Tuesday, April 23, 2013
April 23rd: Córdoba and the Mezquita
Forty minutes by train outside Seville lies Córdoba, the 10th century capital of Al Andalus, the Moorish name for their empire in the Iberian Peninsula. Being the train ride lovers that we are, we decided to make a day trip there, primarily to see La Mezquita, the orginal grand mosque of the empire.
You can never find a taxi when you need one and our day began as a testament to that old saw. We figured we go to the taxi stand by the fancy hotel, just down the block from our apartment. Of course on this morning there were none to be seen and the doorman was running up and down the tiny streets trying to flag a couple off of the nearest boulevard. We’d left plenty of time to walk to the station (2 miles) but though a cab ride would be a better way to start the day, allowing for fresh feet and legs. But now, our strategy was coming under fire. Heading off in the general direction of the train, we saw a cab drop off a fare in a small park, so I waved until I got his attention, jaywalked through the morning traffic and secured our lift.
We made it with plenty of time, and the train left promptly at 9:20. On the same ride down from Madrid, we had been on the east side of the train and the scenery had been interesting. The same cannot be said of the western view – flat, agricultural, weedy and dry. It’s amazing what a few rolling hills can do to liven up the vista.
It was about a mile from the station to the entrance to the old city. We passed a Roman funerary site on the way that was very disappointing between the graffiti and the trash but even in spite of these modern offenses it’s always interesting to see something so old sitting there ignored in a modern urban park. Almost an afterthought.
Like all medieval towns, Córdoba’s was tight and confusing. Entering through the Almodóvar Gate, I thought it a bit seedier than the barrios in Sevilla and Barcelona. Not trashy or in poor condition, just a bit less attention to detail, as though the residents didn’t take as much pride in raising the appeal of their neighborhood. We found the 6th century Synagogue closed (of course) so we kept on moving towards our primary goal.
The Cathedral of Córdoba stands on the site of a 6th century Visigoth church that was purchased from the recently conquered Christians by Emir Abd al Rahman I in 785. He began the process of building the Grand Mosque, a process that ultimately lasted almost two centuries ending finally by the Reconquista in 1236. You enter through the Plaza de Naranjas, another patio of orange trees that is much superior to the one we visited in Sevilla. Towering above is the bell tower, built in 1600, and surrounding are long corridors displaying examples of carved wooden beams from the 10th century. Getting into the place was very confusing for the average tourist, judging from the long line of people unwilling or unable to use the very simple and fast automatic ticket machine, and from the numbers kicked out of the entrance line for having no ticket at all. See a line, stand it it seems to be one of the most fundamental aspects of human nature.
Entering, you are immediately hit with the grandeur of the place. More than 800 delicate stone pillars holding up a ceiling of delicate arches of alternating red brick and white stone, seemingly marching off into infinity. The pillars and capitals, composed of marble, granite and alabaster were larger crafted from re-used Roman and Visigoth materials. The place is dark, cool and very peaceful. This was the original prayer hall and is said to have held more than 10,000 worshipers at the height of its history and the architect’s goal was to humble visitors with a demonstration of Allah’s immensity.
The second thing you notice are the chapels, added sparingly at first during the 14th and 15th century. The contrast between the ideals of the Arab builders and those of the Christians is a theme that repeats over and over as you walk around. The former sought to impress with size and simplicity, the latter with blood, violence and guilt. Many of the Mudejar chapels that line the outer walls are quite beautiful and impressive in their construction but the feeling is always the same – sorrow, horror and pain.
In 1523 Bishop Alfonso Manrique put an end to the coexistence and a genuine cathedral to be plopped right down in the middle of the Mosque. Initially the Town Council opposed it, but King Carlos V intervened and the work went ahead. And what a cathedral it is. Clearly coming from a position of insecurity, the goal here was clearly to conquer the pagan elements by overpowering them with Renaissance and Baroque elements. The result makes you shake your head as you have all these traditional church elements merging with those of the older Mosque. In some places, you even have carved embellishments on the arches, Muslim on one side of the aisle and Christian on the other which creates sort of a demilitarized zone in the middle. Some of the chapels even feature the usual ornate statues of saints, Virgins and cherubs side by side with quotes from the Koran. The best thing you can say about the cathedral is that it is a grand representation of all that was fancy, ornate and overdone during the era. The builders clearly took something stunning and changed it into something less so, still arresting in execution and size, but far less beautiful and uplifting. It reminded me so much of the Fountainhead in which our hero’s modern, stylish buildings were neutered by the addition of Greek and Roman elements in the name of “public taste.” The true beauty of the place remains around the perimeter of the cathedral, where the Islamic elements remain largely untouched.
Even now, 8 centuries later the place remains controversial. As a reminder of the original Visigoth Christian roots, a glass panel in the floor displays a mosaic from the 6th century church, a less than delicate reminder of who came first.
We paid a visit to a very pretty but almost impossible to photograph Roman temple that was in a much grittier part of town and then headed down the hill to the river to take a few photos of the Puente Romana, a bridge across the Guadalquivir River that still uses the original Roman foundations. The walk along the river varied from nice (bird songs, burbling water) to foul (homeless camp garbage dump) but the view was consistently nice. We took a turn back up into the old city to find some coffee and a pastry and found a nice little cafe right by the gate we had used earlier. Two Americanos and Tarta Cordobeses, a local delicacy that turned out to be apple pie and french vanilla ice cream. School was getting out and we sat by the lane and watch dozens of little children in their school uniforms head home, escorted by parents and grandparents.
The train ride home was fast and simple and we caught a cab much more quickly at the train station than we did in our neighborhood. After dark we walked across the Iron Bridge to Triana and had a tapas dinner along the river. Fried fish, chicken with garlic and tomatoes with fresh tuna. A cold Alhambra beer and a glass of vino tinto to wash it down. A stop at my (now favorite) cookie store for a bag full of light desert capped the day quite nicely.
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