Chasing History in Córdoba

Updated: Apr 25, 2019

You know how kids often draw castles, that are usually straight edged, with lots of parapets? They must be channeling Spanish castles when they do this. The country over, I was struck with how similar the castles were to my childhood pictures, and no more so than in Córdoba. Even the parking garages in the city look like castles!

My stepdad Ray and I only had one day here and sought to make the best of it. Our first stop was the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, a castle built on the remains of what had been the home of the caliphs of Córdoba before the Catholics re-took the city in the 14th century.

One description of the castle that I found said that it was sober on the outside and splendid on the inside. That is a great description, not simply for the Alcázar but for most of the castles that we visited in Spain. I personally like the "sobriety" of the outsides, as they remind me of childhood, but I suppose most people might prefer the ornate castles of Burg Eltz or Neuschwanstein.

Whatever your opinion of the outside of the Alcázar, there is no denying the splendor of the interior. More specifically, the grounds. The interior of the castle walls are a comparison to other castles of the same era, but the gardens were absolutely eye-popping. Several long pools with fountains, surrounded by trees and statues commemorating various Spaniards of various eras.

Most famous among them were the statues of Ferdinand, Isabella, and Christopher Columbus. It was here the monarchs met with Columbus before he sailed west. They were here because the castle was used as a tribunal during Ferdinand and Isabella's oh-so-delightful Spanish Inquisition. It was also their headquarters during the campaign to rid the country of the last remaining Moorish stronghold (in nearby Granada), who were finally driven out in 1492, as Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It was a big year for the monarchs.

We took a tour of the castle, in a group with three older American women. These women apparently were die-hard Fox News viewers, as they spent the entire tour muttering to one another about the evils of Islam and how "ironic" it was that now the descendants of the cast-away Moors were trying to pass Sharia Law in America. Moments like that always make me stand back and blink a bit: I associate people who travel as being open-minded and interested in the wider world. I'd say it's nice to have my ideas challenged, but I really don't see any silver linings to xenophobia.

We were not sad to bid farewell to the tour, as there is only so much close-mindedness we can take in any given morning. A quick ten minute walk northeast of the Alcâzar lie the white-walled alleyways of the Jewish Quarter, one of the largest in Europe. The Jews thrived under Moorish rule, as the Caliphate practiced religious tolerance (but yeah, Muslims are terrible!). Due to the Inquisition and banishment of Jews from Spain (by the, ahem, Christians...sorry, did those women get to me?), there remain only three synagogues in Spain from the pre-modern era. One is here in Córdoba. It is quite small, but the connection to its history was clearly felt by both of us.

We then backtracked towards the Alcázar, cutting north halfway there to see the gem of Córdoba: the Mezquita. Now, I love Islamic art. The usage of tiles, paint, and archways knocks me over every time I see it. The Mezquita was no exception, though it was the most unique example I have seen. Rather than the elaborate tiled mosaics you find in most grand mosques, red paint was used to emulate a forest of date palms (the date being an important fruit in the Islamic religion. When I lived in Senegal, they were a common gift, especially during Ramadan when they were often used to break the fast).

The Mezquita was built in the 8th century. Legend has it that there was a small mosque and a small church on this spot, and the Muslims purchased the church, demolished both buildings, and built this stunner. It is absolutely massive, and if you thought the date palm archways made this a unique mosque, just wait until you hit the middle of it where you will suddenly find yourself in the middle of a grand cathedral.

Yes, you read that correctly. Córdoba fell back under Catholic rule in the 1200s, and the mosque was used as a church from then on. But there were no real modifications to the building itself. However, following the expulsion of all Moors from Spain, the Catholics plopped a full-blown cathedral into the middle of the Mezquita while keeping the rest of the building intact.

Be glad I warned you, because I had not done the proper research before heading into the building and was MIGHTILY confused. Thank goodness Ray had been the diligent one and explained to my dumbfounded self what was up.

The Mezquita is still a practicing Catholic church, but repeated requests from the Islamic community for it to be a joint house of worship have been denied. It is a sad history, but you cannot deny that Spain does not have a fascinating history with religious relations, with perhaps no better place to feel that than in Córdoba.