Córdoba: Jewish District, The Mesquita

I arrived in Córdoba by train from Sevilla (Seville) at about 11:30 a.m. today. My hotel is roughly a 10 minute walk from the train station. The hotel is right beside the old section of town, and close to the two sights I wanted to see, the Mesquita and the Jewish District. My room was ready when I arrived, so I had several hours to wander around and see the sights today.

I booked only one night in Cordoba because the Rick Steves’ Spain tour book lists only one major attraction here, the Mesquita, and a few minor ones. Plus, the walking tour iPhone app I have didn’t include any downloadable tours for Córdoba, yet it has them for most cities. I figured there wasn’t much to see or do here. In fact, the only reason I stopped in Córdoba at all is I have to change trains here for my next destination, Granada, and I couldn’t find any good connections.

An old Córdoba street
An old Córdoba street

I now regret not booking at least one more night here, and maybe two. The old section of Córdoba is beautiful and lively. I loved walking around in it.

It’s not as literally colourful as the Barrio Santa Cruz in Sevilla. Most of the owners of the buildings in the old section of Córdoba paint their outside walls predominantly white. They usually paint the window frames and doorframes a different colour, but there is considerable commonality in that choice of colour. I’m not good with the names of colours other than the primary ones and their first-order mixtures, but I think the most common window and door frame colour is called mustard or maybe corn, or something like that.

Some building owners go bold and paint their frames a somewhat daring hue of grey, a brilliant blue, or even a shocking pink. Even rarer are owners who don’t use white on the walls, but go with all mustard, all blue, or all pink. But, as I said, those are exceptionally rare.

Calleja de las flores
Calleja de las flores

The preceding paragraphs notwithstanding, at least one street in the old section is colourful, but not because of the wall colours. It’s Calleja de las Flores, street of flowers. It’s so-named because of the flowers growing in baskets hung at frequent intervals on the walls on both sides of the street, or not so much street as laneway.

Colourful Streets, Without a Lot of Colour

Another old Córdoba street
Another old Córdoba street

Despite the old district of Córdoba not matching Seville’s Barrio Santa Cruz for literal colour, it doesn’t take a back seat to it in rhetorical colour. The area is extremely lively.

Restaurants, bars, clothing stores, jewelry shops, food stores, and trinkets and trash shops line many of the streets, which are cobblestone and narrow.

Most of the streets are car-free. Most of the people seemed carefree. Anyone who knows me knows that my assessment of the people’s state of mind can’t possibly be projection.

View of the Roman bridge
View of the Roman bridge

The Guadalquivir River runs through Córdoba, the same river that runs through Sevilla. A quaint, old roman bridge fords the river at Córdoba. The walls above the bridge surface that prevent people falling off and the paving stones on the bridge appear new, but the base of the bridge looks like it could be the original roman bridge.

View from the Roman bridge
View from the Roman bridge

At the end of the bridge, on the other side from the old section of Córdoba, sits a fortified gate. The building now contains a museum of Moorish Muslim culture from the 9th to the 12th century, but I didn’t have enough time to go in. Like I said, I wish I booked more time here.

Jewish District

Definitely the old Jewish district
Definitely the old Jewish district

I started my half-day in Córdoba in the old Jewish district. Its cobblestone streets are very narrow, pedestrian-only, and flanked by whitewashed walls. On one of those streets, across from each other, reside an old synagogue and a museum of Sephardic Judaism.

To be honest, I never did figure out the exact boundaries of the Jewish district. However, when I arrived at what looked like one end of it, the street sign in the picture to the left greeted me. I think I arrived.

A street in the old Jewish district
A street in the old Jewish district

I checked a translation. Judios is Spanish for “Jews.” And Calle de las Judios (which may be difficult to read in the resolution presented here) is Spanish for “street of the Jews.” That seemed to me like a pretty good indication that I was entering the Jewish district.

Synagogue

Inside the synagogue
Inside the synagogue

The walls of the old synagogue are constructed of stone and mortar. According to a sign in the tiny shul, it was built in 1315 and it’s one of only three medieval synagogues still standing in Spain. The other two are in Toledo.

