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Cordoba: The 11th Century’s Most Cosmopolitan City

If you were looking for the hippest place to be in 11th century Europe, you wouldn’t go to Paris.  Or London, which was an outpost badgered by centuries of Viking invasions, and was about to be conquered by the Normans.  You wouldn’t go to Berlin, or Florence, or even Rome.  Or Athens.  Nope, if you were going to look for the most cosmopolitan city in Europe a thousand years ago you would head to a sleepy little town in the middle of Andalusia.

At one point, just one of Cordoba’s seven libraries had more books in it than the libraries of the rest of Europe.  Combined.  Cordoba was the spot.  Cordoba was where you went if you wanted to make something of yourself.  To study.  To create art.  To become a doctor.

And, it was Muslim.

It was the most populous city in the world, and the main place of worship was a Mosque.  Which had been built in the same place as an early Christian church, built by the Visigoths.  Pretty mystical history.


When the Moors conquered Cordoba in 711, the church was divided into Muslim and Christian halves.  This buddy buddy arrangement continued for 70 years until the Christian half was purchased by one of the Arab leaders, who demolished it and built the grand mosque of Cordoba.  This mosque was awesome.  It used the new double arch technique that allowed for the ceilings to be so much higher than before.  Row upon row of arches, and amazing tiles and carvings.

Then, during the Reconquista in 1236 it went back to being Christian and eventually an entire Renaissance cathedral nave was inserted into the mosque in the 16th century.  Seriously, there’s an entire Renaissance church in the middle of the mosque.  Complete with organ, choir, and stained glass windows.  You pretty much have to see it to believe it.


Cordoba encompasses much of what I love about Spain – the peaceful coexistence of religions for centuries, the history, the ancient mysticism.  But it also has much of what bugs me about Spain, too.  The statue of the Virgin Mary with a spear in her belly.  Where in the Bible does it say that the Virgin Mary had a spear in her belly?  Muy dramatico.  No me gusta.

It’s also really freaking hot.  In the summer it regularly gets to 110.


A few blocks away there’s the remains of a Roman temple that was discovered in the 1950’s when some work was being done to the City Hall building.  Cordoba is steeped in this kind of history.  Around every corner you bump into the medieval wall or a Roman ruin.

Now that it’s grandeur has faded a bit, and it’s not the most populous city in Europe, or even Spain, or even Andalusia; well, it means that it’s more quiet and accessible.  Parking in the main lot just by the old gate was only around €10.  The tapas place next to the moat was probably the most expensive place in the city, but it was still cheap by American or British standards.  Three of us ate including dessert for less than €40.

So…if you have a chance, go to Cordoba.  Eat food, and pray in the cathedral and feel the energy of all the people who bustled around this city a millennium ago.

Just ignore the Mary with the Spear in her Belly.