Cordoba is an Andalusian city with a glorious past. It was the world’s most populous city in the 10th century and became a center for education under the Moors who conquered it in the 8th century. Outstanding examples of Islamic architecture can be found throughout the city, with the famous Mezquita, a mosque-cum-cathedral, dominating the skyline from all directions. Other top attractions in Cordoba include several structures from Roman times. The city also is known for its beautiful flowers and carefully landscaped patios that are celebrated with a patio festival each May.
The Calahorra Tower is another Cordoban landmark that represents Islamic architecture. Located at the south end of the Roman Bridge, the horseshoe-shaped tower is the oldest defensive site in Cordoba. It was built by the Moors to protect the city from attackers. It originally consisted of an arched gate between two towers; a third tower was added by King Henry of Castile in the 14th century. Today, it houses a museum that showcases Cordoba’s history, including the peaceful co-existence of Christians, Jews and Muslims. It also showcases the early culture, science and engineering feats that Andalusia was famous for centuries ago.
The picturesque Calleja de las Flores is one of the most popular streets in Cordoba. It’s more like a narrow alley than a street, however, as it runs through the city’s Jewish Quarter. Colorful pots, window boxes and ornate balconies filled with flowers hang from homes and greet visitors as they stroll the alley. The Calleja de las Flores ends in a small plaza. It’s a great place to take pictures, not only of the gaily-colored flowers, but the Mezquita provides a spectacular backdrop to this appealing scene.
The Medina Azahara (Madinat al-Zahra) was a stunning 10th century palace built for a caliph about five miles outside of Cordoba. Legend has it the caliph named it for his favorite concubine, though there are indications he built it to show that his caliphate was the most powerful in medieval Europe. The complex consisted of three terraces with the castle built on the top two levels. The terraces were surrounded by a wall, with a mosque built outside it. The palace was built of sumptuous colorful materials, including precious gems. The posh palace was destroyed 70 years later. It was rediscovered in the early 19th century and is being restored today.
From the outside, the Palacio de Viana seems rather austere, but step inside for a look at how 17th century nobility lived. One of the best aristocratic houses in Cordoba, the palace is also known as the Museo de los Patios because it contains 12 grand patios, each of which is decorated differently. The interior of the building today contains a carriage museum, appropriate since provision was made for horse-drawn carriages to enter inside; leather wall hangings; a 7,000-volume library that also contains Flemish tapestries; an art gallery with a floor made from Roman tiles, and other historic items reflecting the period.
Jews have lived in Cordoba since Roman times, and really flourished after the Moors conquered the city in the 8th century. They became wealthy and served in important positions in the Moorish court. Maimonides, a famous Jewish philosopher, was born here in 1126; a statue of him stands in Tiberiadus Square in the Juderia. The Jewish quarter with its narrow warren-like streets is a good place to shop for jewelry and silver items.
The main attraction in the Jewish Quarter today is the ancient synagogue (La Sinagoga) on the Calle de los Judios; it is one of only three original synagogues remaining in Spain. Built in the 14th century the synagogue was turned into a hospital after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. It became a Catholic chapel in 1588. Today it is a museum. The interior still contains inscriptions of Hebrew psalms. The main hall is rectangular in shape and decorated with Mudejar-style plant motifs. The wall supporting the women’s tribune has three arches with exquisite decorative plasterwork.
The Roman Bridge, or Puente Romano, is an awesome sight as it spans the Guadalquivir River. Located in the historic center of Cordoba, the bridge dates back to the first century AD when it was built by the Romans; it has been rebuilt several times over the centuries. The current bridge retains the Islamic flavor of the Moorish reconstruction that dropped the number of arcades from 17 to 16. It is best viewed at dusk, with the Mezquita in the background, when the setting sun turns the stone a deep red. Halfway across the bridge is a statue of San Rafael that was added in the 16th century.
The Festival of Los Patios is held halfway through May when spring is at its best. The festival consists of a contest in which participants open their courtyards to visitors to have a look around, at a time when blooming flowers turn the patios into beautiful domestic gardens. Due to a hot, dry climate homes in Córdoba were built with a central patio even back in the days of the Romans. This tradition was continued by the Moors and persists in many homes even today. Filling the central patio with plants and water features has always been a way to keep local homes cool. Patio decoration ended up taking on a life all its own. For 13 days in May, the doors open and everyone is invited in to see the wonders of Córdoba’s patios.
The Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, or Fortress of the Christian Monarchs, was built in the 8th century as a palace or fortress for the Moorish caliphate. A major Cordoban landmark, the alcazar became the residence of Spanish kings and queens who ruled from there for 160 years. Christopher Columbus came here to seek funding for his trip to the unknown lands from Ferdinand and Isabella. It later became a jail, but today it is a public museum for those who want to see ancient artifacts. The main draw of this popular attraction in Cordoba, however, are the backyard gardens with fountains and hedges that honor the alcazar’s Islamic heritage.
It didn’t start out this way, but the end result of the Mezquita represents an ecumenical effort by several religions, all of which conquered Cordoba at one time. The original Roman temple was replaced by a Visigoth cathedral. It became a mosque in the 8th century when Moors captured the city. At one time this sacred Moslem pilgrimage destination held an original copy of the Koran and an arm bone belonging to Mohammed. It became a cathedral again in the 13th century when Cordoba was conquered by Christians. They left the stunning Islamic architecture of this Cordoba landmark essentially intact, simply consecrating and renaming it.