The women’s gallery

When I say tiny, I mean tiny. It’s footprint is not all that much bigger than my living room/dining room. And I don’t have a big place.

Then again it’s not so small as to not have an upstairs women’s gallery. They wouldn’t want women corrupting men or getting to close to God, now would they?

Casa de Sefarad Museum

Courtyard at the Casa de Sefarad Museum
Courtyard at the Casa de Sefarad Museum

The Casa de Sefarad Museum provides a history of Sephardic Jews, along with descriptions of Judaism in general, and particularly Sephardic Judaism.

The displays consisted primarily of text mounted on the walls. In most rooms, the text was in both Spanish and English. A couple of rooms displayed only Spanish. No problem. When I entered, the admissions person helpfully handed me laminated sheets with English for the one room of the permanent collection that didn’t have English, plus a spiral bound book of English text for a temporary exhibit that also didn’t display English.

The museum included considerable information on Maimonides, a native son of Córdoba.

Exhibit in the Casa de Sefarad Museum
Exhibit in the Casa de Sefarad Museum

Another section of the museum, the one needing the laminated sheets, discussed the Spanish Inquisition, which, of course, nobody expects. (Yes, that was a Monty Python reference. If you don’t get it, pity you.)

In addition to describing the Inquisition in general, this section provided brief biographies of key Jewish figures persecuted by the Inquisition. Some of those people had converted to Christianity or came from families that had converted, including one who became an Augustine friar. But that didn’t save them from persecution by the Inquisition for possible Jewish sympathies.

In fact, Inquisition or not, conversion to Christianity didn’t necessarily save former Jews from persecution. I’ve forgotten when this occurred, but one women accidentally threw some dishwater out of her window just as a religious procession happened to pass by. The result? Córdobans killed converts.

The temporary exhibit looked at the principles of Sephardic medicine from the 14th century onward. It also provided biographies of leading Sephardim in medicine, from the 15th century to the 21st.

Maimonides

Statue of Maimonides
Statue of Maimonides

Speaking of Maimonides, Córdoba seems quite proud of him. About a half block from the museum and synagogue, I found a statue of him in a small square. A little further on, I came upon Maimonides Square.

Elsewhere in Córdoba, I also spotted a Maimonides hotel.

Plaza Maimonides
Plaza Maimonides

The Mezquita

Bell tower, nee minaret, at the Mezquita
Bell tower, nee minaret, at the Mezquita

The Mezquita (Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba) is a Christian cathedral within a Muslim mosque. Alright, for all you sticklers out there, yes, I know. “Christian” and “Muslim” are redundant in the first sentence of this paragraph. What else would a cathedral and a mosque be? By definition, Christian and Muslim are requirements of each respectively. However the alliteration pairs were irresistible. If my use of them upsets you, be sure to demand a refund when you leave this blog.

With the exception of my oohing and aahing and a few less-gushing personal observations, most of the information below comes either from the brochure/map I picked up at the entrance to the interior of the Mezquita or from Rick Steves’ Spain tour book.

But first, some introductory oohing and aahing. If you’re the sort of person who created a bucket list and the Mezquita of Córdoba is not on it, I highly recommend that you stop what you’re doing and add it. I’ll wait.

Good. Finished adding the Mezquita to your list now? The reason I told you to put it there is it is awe inspiring. And I say this as a devout atheist. There is not even a tincture of spirituality in me. I do occasionally drink a tincture or two of spirits, but that’s something completely different.

OK. The oohing and aahing is over for now.

Ruins from the Visigoth basilica
Ruins from the Visigoth basilica

If you’re upset about another religion rudely taking over a grand, old mosque, and a carving a portion of it out to insert a cathedral, consider this. The Muslims built the mosque in the eight century on the site of a Visigoth basilica that predated it. There is solid evidence of that. Inside what was the old mosque I looked through a glass floor at a lower mosaic floor from the even older Visigoth basilica. And glass display cases now on the floor of the old mosque hold some ruins from the Visigoth basilica.

So, they inserted a cathedral into a mosque that was built on the site of a basilica. Turnabout’s fair play, I guess.

