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Córdoba’s Grand Mosque and Moorish Society in Spain

Córdoba, Spain

Córdoba’s massive mezquita (mosque) was the center of Western Islam in the 10th century, when Moors, Christians, and Jews lived here peaceably. In 1236, Christian soldiers conquered the city and built a huge cathedral in the middle of the mosque.

Complete Video Script

A 100-mile drive back inland takes us to the city of Córdoba. While Granada was the last Moorish capital, the capital through the glory days of Muslim rule was Córdoba.

Tucked into a bend of its river, Córdoba has a glorious past. While its old wall evokes a tough history, its elegant cityscape and convivial squares show a modern pride. As is typical of Andalucía, it's a people-friendly city, filled with energy and color.

Córdoba's centerpiece is a massive former mosque — or, in Spanish, Mezquita. This huge rectangle dominates the tangled medieval town that surrounds it.

Grand gates lead to the courtyard. It was here, when this was a mosque, that worshippers would gather to wash before prayer, as directed by Muslim law.

Entering, you step into a forest of delicate columns and graceful arches dating from over 1,000 years ago.

At its zenith, this mosque was the center of Western Islam and the heart of a cultural capital that rivaled Baghdad and Constantinople. A wonder of the medieval world, it's remarkably well-preserved, giving today's visitors a chance to appreciate Islamic Córdoba in its 10th-century prime.

The columns and arches seem to recede to infinity, as if reflecting the immensity and complexity of God's creation.

The mihrab — the focal point of worship in a mosque — was built in the mid-10th century. It's richly mosaicked with 3,000 pounds of tiny, multicolored glass-and-enamel cubes.

A painting in the adjacent treasury takes us back to 1236, when Christians conquered the city and everything changed. Here we see the Spanish king accepting the keys to Córdoba's fortified gate from the vanquished Muslims.

According to legend, one morning Muslims said their last prayers in the great mosque. That afternoon, the Christians set up their portable road altar and celebrated the first Mass in what would later become this glorious cathedral.

As if planting a cross into its religious heart, this grand cathedral was built in the middle of the mosque. Taking two centuries to complete, the cathedral is a glorious mix of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles.

A statue actually called "St. James the Moor-Slayer" stands next to the altar. Sword raised as usual, James is busy conquering Muslims.

Other art is less provocative. The Baroque-era choir stalls are made of New World mahogany. With exquisite carving, it's considered one of the masterpieces of 18th-century Andalusian Baroque.

And, towering over the former mosque, a bell tower makes it clear: This huge edifice now houses a place of Christian worship.

In the 10th century, when a minaret stood where the bell tower stands today, Córdoba was arguably Europe's greatest city. It was the cultural capital, with over ten times the population of Paris. Imagine the city, with paved streets, lit at night by oil lamps, piped-in running water, hundreds of mosques, palaces, and public baths.

It was a city of poets and scholars. While things changed later, the Golden Age of Al-Andalus, as this society was called, was marked by a remarkable spirit of tolerance and cooperation among all religions.

To learn more, I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Isabel Martinez.

Rick: So Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all living together peacefully here?
Isabel: Yes, certainly. It worked out during certain times, especially during the 10th century.
Rick: Three different cultures, together.
Isabel: Well, that's what most of the people think. But I think it's more correct to say it was one culture with three religions, because at the end, all the people here talked Arabian language, cooked the same dishes, and wore the same clothes.
Rick: OK, one culture, three religions.
Isabel: Exactly.
Rick: How Andalus.
Isabel: It was magic time.

Córdoba's narrow, flower-bedecked lanes invite exploration. With Isabel's help, a simple stroll becomes meaningful.

Isabel: Notice how nice and fresh these little streets are, Rick?
Rick: Yes.
Isabel: Its narrowness and whitewashed walls. Natural air-conditioning.
Rick: It feels cool.
Isabel: It's brilliant.

Isabel: So this beautiful shutter reminds us of the times when the women were hidden from public. Muslim Córdoba had hundreds of mosques, but most of them were destroyed. But some minarets survived as church bell towers.
Rick: So this was a minaret first, and now it's a bell tower for that church.
Isabel: Yeah, exactly.

Córdoba's characteristic patios have functioned like outdoor living rooms since ancient Roman times. They're quiet, an oasis from the heat, and filled with flowers. Locals decorate them with pride. In fact, each year, many compete and open their patios to the public.