Córdoba, Spain

 Visited 17 and 18 October 2008

Córdoba, , Spain
Tourists come here to see the Great Mosque, and that alone is worth the trip. However, to get there, they walk through what was unarguably Europe's greatest city in 1000 CE. This town preserved and expanded Western thought through its great libraries and its steady production of some of the greatest Roman, Muslim, and Jewish intellectuals. We would be a different world without this town.

Córdoba was probably settled by the Carthagians, a bit surprising given its inland location. However, this was about as far as one could navigate up southern Iberia's great river, the Guadalquivir (blue line in the map at right). 

Tourists come to Córdoba to see its spectacular mosque/cathedral, one of the two greatest complexes of Muslim Spain. But there's much more to see here even if it's not quite as awe-inspiring as the mosque.  (See our Córdoba Mosque web pages by clicking here.

Walls and Water

Córdoba, Spain

Córdoba has preserved/restored its walls on its west side just before a green beltway-underground parking lot that gives tourists easy access to its monumental area. The pools suggest the water that the Romans and Moors brought to the city using 5 aqueducts and a waterwheel. This was probably first a Carthaginian town before thriving under Roman rule after 152 BCE. A century later, Julius Caesar killed 20,000 Córdobians for backing Pompey’s sons. Caesar's nephew and heir Augustus made up for it by making this the capital of the Roman province of Baetica.

Córdoba, Spain

Above is another view of the crenellated town walls with the characteristic spiky merlons of the Moors.  (The word merlon may be related to the Latin word for pitchfork.) 

After 711, the Moors swept through Iberia, conquering most of it in just over 3 years.  True, they were agile horsemen whose lightly armored horses could easily outmaneuver the heavier Visigoth steeds. But more importantly, the population supported their invasion and were happy to overthrow their crude Visigoth rulers.  Maybe they were greeted as liberators, as the people had nothing to lose but their Cheneys.  

Moors conquered and then fought themselves for four decades until an exiled ruler from the Umayyad royal family in Damascus came here and made Córdoba his capital in 756. His name was ʿAbd al-Raḥmān I, and he was a transformational ruler. His foundation of trade and law helped the Moors hold the town for nearly 5 centuries, until surrendering to the Christian King Ferdinand (the Saint) in 1236.

Philosophers, if not kings

Córdoba, Spain

Córdoba bred philosophers. As the largest and most civilized spot in the Western world for centuries, it’s no surprise that the greatest medieval philosophers for both the Jews (Maimonides) and Arabs (Averroës) have some attachment to these walls.  They were born here; but unfortunately were later exiled when the light of Córdoba’s tolerance faded.

But they didn't start this fire. A millennium before their time, the great Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born here in 4 BC. Like Averroës, he was more than a philosopher, but an administrator as well. He pretty much ran the Roman empire while his former student, Nero, fiddled. The stoic governed while the sybarite played? Not quite, as Seneca wrote a better game than he played; he kept getting exiled for adulterous affairs. (Perhaps a Monica of restraint would have served him better.)

On the side, Seneca wrote plays that later influenced Shakespeare. In all, 40 of his books survived the millennium of trauma that followed Rome’s collapse. Václav Havel, eat your heart out!

The Walnut Gate

The gate below was called Puerta de Almodóvar, the “Walnut Gate,” by the Moors who first built it.  (Pictured is a 14th century twin-tower reincarnation built after the Moors had fled to Granada.). It escorts visitors into the historic Jewish quarter that we’ll explore a little later. 

A backwater during Visigoth times, Córdoba’s fortunes rose and fell under the Moors. Although descended from caliphs, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān I downgraded his transformational rule here to an emirate. His decedents eventually upgraded this back to a Caliphate. As central control deteriorated after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty (1031 AD), Córdoba’s realm was broken up into petty states called taifas – a disorganized bunch of rivals who went their own way, were again reunited, and went off on their own again. Eventually the combined Christian forces -- several separate kingdoms which cross-bred so often that eventually they produced heirs to nearly all of Spain -- picked them off, one-by-one.

Córdoba, Spain

A man for all reason

Córdoba, Spain

This statue above is of the great Moorish administrator, judge, philosopher and physician Averroës -- born here of a family of lawyers in 1126 and died in Marrakesh (now in Morocco) 72 years later.  His skills were so varied that we could mis-categorize him as a “Renaissance Man”– except there may have been no Renaissance without his support of the classical texts. His is hardly a household name in the West, but without his translations of Aristotle and Plato, we would live in a much different world -- one where there would be no Thomas Aquinas and his scholastics who defined Christian and Western philosophy. (And another Thomas named Jefferson may have doubted that his truths were all that self-evident, either.)

Averroës's thinking was foundational while the political world around him crumbled. Before his exile, he probably knew medieval Córdoba's great library which held 400,000 books -- long before Europeans discovered the printing press 4 centuries later.


In general, the tourist infrastructure is quite good here, including lots of bi-lingual signs. We noticed these markers (below left) near many of the tourist sites.  City Hall here encourages the use of a pay-by-the-minute phone service to find out more about the sites.

Córdoba, Spain Córdoba, Spain

But we saw only one bike station for the daily rentals that worked so well for us in Paris and Seville.  (In fact, we saw only this one bike!) Hopefully tourist towns will increase their availability but until they do, Córdoba will continue to rely upon its historic transportation, the white Andalusian horse, bred from stock the Arabs once brought here. Needless to say, much of the historic town center is off limits to automobiles. But many of the "streets" in the Arab quarter are too narrow for even horse and buggy.

Córdoba, Spain

Córdoba’s present-day zoo was once the site of the Royal stud farm (for horses, not princes). Mares were valued so highly, and in such short supply, that a law banned them from being used to bear mules. English horses today trace some of their lineage back to Southern Spain after Ferdinand and Isabel sent Henry VIII a pair of breeders. (Mulish Henry was married for 24 years to their youngest daughter but was having breeding problems of his own, at least of the masculine persuasion.)

Next, we explore where not even these horses can go: the ancient Arab Quarter. Please join us by clicking here.

Please join us in the following slide show to give Córdoba the viewing it deserves by clicking here.

 Next: Arab Quarter

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Created on June 15, 2009

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