During our trip to Seville, we took a day to visit Córdoba. I had been wanting to go for a long time. There are few towns in Spain, or perhaps anywhere else, with such an interesting past. Relics and reminders from almost every chapter in Europe’s history can be found here, in this relatively small city in Andalusia.

So I hope you will forgive me if I take the time in this blog post, not only to tell the story of my own trip—though I will do that too—but to try also to tell a piece of this larger story, the story of migrations, conquests, clashes, and brief periods of tolerance, which continues on to the present day. I will try to do this, not only because it is fascinating in itself, but because I believe it can shed some light on the mudslinging, misunderstanding, fear, and ugliness that we are seeing today between the so-called “West” and the Muslim world.


First there was a line. There always is—especially if you’re like us, and don’t plan your trip ahead of time. The line curved from the entrance, through the front lawn full of palm trees, and into the sidewalk. We were waiting to get into the Alcázar of the Christian Monarchs, another castle in Spain with Moorish origins. The name of this particular Alcázar stems, I believe, from its use as a military base by the Catholic Monarchs during the Reconquista of Spain.

The Reconquista is the name given to the lengthy, unsystematic, and disorganized invasions of Muslim-controlled Spain by Catholic forces, which took place over hundreds of years. Don’t imagine that all of the Catholics up in the north of the Iberian Peninsula got together and decided to start pushing the Moors out. The reality was far more complicated. There was infighting between both the Moors and the Catholics; Muslim fought Muslim and Christian fought Christian almost as often as they fought each other. Religion was just one factor in a spectrum of conflicts of interests and ambitions as rulers jockeyed for power.

This long period of interaction—the Moors were in Spain for about 700 years—produced a rather different attitude towards Muslims in Spain than existed elsewhere in Europe. To get a taste of this, read The Song of Roland and then The Poem of the Cid. The first is French, the second Spanish. Both are Medieval epics, which include battles between Muslims and Christians in their narratives. And both are based on historical events, but include much distortion of facts—not to mention purely fabricated material.

The French poem treats the Muslims as the incarnation of evil; they are little more human than the orcs in The Lord of the Rings. Thus the battle is a struggle between light and darkness, with Roland and Charlemagne as the champions of all that is good.

But it is obvious that whoever wrote the poem had scant knowledge of Islam, as he has the Muslims invoking the name “Apollo!” during battle—which is just ludicrous. An added irony is that the historical event that this poem was based on didn’t even involve Muslims; rather, Charlemagne’s forces were ambushed by a bunch of Basques as they crossed the Roncevaux pass through the Pyrenees. Thus, the conflict had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the invasion of land.

The Poem of the Cid is hardly more factual. It tells of the exploits of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, otherwise known as “the Cid,” a military commander who lived in Medieval Spain. In this story, however, the Muslims, though they are sometimes enemies, are not the inhuman beasts of The Song of Roland. They are people just the same; and in one scene they even cheer as the Cid liberates their city and allows them to live in peace. The reality behind this story is even more complicated, as the real Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, being a bit of a mercenary character, spent time fighting for the Muslims against Christians!

But however complicated the reality may have been, and whatever mutual tolerance may have existed, the Moors were eventually pushed out. This long process culminated in the siege of Granada, the last stronghold of Muslim Spain. During this campaign, the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, used the Alcázar in Córdoba as their base of operations. And I can’t help finding a bit of irony in this, since the Alcázar was built on the ruins of a Moorish castle, which had been reconstructed in the Mudéjar style—an architectural style used by the Spanish Catholics, heavily influenced by Moorish architecture.

The war finally ended in 1492, when the last Muslims were forced to flee, when the Jews were expelled, and when Columbus set out on his voyage across the Atlantic. This year marks the beginning of Spain as we know it. The Middle Ages had come to a close, and the newly united country was entering its Golden Age as a global superpower. And since the Catholic monarchs directed their military campaign from this castle, and since Columbus proposed his ocean voyage to the King and the Queen as they stayed here, the Alcázar in Córdoba can be said to be at the center of this story. Next came the Inquisition, which used the Alcázar as a prison and for “interrogation,” and the Conquistadores in the New World, two of the ugliest chapters in history.

But this long story of wars, persecutions, and conquests seemed very distant as we stood in the gardens of the Alcázar on a beautiful sunny Andalusian day, after waiting in line for an hour. A stream of light-blue water trickled down the center of a walkway lined with palm trees and green bushes. The only hint of historical significance is a statue commemorating Columbus’s visit; he is shown standing before the king and queen, a scroll of paper in his hand.

It is hard to imagine a view more picturesque than that from the back of the gardens, with the walls and the tower of the tan castle standing over the azure water, its banks lined with red and yellow flowers, little fountains sprinkling streamlets into the air, the intense blue of the cloudless sky above, and every color magnified into vivid shades by the intense sunlight. It is almost unthinkable that this space could once have been used to torture accused heretics and to plan bloody battles. And this shows how easy it is to beautify the past.


