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     Volume 11 |Issue 17 | April 27, 2012 |


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A City of Three Cultures

Azizul Jalil

"To Cordoba belong all the beauty and ornaments that delight the eye or dazzle the sight. Her long line of Sultans, form her crown of glory; her necklace is strung with the pearls, which her poets have gathered from the ocean of language; her dress is of the banners of learning, well-knit together by her men of science; and the masters of every art and industry are the hem of her garments.”

Interior of Mezquita-the great mosque. Photo: Courtesy
Columbus petitioning the Queen and King of Spain for help in his voyage to India. photo: Azizul Jalil

Stanley Lane-Poole, British orientalist and archeologist (1854-1931)

After a fast and comfortable train ride of less than two hours going south-west from Madrid through the scenic Andalucian countryside with thousands of olive trees, vineyards and finely cultivated land containing low, green crops in the early spring, we reached Cordoba in the morning. As in the rest of Europe, Spanish railway stations are spacious and user-friendly and people widely use public transports. The stations were crowded and the trains fully occupied. In fact, we had to postpone our travel by one day because even for the hourly trains, tickets were not available.

Cordoba was founded by the Romans in 152 B.C. who left a lasting legacy in the Puente (bridge) Romano. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, it was the cultural custodian during the dark ages and a witness to the dawn of western civilisation. Situated on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, it was once one of the most important cities in the Islamic world, second only to Baghdad. In the 10th century, Cordoba was the largest city in Western Europe with about half a million residents and a most sophisticated civilisation, enriched by the contributions and learning of Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars. During the Muslim rule in the 8th to the 15th centuries, Cordova was rightly considered as the place of three cultures

A short taxi ride took us to the old Alcazar (meaning a fort) of Cordoba. There we were met by a local guide who stayed with us through the entire day-long visit to the fort, the Great Mosque, called La Mezquita, and the Jewish quarters and the Synagogue – all within a reasonable walking distance of each other. First built by the Visigoths, a Germanic group who settled in Spain, the fort was later expanded by the Moors into a large compound with gardens and a library after they conquered the territory in the 8th century. After the defeat of the Moors in Spain, Alcazar was the summer home of the catholic monarchs – King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. We saw the magnificent sloping gardens at the back, with statues, fountains and channels for watering the plants by gravitation. It was in this fort that Christopher Columbus first met Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1485 to seek their assistance in his famous voyage of discovery of what he thought would be a direct trade route to India. A large statue of these three figures commemorating the historic event has been located in the garden of the fort. Due to doubts in the court about Columbus' calculations, it was not until 1492 that he actually received the royal commission for his voyage. We were accompanied in the tour by an interesting, elderly Scottish couple. Despite the retired briga

The Alcazar Fort and Palace. Photo: Azizul Jalil

dier's many surgeries in the spine and knees and his walking with the help of a stick, he still rides a Harley Davidson motor cycle, which he carries in a crate even during his vacations.

We have seen many a historic mosque in Cairo, Istanbul, Lahore and other places but never have we seen such a colourful and large mosque, which since the defeat of the Moors has been converted into a cathedral holding regular service. It now represents two religions. The interior of the beautiful mosque was painted in pink, red and white stripes, zebra like. It remains as impressive as ever, with its exquisite mihrab (niche in the wall pointing to Mecca). The minarets of the mosque were left intact by subsequent Christian rulers of Spain who followed the Muslim Arab and the Moorish kings. However, it was covered on all sides and a church tower put on its top. Unlike the Babri Mosque in India and the Buddha statue at Bamian in Afghanistan, this large edifice was spared the wanton destruction that does not respect historic objects of art, culture and faith.

Ancient Jewish Quarter with its narrow alleys. Photo: Courtesy

The mosque, in which forty-thousand people could pray, was built and expanded over 250 years. It was also a public building, a meeting place and a school. Many of the forest of 1200 marble and stone columns and arches, particularly in later periods, were scavenged from the Roman ruins in the region. The reason is that the treasury ran out of funds for the mosque and had to use old and cheaper material in its expansion. The result, as our tour guide pointed out, was that many of the pillars and arches were not uniform and slightly varied in length and width, though it might not be noticed by a casual tourist viewing the awesome structure. It appears as a spiritual oasis, an architectural abstraction and a metaphor for infinity. Originally, it was open on all sides but was closed up later. Though it still appears vast and endless, we wondered how light and airy it must have been before.

The Jewish quarter (Juderia) had a special charm with small white-washed buildings and flowers in the windows and balconies and very narrow stony alleys and lanes. The statue of Maimonides is a centre of tourist attraction. He was a genius and a philosopher, who wrote “The Guide of the Perplexed” in Arabic to reconcile the theologies of Judaism and Islam. The area was mostly destroyed by the Catholic Monarchs but we visited one surviving well preserved synagogue built in 1316. A separate gallery at the top permitted females to worship without any distraction.

As we had gone to Cordova on a day visit, it was not possible to watch Flamenco dancing or bull fighting for which the city is quite famous. While waiting for our train back to Madrid on the platform at the Cordoba station, we met an American lady married to a Spanish writer living in a close by small town. She narrated the uniqueness of the city of three religions but lamented the fact that the fine specimen of architecture at the mosque was enclosed and could not be viewed. Apart from religious sensitivities, this high-minded liberal was concerned about aesthetics, and the beauty of the structure being denied to posterity. Such a rational approach to the world's many conflicts is indeed a rarity!



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