x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Cordoba showcases Spain's great Islamic past

The Spanish city shows off its Moorish history as well as one of its most influential sons, the Islamic scholar Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes.

A view of Cordoba from the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, or Palace of the Christian Kings, with the Mezquita's belfry in the background.
A view of Cordoba from the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, or Palace of the Christian Kings, with the Mezquita's belfry in the background.

You may never have heard of Ibn Rushd, or Averroes as he is referred to in European literature. Yet this 12th-century Islamic judge, physician, mathematician and philosopher of Al Andalus, or today's Andalucía, became an intellectual bridge between Islamic and Western thought. Born in Cordoba and dying in Marrakech, it was his commentaries on the works of Aristotle that, subsequently translated, reputedly sowed the seeds of Europe's Renaissance.

I'm here in his birthplace to preview a new "Averroes tour" run by the Palacio del Bailio, Cordoba's only five-star property. Originally a 16th-century noble's mansion and estate, today it's an officially catalogued monument thanks to a remarkable Roman mosaic floor in the basement - unmissable thanks to a glass floor in the dining room above. The tour aims not merely to show us Cordoba's highlights but to underline the importance of its Moorish heritage. Nearly a millennium after the life of Averroes, his idealism remains relevant today.

As Gema Martin Munoz, director of the government-backed Casa Arabe (an organisation aimed at strengthening cultural ties with the Arab world) explains to us at a special background talk, Averroes offered a modern way of thinking. Al Andalus, she emphasises, was one culture with three religions. For around eight centuries the Moors of North Africa invaded and colonised Al-Andalus; cultures and blood mingled, academia and artistry thrived and, at its height, perhaps three-quarters of the Iberian population were, through conversion or otherwise, Muslim. Born of an era many scholars claim was the zenith of Islamic learning and culture, southern Spain was ultimately left with several magnificent sights that draw thousands of tourists to this day. By the 16th century, that had changed. Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain or forcibly converted, and the country became insular, homogenous and very Catholic.

Cordoba's main sights stand in a compact area by a sharp bend of the River Guadalquivir. Narrow winding lanes and streets, close-knit houses, the odd plaza, fragments of city walls, Moorish gateways and even a Roman temple: all make for enjoyable straightforward wandering. They converge upon the city's jewel, the celebrated Mezquita, an eighth-century mosque that was once the world's largest before it was turned into a cathedral in the 1520s. On the basis of saving the best until last, we enjoy several detours along the way.

We begin with a gentle stroll towards the site of an ancient Roman temple, its reconstructed fluted columns jutting skyward against a distinctly modern backdrop of shops and offices. "Corduba", as the Romans called their city once famed for olive oil, had substantial perimeter walls and, following one of those now imperceptible boundaries, our guide leads us along San Fernando Street towards the river. He turns abruptly into a cluster of labyrinthine lanes that funnels us into the Plaza Jeronimo Paez, a pretty square edged by the Archaeological Museum.

Tucked away nearby in a street alongside an imposing section of Moorish-era fortifications, we pause at the modest Casa Andalusi Museum. Its rooms are arranged around a dinky garden courtyard and it shows the core elements of a traditional 12th-century house - essentially a small riad - that would have been common throughout Moorish Cordoba. The proprietor, a Palestinian woman (born, she said, in Jerusalem) in somewhat stagey flowing blue robes and turban, speaks briefly, emphasising how Cordoba had thrived in an atmosphere of universal brotherhood. She also draws our attention to a paper-making display complete with wooden models, since Moorish Cordoba was the first European city to make the material. Well, wasn't this just normal in a city that a thosand years ago boasted 600 inns, 800 bath houses, 60 hospitals, paved streets, and a library of half a million manuscripts lovingly produced by 30,000 calligraphers?

Just outside those crenellated walls near the Almodovar Gate stands a sage-like statue of Averroes, a book resting on his knee. Our guide (by now rambling and ill-served by a last-minute translator) attempts to convey the significance of the man and his era, in particular his much-vaunted tolerance and embracing of diversity. A trio of Kuwaitis pause briefly to take pictures before retiring to a nearby cafe. "Cordoba gets quite a few Arab tourists," he notes, though their main focus remains the Mezquita and especially its recently launched night tours.

Almost in the shadow of the Mezquita's belfry (originally a minaret, of course, but then smothered by the existing tower) we visit the Art on Leather Museum to see modern examples of guadameci - the embossing, tooling and gilding of leather hides - which was perfected in Al-Andalus. Elaborate designs, some using coloured glass and metal, featuring mostly plant motifs and geometric patterns were worked onto silver-coated sheepskin that in turn covered caskets or were simply framed.

The truly dedicated could spend days in the old quarter's little knot of streets, delving into Cordoba's atmospheric nooks and crannies, be it the Juderia (or Jewish quarter), the medieval Episcopal Palace, or a clutch of churches. From the Romans on, its astonishing heritage lies like layers of an onion, one era's monuments often fused with or grafted onto the next to create a unique melange. Away from the usual crowds I venture into St Bartholomew's Chapel (attached to the University of Cordoba's Faculty of Philosophy and Letters), where mudejars - Muslim Spaniards under Christian rule - had incorporated Moorish styles, especially decorative tile work, or zellij, to exquisite effect.

Down by the Guadalquivir the handsome Puente Romano, or Roman Bridge, remains as vital now as it must have been when built in the first century and then repaired in the eighth by a Moorish governor. Like virtually every visitor here, we cross it for some of the best views of the Mezquita and a nearby reconstructed water mill - one of several that, with their groans and creaks, reputedly kept Queen Isabel awake and cranky during a visit in the late 1400s.

Cordoba's triumph and the ultimate architectural fusion remains the marvellous Mezquita, or Great Mosque. Still punctuated with elaborate horseshoe gateways, we first orbit its high walls along a rectangle of streets keeping a steady eye off the surrounding souvenir shops, fast-food disasters and undistinguished restaurants. Built in the eighth century and expanded by a succession of caliphs over about 200 years, its construction was pragmatic from the word go. Using land bought from Christians, much of it was erected using material salvaged from other buildings - the Roman pillars are particularly obvious. Notwithstanding its slight misalignment to Mecca, by the time it acquired a bone of the Prophet Mohammed in the 800s, this was the Islamic world's fourth most important mosque and place of pilgrimage after those in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem.

A good guide (and ours for the mosque was excellent) will show you all its various additions and nuances of design, and explain the distinctive forest of double-arched pillars banded rust-red and creamy-white. And then there's the 16th-century cathedral, somehow wedged into the heart of it all, loftily domed and with incongruous Renaissance touches here and there. It may comprise barely a quarter of the walled mosque but, officially and for purposes of worship, the entirety remains strictly a cathedral. You might take heart, though, from the feeling that the mihrab - possibly saved from ruination by being bricked up for centuries until the 1800s - remains the most photographed part of the interior.

Cordoba's story, I came to realise, is just part a complex jigsaw that still preoccupies Spanish academics, and Averroes was controversial even in his own time. One could easily enjoy the city, as thousands do, simply for its aesthetic appeal but a tour like this helps sketch the larger picture.

 

If You Go

The flight Etihad Airways return flights from Abu Dhabi to Madrid start from Dh3,185, including taxes

The stay Double rooms at the Palacio del Bailio (www.hospes.com; 0034 957 498 993) start from €160 (Dh836)

The package Averroes tours start at €622 (Dh3,351) per double room for two nights including breakfast and taxes. The package includes a three-hour guided tour of Cordoba including the Mezquita, a visit to nearby Medina Azahara, dinner for two, and access to the hotel spa's Roman baths