We left the entrance of the Alcázar, passing the line which had by now grown even longer, and walked to the Puente Romano, or Roman Bridge. This bridge, now reserved for foot traffic only, was built in the first century BC. Its squat and splendid form stretches across the Guadalquivir River; and on any given day, I suspect, it is swarming with people.

It certainly was this day. A crowd of tourists strolled by in a lazy stampede, ambling along with backpacks, sneakers, cellphones, and cameras, taking turns taking photos of one another. A violinist was playing; a guitarist was strumming; a man was dressed as a Roman legionnaire. Another man had built for himself a box, so that only his head was sticking out; his face was covered in clown makeup, and he was wearing a bright, frizzy wig and a red nose. He would scream and laugh maniacally at you when you passed by. For whatever reason, I think we were expected to give him tips.

The bridge looked too new and spotless to be ancient; I certainly didn’t feel like I was walking on a monument. And, indeed, I see from looking it up online that it has been repaired and restored several times. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful bridge; and below, sitting on little islands in the river, were several of what seemed to be ruins. They did not look ancient, but their presence did give the view a slight tinge of mystery, which mixed oddly well with the beautiful sunny landscape, the sparkling river, the chatting tourists, and the cackling clown-head.

But we were hungry. So after just a few minutes, we were strolling back the way we came, past the violinist and the guitarist and the legionnaire, back through the entrance archway and up into the town. We were going to lunch.

Lucky for me, I had mentioned my impending trip to Córdoba to one of my students the week before. It turned out that he was, in fact, from Córdoba; and, like everyone I meet here—and maybe everybody, everywhere—he was very anxious that I have a good time in his home town. So on the day of our trip, he thoughtfully texted me a lunch recommendation; it was the restaurant where his brother worked.

Though it was December, the weather was nice enough to sit outside. (The Wikipedia article tells me that Córdoba has the highest summer temperatures in all of Europe.) So we sat beneath an orange tree and had a delicious lunch: eggplant in garlic sauce and spicy paella. My student’s brother soon found me (unbeknownst to me, my student texted him a photo he’d taken of me in class) and we had a short—a very short—conversation, since my Spanish is still shaky, and he spoke in the staccato, machine-gun rhythm that all residents of Andalucia seem to speak in. I could hardly say or understand a word; but sometimes words aren’t necessary to have a nice conversation.

An hour later we were back on the move, this time to see something which held particular interest for me: the statue of Moses Maimonides in the old Jewish quarter of the city. Córdoba, you see, is a wonderful city for philosophy. In 4 BCE, the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger, a Stoic, was born in this selfsame city. He went on to tutor the infamous emperor Nero, and eventually ended his own life after that disturbed Emperor decreed his death. (There’s a wonderful painting of this scene in the Prado, by the way.) Later, much later, in 1126, the Muslim philosopher Averroes was born in this same city; and just nine years later, in 1135, the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides added his name to the list.

It’s possible you haven’t heard of either of these thinkers; they aren’t widely read nowadays. Nonetheless, Maimonides is one of the most respected Jewish thinkers in history; and in Medieval Muslim philosophy Averroes is second only to Avicenna in terms of influence. But I am not bringing up either thinker to discuss their ideas—which I’m not qualified to do in any case—but to emphasize a fact about Western history that we often overlook: that the Jewish and the Muslim traditions have made an enormous contribution to Western thought; and for much of the Medieval period, Christian Europe could be said to have lagged behind the Muslim world.

The statue of Maimonides is a small and unremarkable thing; I suspect it’s a modern work. Yet as I stood there, in the preternaturally bright Andalusian sun, contemplating the bearded face, crowned in a turban, decked in a robe, with pointy shoes to boot, I could not help feeling a certain awe at the intellectual dramas that had played out here, right here, so many years ago, back in the Age of Faith.

Western culture, and specifically Catholic theology, owes an enormous debt to Islamic tradition. For it was Muslim scholars who preserved manuscripts of the Greek philosophers, who made excellent translations of these philosophers into their own tongue, and who eventually began the difficult process of interpreting these Greek thinkers’ words and ideas.

The most obvious example of this are the manifold commentaries on the works of Aristotle. After his works were reintroduced into the West, the power of Aristotle’s thought was not lost on the Medieval Mind; but Aristotle’s prosaic attitude, and his emphasis on logic, reason, and evidence, did pose some problems for all three of the Mosaic faiths. Thus three of the greatest thinkers of each tradition, Maimonides of the Jewish faith, Averroes of the Muslim faith, and then St. Thomas Aquinas of the Christian faith, composed commentaries and exegeses on Aristotle’s works, attempting to reconcile the Stagyrite’s ideas with the tenets of their creeds.

