Strategically placed at the highest point of navigation on the River Guadalquivir, Cordoba started life as an Iberian settlement. In 152 BC the Romans established Corduba Patricia as a colonia. After 27 BC the city became the capital of Baetica. Following the Romans, Cordoba was occupied by the Visigoths. This proved unpopular and a revolt against the Visigothic King Agila around 554 led to a short period of local independence that came to a sudden, and bloody, end in 572. The Arabs arrived in 711 and Cordoba soon replaced Seville as the capital of Al Andalus. It is the period between 711 and 1236 when the city was retaken by Fernando III of Castile, and the architectural remains from this period, that attract the tourist.
Most make a beeline for the Mezquita, and little wonder. It is the third largest mosque ever built. Dedicated in 786, the original structure was extended and enlarged over the entire period of Arab rule, each king trying to outdo his predecessors. It is now a ‘forest’ of columns. The earliest section contains original but re-used Roman and Visigothic columns and, in the north west corner a free standing Visigothic altar. The Mezquita is unique in Spain because it not only survived the re-conquest, it was considered so magnificent that between 1523 and 1607 a Renaissance style church was built within the structure. The church is now the repository for the ecclesiastical treasures which is worth a trip in itself. But back to the Romans.
The guidebooks tell you there is little remaining from the Roman period and promptly send you to the Mezquita but if you know where to look there is enough left to give you an impression of their city. For instance, near to the Hotel Tryp Gallos at the junction of Paseo de la Victoria and Calle de Concepcion is situated what was the Roman west gate into the city. On the Paseo side is a Roman cemetery. In the centre of the city itself is a temple but do not be fooled. This is a reconstruction. Only two columns are original. However the renovations are using the original foundations and floor plans. Leaving the old city through the south gate you will then cross the 250 metre long Puente Romano. It is worth stopping halfway across and looking up and down river. You will notice islands and channels that appear man made. You will also see the remains of, and in one case, a whole, huge, waterwheel. This is part of the extensive system, started by the Romans and perfected by the Arabs, that allowed the surrounding land to be irrigated and then used to grow olives, grapes and wheat that was then shipped back to Rome.
The Calahorra Fort at the south end of the bridge is an Arab construction from the Almohad period that now houses an intriguing Islamic museum. For a particular view of how integrated, politically and religiously, the Arabs were with the native population, and how advanced scientifically they were then the fort is worth as much attention as the Mezquita. It is here that there is a wonderful collection of original Arabic navigational instruments including an ancient astrolabe that predates the invasion.
For those who prefer strolling then the medieval quarter called La Juderia, (The Jewry) is a labyrinth of winding streets, small squares and courtyards. In May there is a competition. The patios are decorated with flowers and opened to the public. One lucky household will be chosen for owning the ‘most beautiful courtyard’. It is in this area that you will find small bars, restaurants and cafes and innumerable shops. You will also find silver. For hundreds of years La Juderia housed the silver merchants and craftsmen who produced the jewellery for which Cordoba is famous.
During the visit to Cordoba we first heard of a little known site at Medina Azahara. This is 8 kilometres west of Cordoba itself and it was here, in 1911, that an Ummayyad palace city was discovered. Totally independent of Cordoba this palace was built between 936 and 960 and was called Madinat Al Zahra. Only about 1/10th of the 1,500 metre x 750 metre site has been properly excavated. It appears to have been a self contained unit in as much as there was housing for the administrators, workers and servants who provided for the occupants of the palace itself and quarters for the military that protected them. The palace was a luxurious affair with large rooms, open courtyards and formal gardens deliberately built to be ostentatious to display the might of the Caliph. By 1030 AD the Madinat Al Zahra was in ruins following the downfall of the Omeya caliphate. The following couple of centuries saw the site pillaged for its stone and decorative features until it once again merged with the landscape and was forgotten until the early 20th Century. Apparently, in ancient texts, there are references to Cordoba la Vieja, (Old Cordoba), which are now thought to refer to Madinat Al Zahra.
Cordoba is another of those cities best explored on foot, parking can be difficult. It is impossible to see everything in one day. It can take the best part of a day to walk around the walls from the west gate to the south if you wander off into the gardens, and examine the bath houses, palatial buildings and towers that seem to spring up every few metres, stopping occasionally to take in the views across the river.