What’s more, although the Mesquita is no longer used as a mosque, about 70 percent of the old mosque still stands. So, there’s that.

The Mesquita Courtyard

The Mezquita courtyard
The Mezquita courtyard

A large cobblestone courtyard sits within the outer walls of the Mezquita. Plentiful orange, palm, and what look like what I think of as evergreen trees shade it. (Although, I suspect all of the trees there are green all year round.) The oranges looked close to full-grown, but were still green today.

The courtyard contains a small pool with water spouts built into columns on the four corners. Back when the Mezquita was still used as a Mosque, worshippers performed their mandatory ablutions at the pool before going in to pray.

Built into the outer wall, an imposing sand-coloured former minaret, now bell tower, stands guard over the courtyard. For an extra fee, visitors can climb to the top of the tower to take in the view. Unfortunately, there’s limited access and it was sold out for the day when I got there. Grrr. Did I mention I wish I booked more time in Córdoba?

The Mosque, the Original Mesquita

The interior of the old mosque, known as the Umayyad Mosque of the West, was immense. And, as I said, much of it remains pretty much the way it was.

The old mosque
The old mosque

More than 700 grey pillars topped by red and white double arches define the space. It is so large that, when it was used as a mosque, before the cathedral was carved out of it, it provided room for more than 20,000 of the faithful, and probably some unfaithful people too, to pray there, kneeling on prayer mats.

The picture to the right shows likely far less than one quarter of what was the old mosque. Most of it is currently very dimly lit and I couldn’t get a good picture. This was one of the only sections bright enough for a good shot.

The mihrab of the Mezquita
The mihrab of the Mezquita

The mosque used to be better lit when it was just a mosque, but the building of the cathedral eliminated some of the skylights.

The mihrab, which is a mosque’s equivalent of a church’s high altar, is still there and still stunning. It’s a large, octagonal niche, with mosaic decorations and a scallop shell-shaped dome.

The Cathedral 

Despite mesquita meaning mosque, the building retained that name even after the Christians took it over and turned it into a cathedral.

The cathedral includes small chapels along most the walls of what was the mosque. Exceptions are the portion of the wall where the Mihrab stands and a couple of rooms that hold the cathedral’s treasury.

There’s always got to be a place to store the church’s treasures, doesn’t there? The dominant piece in the treasury is a giant, gold-coloured, elaborately decorated monstrance. They parade it through Códoba once a year on Corpus Christi.

The monstrance
The monstrance

Full disclosure: Until today, I had no idea what a monstrance is or when Corpus Christi is until I read it today. I’m not of that tribe.

For the benefit of those who are equally ignorant, a monstrance holds the Holy Communion wafers. Corpus Christi is 60 days after Easter. Now you know. Or maybe you already did. Whatever.

The 16th century Christians who commissioned the monstrance wanted it to be exceptionally exquisite because they thought Holy Communion wafers are the literal body of Christ. They didn’t want to put the body of Christ in any old tchotchke. What would his father think?

Chapels in the Midst of the Mesquita Cathedral

There are a few chapels in the middle of the mosque cum cathedral. One is fairly plain and cordoned off by stanchions and ropes.

The Main Chapel
The Main Chapel

Another is the Royal Chapel. It’s been closed off for years. No one remembers why. But, hey, they must have had a good reason, right? I caught a glimpse through some transoms of what I think was the Royal Chapel. I walked around it, but couldn’t see any doors through which anyone—high mucky mucks or hoi polloi—could enter. So, I guess it was indeed the Royal Chapel.

In the midst of the myriad columns of what was the mosque, the Main Chapel, construction of which started in the 15th century, soars much higher than the surrounding building. It’s impressive ceiling sits above a high altar with marble columns and a number of paintings.

A transept
A transept

Bishop Alonso Manrique later ordered construction of the transepts. Construction of them started in 1523 and ended in 1606. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the Cathedral Chapter of Córdoba, which has had responsibility for the the Mezquita since 1236, ordered the sculpting of the choir stalls behind the Main Chapel.

The Mezquita alone was worth the visit to Córdoba.

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