We arrived in Córdoba just as a thunderstorm and torrential rain struck the town. It was a storm that had the makings of the beginning of the apocalypse: roaring thunder, brilliant lightening and rain that bounced off the roads, all followed by a giant, luminous rainbow. We were beginning to wonder if the dodgy weather was following us, but once the storm passed the sun gloriously illuminated Córdoba once more. It was a relief because Córdoba is best explored on foot over several days, you need the weather on your side for that.
This was once the flourishing and strategically vital capital city of Islamic Spain, the glories of which are the stuff of legend. There was a time when Córdoba was estimated to be the largest city in the world; sometime around the 10th Century there were perhaps 900,000 people living in the city. Today it is clear that those times are long past, the modern city is home to a third of that number, approximately 320,000 people. Its relatively small size gives Córdoba a relaxed feel, despite the numerous tourists who visit each year.
It’s hard to overstate Córdoba’s historical importance, particularly under the Moors when it was one of the main centres of the Umayyad Caliphate. The Caliphate stretched from Spain, across North Africa, the Middle East and Arabian Peninsular, to the Caucases, Central Asia and modern-day Pakistan. As one of the great urban centres of this mighty empire, Córdoba was more cultured, more learned, more opulent and more powerful than any other city in Europe – most of which was still languishing in the post-Roman Empire Dark Ages.
The city sat at the centre of a giant trade empire, and grew fabulously wealthy. Its wealth was matched by the opulence of its buildings and the lifestyles of its rulers. The crowning glory, the Mezquita, was said to have rivalled Mecca as a place of pilgrimage. It’s hard to imagine any other city daring to make that claim today. The Umayyad’s established Europe’s first university here, and the city attracted some of the greatest thinkers of the time. Córdoba established a reputation second-to-none throughout the Caliphate for science, theology, philosophy and the arts.
All good things come to an end, however. Internal power struggles led to the collapse of Córdoba as the centre of the Caliphate, the crown passed to Sevilla, and eventually to Granada. The coming of Christian rule saw a sharp decline in Córdoba’s fortunes. The city was captured by the Reconquista in 1236, over 250 years before the end of Islamic power in the Iberian Peninsular. Whether deliberate or not, starting with the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, Córdoba became a backwater; its population diminished along with trade, culture and its place as a centre of learning.
You don’t have to look too far to glimpse those former glories though, not just in the Mezquita, but throughout the narrow streets of the former medina and the Juderia, the old Jewish Quarter. These are some of the most atmospheric streets I’ve ever walked. Twisting and turning your way around the city is pure pleasure. There is always a glorious plaza or a wonderful historic building to surprise you, and once you’re away from the few streets around the Mezquita you can often find yourself alone.
The old city can feel unearthly and claustrophobic at times, to get your breath and bearings head to the river and cross to the far side for incrdible views back over the city. At night, when the Mezquita is illuminated and reflected in the slow waters of the Rio Guadalquivir, it is a mesmerising sight – especially if you’re stood next to the Roman bridge which spans the river and brings you to the Mezquita itself. The Rio Guadalquivir is Spain’s only great navigable river. As early as Roman times it was navigable all the way to Córdoba, a key element in the growth of the city.
It would be fair to say we fell a bit in love with Córdoba. Despite the early rain, despite the coach parties that crowd the streets periodically (particularly French school children for some reason), and despite the touristed area around the Mezquita selling 50 shades of tourist tat, this is a city that lives and breathes its magnificent history. Córdoba casts a spell that is hard to get out from under.