Simon Wilcox - writer and editor

The oasis of Andalucia

In Cordoba, Simon finds the one-time glories of Moorish Spain

The defining experience of any visit to the Andalucian city of Cordoba has to be standing inside the Mezquita, the Great Mosque, peering through the hundreds of arches that hold up the roof of the main chamber.

These double-tiered frames – made of granite and marble, but vaulted with alternating stones of burnt-red jasper – fan out all across the hall like branches in a desert oasis of date palm trees. You soon lose your bearings in this oasis. Look for an obvious focal point or an exit door and you will not find them. The arches radiate all around you, engulfing you, surrounding you, until finally you are totally lost inside the clutches of the forest.

And what is this forest? And the strange sense of beatitude and serenity it appears to breathe. It is difficult to tell at first, but then it slowly dawns on you. It is the whisper in the trees of a one-time glory, the glory of Moorish Spain.

The Moors – an Islamic force made up of Arabs, Syrians and North African Berbers – arrived in Andalucia from the far shores of the Mediterranean in 711, and within a few years had established control over all of southern Spain, making their capital at Cordoba.

It was the beginning of a golden age. Over the next few centuries, as medieval Catholic Europe fell into a deep slumber, Islamic Cordoba became a centre of trade and scholarship. The emir of Cordoba’s library contained 400,000 volumes of learning; and in the busy markets outside the walls of his palace, produce from all over the known world was being bought and sold. Porcelain and silk from China, spices from India, precious gemstones from a land that the Arabs knew as the Golden Chersonese, but we now call Malaysia – all of these exotic commodities made their way along the international trading routes from the East, across the Indian Ocean or through Central Asia, and then onto Cordoba.

As is well-documented, however, dreamy medieval Europe eventually woke up from its long sleep and began to roll back the Arab advance. Cordoba fell as early as 1236, and by the time the Christian re-conquest of Iberia was finally completed with the surrender of the emirate of Granada in 1492, the fortunes of Cordoba – the one-time star of the east-west axis – were firmly in decline.

But remnants of the long-lost halcyon age of Cordoba were still in evidence as I stepped off the train from Madrid many centuries later and roamed the city’s streets. Narrow alleyways spanned out from the Mezquita as they would have done in Moorish times, flanked on each side by whitewashed walls, many with decorative glazed tiles at their base. These winding lanes were shadowy, labyrinthine and hot, but find an open doorway to a house within a stretch of wall, and you would be stepping into one of Cordoba’s famous Arabian patios. These courtyards would have brought air and light to a house. Many of them, as they still do, featured a tinkling fountain at their centre, surrounded by orange and lemon trees or a cluster of terracotta pots bursting with geraniums and carnations.

Then, of course, there was the pure majesty of the Grand Mosque, the Mezquita itself: its patio of orange trees, the doubled-tiered arches in its main chamber, and the fluted shell-like vault of its prayer niche, the mihrab. Although much water had flowed along Cordoba’s Guadalquivar river since the Mezquita was built, the legacy of Moorish Spain clearly lives on.

This article is based on a visit I made to Cordoba in 2018.

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