The Ornament of the World
Córdoba – city of Roman governors and Muslim emirs and caliphs – is undoubtedly one of the most impressive in all Europe in terms of the length and importance of its history. Poets and philosophers such as Seneca and Lucan adorned the seat of power of Roman “Corduba” from where the lands of Baetica were administered and the city enjoyed a prestige like few others in the Empire. The Roman bridge over the Guadalquivir, the 1st century AD Roman temple of Claudio Marcelo, and other archaeological sites dotted around the city are the visible remains left to us in the 21st century, but a keen eye and enquiring mind will find many more traces dotted around the historic quarters, from the exquisite street mosaics displayed in the Alcázar to fragments of Roman walls and aqueducts. The same is true to an even greater extent with the vestiges of the Islamic city, since this was the capital of al-Andalus between 716 and 1031 and ranked as one of the greatest cities of the Western world, Christian or Muslim, when it reached its height in the 10th century. The miraculous survival from those times of the Great Mosque allows us a rare clarity in envisaging how the city must have looked, aided by the fact that the basic layout of the surrounding Medina is still largely unchanged.
There really is no better place than here to understand the indelible imprint that Roman and Moorish civilization left on Spain, and of which Córdoba was such a shining example. Indeed, the city was referred to as “the Ornament of the World” on account of its unparalleled sophistication, order and opulence, in the writings of a Saxon nun, who heard of its glories from an emissary of the Caliph Abd-al Rahman III sent to the court of her ruler in 955. A population of 600,000 included not just great monetary wealth but also immense human talent, scientific and cultural, prominent among which are the names of philosophers Maimonides and Averroes, both sons of early medieval Córdoba. The libraries served a key role in preserving and channeling the knowledge of the Classical world; the civic infrastructure was way ahead of its time with street lighting and running water throughout; the techniques of surgery and the study of medicine were the bedrock of much of our current-day medical practice; and the city’s military prowess was unrivaled throughout Europe.
Perhaps our great fortune as visitors today is that Córdoba’s decline was longer-lived than this period of greatness, accidentally protecting much that, in wealthier places, would have been removed in the name of “progress”. The new wing of the Archaeological Museum is a good starting point for a visit to Córdoba, built on top of ruins of a Roman amphitheatre and displaying the best of the impressive hoard of Roman and Muslim artefacts in the museum’s possession. Indeed the whole Medina area, including in it the medieval Jewish quarter (“la Judería”), is an open history book and is a delight to stroll through, with its whitewashed houses adorned with geraniums – a tradition which is celebrated in the floral Patios Festival every May. The city also has a fine reputation for its cuisine – which owes much to its fusion of Moorish, Jewish and Christian traditions – and so any such stroll can happily be interspersed with drinks, tapas and meals in its many fine cafés, bars and restaurants. Several of our Sample Itineraries, featuring Culture and Gourmet among their themes, will introduce you to all these aspects and more of this fascinating and venerable city.