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While the rest of Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, Cordoba in Andalucia thrived. People of the most diverse cultures and religions - Jews, Muslims and Christians - lived and worked peacefully together and Cordoba's charm, many centuries later, is still largely tied to its Moorish and Arab past.

Cordoba has a beauty and a rhythm of its own - in parts Moorish, Gypsy and of course, Spanish and its assurance in its key role in developing the culture of Cordoba

Cordoba was once of the most important capitals in Europe

Important philosophers, scientists and artists emerged from this awe inspiring city; a center of medicine, science, language, translation, art and manuscripts. These were the scholars of the Andalusia empire - Christian, Muslim and Jew - working together to produce a truly unique society and safeguard of learning. The capital of this enlightened empire, until its fall in 1236, was Cordoba.

Capital of the most powerful kingdom in Islam

As the capital of the most powerful kingdom in Islam, Cordoba contained more than half a million people with thousands of mosques, tens of thousands of shops, and libraries boasting hundreds of thousands of volumes. Its luxury goods were coveted all over Europe.

The Islamic culture of al-Andalus was adopted by Christians and Jews living in the kingdom and endured beyond when the Moorish caliphate fell to Catholic rule.

The palaces and baths of Cordoba were renowned for their opulence and the city was the first in Europe to install street lighting. Students and merchants visited from Europe, Africa and Asia and this cosmopolitan city dominated Andalusia for three centuries.

As you wander down its picturesque and evocative streets in the restored heart of Cordoba - one of the largest medieval quarters in Europe - it is not difficult to imagine the days when Cordoba was one of the most important cities on the European map. Its citizens included Muslim scientist and philosopher Averroes and Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonedes (whose synagogue still stands).

The Great Mosque - (partly destroyed to construct a large cathedral inside) is one of the world's best known pieces of religious architecture. It is a vast forest of hundreds of delicate marble columns and elegant arches. Its mihrab - the niche which denotes the direction of Mecca - is a brilliant and rich composition of mosaics sent as a gift by the Emperor of Byzantium.

Cordoba's large Juderia has been recently restored and is now filled with charming shops and cafes. For those interested in Jewish heritage, the tiny jewel-like medieval synagogue (the one in which Maimonedes prayed) is one of only three remaining synagogues in Spain from before the Expulsion of 1492.

Medinat az-Zahara was a 10th century palace of unimaginable luxury outside Cordoba. Its opulence awed and inspred its visitors.

One chronicler records an ambassador being taken the eight kilometers from Cordoba to Medinat al-Zahara, finding his path covered in carpets from one end to the other and lined with maidens holding parasols and refreshments. Another chronicler wrote of crystal columns and domes and of walls made of falling water. Another fountain was made of flowing mercury - a liquid mirror.

Although only a few ruins remain (its columns were carried as far away as Marrakech), it is worth the short trip (don't expect the carpet and parasols though!).

Cordoba is also very lively town steeped in Andalucian tradition; a town of Flamenco, Bull fighting and undoubtedly one of the most attractive destinations in southern Spain.

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