And it says much of the interdependence of all three traditions that St. Thomas Aquinas—the man who literally defined orthodox catholic theology—liberally quoted both Maimonides and Averroes in his works, not to mention Aristotle himself. Christian theology, therefore, owes a heavy debt not only to a Jew and a Muslim, but to a pagan!

This is only one example among legions of the ways that Islam (not to mention Judaism and paganism) has shaped and molded Western history and contributed to Western culture. Far from a religion of destruction, we owe the preservation of some of our most treasured classics to Muslims scholars; and their contributions to medicine, to science, to mathematics, to theology, to philosophy, and to architecture can be felt still.

In point of fact, the whole notion of Europe as a discrete cultural entity, distinct from the rest of the world, owes much to the conquests of the Muslims, who effectively cut off Christian Europe from Asia and Africa. So if we owe a people our very identity, how can we consider ourselves superior?

But I felt only an inkling of this monumental history as I stood there, eyeing the statue of Maimonides, shifting back and forth, regretting that I hadn’t used the bathroom before I left the restaurant. The sun beat down upon my back, sweat dripped from my forehead, my feet ached from all the walking. I stuck my finger into my pocket and felt the laminated edge of the ticket we had purchased earlier that morning. It was for the one place we had yet to go.


“No building in Europe,” says the English historian Norman Davies, “better illustrates the cycle of civilizations than the Mezquita Aljama, now the cathedral church in Cordoba.”

As soon as we walked inside, we stopped in our tracks. It was incredible. Rows and rows of double arches stretched out before us, one arch atop the other, painted in candy-cane stripes of red and white. This was no gothic cathedral; this was a medieval mosque.

Or was it? In little nooks in the walls were Christian shines, just as in any other cathedral, barred off with a grille and containing altarpieces and religious paintings. But the catholic paraphernalia looked so oddly out of place sitting there; it looked almost as if it had been left there by accident. Of course, this was no accident—and in fact this juxtaposition of styles and cultures, of architectures and faiths, is what constitutes the grandeur and charm of the Mezquita of Córdoba.

Allow me to quote once again from Norman Davies’s single-volume history of Europe:

[The Mezquita’s] originality lies in the use of materials taken from the demolished Latin-Byzantine Basilica of St. Vincent which stood until 741 in the same site, and which had once been shared by Christian and Moslem congregations. What is more, both mosque and basilica rested on the foundations of a great Roman temple, which in its turn had replaced a Greek or possibly a Phoenician edifice. Only St. Sofia in Istanbul can match such varied connections.

This motley heritage is easy to sense as one strolls through the building, examining a crucifix hanging on the walls between two richly decorated Moorish arches. As one proceeds, the slightly claustrophobic space suddenly opens up, revealing the gigantic dome that sits above the main altarpiece. Suddenly, one is standing in a Renaissance cathedral, with colorful, naturalistic portraits of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints sitting between elegant marble columns with elaborate Corinthian capitals. Light streams in through the windows, high up above, lighting up the ivory-white ceiling so it seems to float weightlessly above one’s head.

And is not this structure a perfect metaphor in stone for the relationship between the two faiths, Christianity and Islam? They have been built on top of each other, over each other, with materials and ideas taken from one another. And although they owe such a mutual debt, they have so often—though not always—striven to burry this debt in oblivion, denying its very existence.

Case in point: despite a deeply shared history, Muslims are now forbidden to pray in the Mezquita; and a campaign launched by Muslims in the 2000s to change this has fallen on deaf ears and apathetic minds. The Vatican has denied their request; and now there is less mutual toleration than existed over one thousand years ago, when Muslims and Christians shared the Basilica of St. Vincent.

Of course, it was the Muslims who destroyed that structure; humanity harbors no spotless faiths. Yet one would think that now, in our supposedly Enlightened age, we would have grown out of this petty bickering and territorialism. The Mezquita belongs to everyone; and this certainly includes Muslims.

Perhaps we only need a reminder of how much we share and how closely we are bound. We are delighted to hear, as dutiful historians such as Norman Davies remind us, that the Muslims introduced Europe to “oranges, lemons, spinach, asparagus, aubergines, artichokes, pasta, and toothpaste, together with mathematics, Greek philosophy, and paper.” But this is surprising partially because the victors have so often striven to wipe out all traces of what came before them, giving no credit to anyone but themselves. And this process has certainly taken a toll on the Western mind, which thinks it has sprung fully formed from the land.

“When Spaniards shout ‘Olé,’” Davies says, “many don’t care to remember that they are voicing an invocation to Allah.” But it is important that we remember this, now more than ever. To forget our shared history is to open the door to the kind of intolerance, fear, and misunderstanding we see so rampant today.

I’d like to end this post with a poem by Omar Khayyam, a medieval Persian polymath—a mathematician, philosopher, and poet—translated into classic verse by the English poet Edward FitzGerald in the 19th century, yet another example of artistic collaboration across centuries, from men of different faiths and different cultures:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


2 thoughts on “Standing in the Mezquita of Córdoba

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