out before us, one arch atop the other, colored in candy-cane stripes of red and white. This was no gothic cathedral; this was a medieval mosque.

Mezquita1Mezquita2Or was it? In little nooks in the walls were Christian shines, just as in any other cathedral, barred off with a grille and containing altarpieces and religious paintings. But the catholic paraphernalia looked so oddly out of place sitting there—almost as if it had been left there by accident. Of course, this was no accident—and in fact this juxtaposition of styles and cultures, of architectures and faiths, is what constitutes the grandeur and charm of the Mezquita of Córdoba.


Allow me to quote once again from Norman Davies’s single-volume history of Europe:

[The Mezquita’s] originality lies in the use of materials taken from the demolished Latin-Byzantine Basilica of St. Vincent which stood until 741 in the same site, and which had once been shared by Christian and Moslem congregations. What is more, both mosque and basilica rested on the foundations of a great Roman temple, which in its turn had replaced a Greek or possibly a Phoenician edifice. Only St. Sofia in Istanbul can match such varied connections.

This motley heritage is easy to sense as one strolls through the building, examining a crucifix hanging on the walls between two richly decorated Moorish arches. As one proceeds, the slightly claustrophobic space suddenly opens up, revealing the gigantic dome that sits above the main altarpiece. Suddenly one is standing in a Renaissance cathedral, with colorful, naturalistic portraits of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints sitting between elegant marble columns with elaborate Corinthian capitals. Light streams in through the windows, high up above, lighting up the ivory-white ceiling so it seems to float weightlessly above one’s head.



And is not this structure a perfect metaphor in stone for the relationship between the two faiths, Christianity and Islam? They have been built on top of each other, over each other, with materials and ideas taken from one another. And although they owe such a mutual debt, they have so often—though not always—striven to burry this debt in oblivion, denying its very existence.

This even extends to the modern day. For despite a deeply shared history, Muslims are now forbidden to pray in the Mezquita; and a campaign launched by Muslims in the 2000s to change this has fallen on deaf ears and apathetic minds. The Vatican has denied their request; and now there is less mutual toleration than existed over one thousand years ago, when Muslims and Christians shared the Basilica of St. Vincent.

Of course, it was the Muslims back then who destroyed that old basilica. Humanity harbors no spotless faiths. Yet one would think that now, in our supposedly Enlightened age, we would have grown out of this petty bickering and territorialism. The Mezquita belongs to everyone; and this certainly includes Muslims.

The traces of Muslim influence are everywhere, if you cares to look. Among other things, the Muslims of Spain introduced “oranges, lemons, spinach, asparagus, aubergines, artichokes, pasta, and toothpaste, together with mathematics, Greek philosophy, and paper” into Europe. But we are apt to forget this heritage because the victors have so often striven to wipe out all traces of what came before them, giving no credit to anyone but themselves. And this process has certainly taken a toll on the Western mind, which thinks it has sprung fully formed from the land.

“When Spaniards shout ‘Olé,’” Davies says, “many don’t care to remember that they are voicing an invocation to Allah.” But it is important that we remember this, now more than ever. To forget our shared history is to open the door to the kind of intolerance, fear, and misunderstanding we see so rampant today.


6 thoughts on “Córdoba: In Search of Al-Andalus

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s