To call Córdoba a hidden gem seems almost insulting considering the role the city has played throughout the history of the Iberian Peninsula. However, when it comes to tourism, it often plays second fiddle to the more prominent Andalusian cities of Granada and Seville.
Granada is renowned for the Alhambra – an incredible feat of Moorish architecture and one of the greatest wonders of the Islamic world. By contrast, Seville is defined by the world’s largest Gothic Cathedral and its heritage as the Christian center of Andalusia.
But when it comes to religion, Córdoba is ultimately, the best of both worlds.
A brief history
The city traces its origins all the way back to the 8th century BC, when Greeks and Phoenicians settled along the banks of the Guadalquiver River. Córdoba was conquered by the Romans in the 3rd century BC, and remained under control of the empire until its collapse in the 6th century AD.
After a short time under Christian Visigoth reign, Córdoba was captured by Moorish Arabs in 711 and became the capital of al-Andalus and the Umayyad Caliphate. Under Arab rule, the city thrived as one of the world’s greatest centers of science, art and literature.
In 1236, Saint Ferdinand III captured Córdoba during the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula. Muslims were methodically expelled from Andalusia as it came under Catholic rule. Later, Queen Isabella of Castille ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Christian lands – resulting in a devastating decline in Córdoba’s population.
After suffering through a long period of drought and decline, Córdoba returned to prominence in the early 20th century. The city again blossomed into a thriving center for culture, music and art.
Despite Córdoba’s exclusionary past, today, the city embraces its connections to the “big three” Abrahamic religions. Its population remains largely Catholic, but tourists of all faiths flock to the city to explore links to their own religious heritages.
No building is more representative of Spain’s eclectic history of religion and conflict than the Mezquita (Grand Mosque) – Catedral of Córdoba. The Mezquita has become an endearing symbol of the city and its largest tourist attraction by far.
Construction on the Grand Mosque began around 785 under the direction of Emir Abd al-Rahman I. Built on the site of a former Roman temple and later, a Visigoth church, Córdoba’s Mosque was once the largest temple in the Moorish world.
The Moors actually paid the congregation of the Visigoth church for the plot of land where the Mezquita now stands. They even allowed the Christian Visigoths to build their place of worship elsewhere in the city. Under Moorish rule, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived peacefully, side-by-side.
When the Catholics conquered the city in 1236, they decided to leave the mosque as it was. Yet slowly, the Catholic Kings began to modify the building as a place of Christian worship. Chapels were added inside the mosque, while its minaret was converted to a cathedral bell tower.
The most significant change came in the 16th century, when Charles V permitted the construction of a cathedral nave in the center of the mosque. When Charles V visited to see the construction, he was famously displeased with the results, stating “They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”
Personally, I have to disagree with Charles’s claim. The Mezquita is one of the most extraordinary buildings I’ve ever stepped foot in – due in part by the fact that it showcases a unique combination of Western and Moorish architecture.
Upon entering the Mezquita complex, you’ll find yourself in a green patio full of lush orange trees and sacred fountains.
Head inside to find over 850 columns supporting a seemingly endless array of red and white arches. In the center of the building east and west collide as the gilded Renaissance nave stands out against the geometric subtlety of the Moorish construct. Christian iconography and statuettes contrast sharply with the ornate Quranic verses written in Arabic along the edges of the building.
The Mezquita also houses 37 chapels (though most are closed to the public) and a number of Islamic and Christian artifacts.
Entrance to the Mezquita costs €8 for adults, €4 for children (ages 10-14), and is free for children under 10.
Pro tip: Free entry is permitted to the first group of visitors each day. If you’re an early riser, head to the side entrance around 8 a.m. and wait 30 minutes for the doors to open up!
Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos
The Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos or Castle of Christian Kings doesn’t quite get the hype of the Real Alcazar in Seville, but Córdoba’s medieval castle is as beautiful and impressive as any of its kind.
The Alcazar’s grounds are covered in the historical footprints of the Spanish Empire. It was home to monarchs Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. These Catholic monarchs lived in the castle for eight years, using it as a base of operations during the re-conquest of Granada.
It was in the Alcázar that Christopher Columbus first pitched his voyage for a western route to India.
Before the castle was reconstructed in its current iteration, it was the site of a Visigoth fortress. Later, when the Moors conquered Córdoba, they razed the fortress and converted the grounds to a palace. As the Caliphate of Córdoba flourished, the Alcazar expanded to include gardens, bathhouses and the largest library in Europe.
When Christian forces retook the Alcazar in 1236, King Alfonso XI ordered a new Gothic fortress be built. Still, he decided to retain some of the palace’s Moorish features, thus providing Córdoba with another unique monument of mixed religious and cultural inspiration.
Upon entering the Alcazar, you’ll be immediately drawn to the dancing fountains and colorful flowers of the Moorish gardens (though they were actually constructed under Isabella and Fernando). It’s difficult to imagine how much water it takes to keep the lush greenery flourishing during the blazing Andalusian summers. The gardens were strategically placed next to the Guadalquivir for irrigation purposes.
After visiting the gardens, I decided to climb the Lion Tower to get a better look at the grounds. The oldest tower of the castle provides a truly stunning view of the Alcazar and Córdoba’s skyline. From the Lion Tower, you can access the Tower of Tribute where Knights swore to protect their kingdom.
The castle’s third tower is not open to the public, yet it’s past is perhaps the most intriguing. The Inquisition Tower was used as a tribunal during the early years of the Spanish Inquisition, while the Arab baths were used as prison cells and torture chambers.
Inside the Alcazar, you’ll find the Episcopal Palace and a ceremony hall with ruins and artifacts from Roman, Moorish and Catholic eras.
Entrance to the Alcazar costs €4.50 for adults, and is free for children under 13. The Alcazar is closed on Mondays.
Free entry is granted to the first group of visitors at 8:30 a.m.
Take a short walk north or east of the Mezquita and you’ll find yourself walking through Córdoba’s old Jewish quarter. It’s quaint white buildings and narrow alleys lined with flower pots make Judería one of most charming areas of the entire city.
Despite a growing number of tourist shops and boutiques, Judería clings to its old-world charm.
At the center of the Jewish quarter is the Synagogue on Calle de los Judios – one of only three synagogues that remained in Spain after the crusades. Construction of Juderia’s synagogue dates back to 1315. It was converted to a hospital and later a church in the 16th Century. It then served as a Guild of Shoemakers headquarters before being rediscovered in the 19th century and dubbed a national monument. The synagogue
Juderia’s Casa Sefarad was also restored to its 14th century state – prior to the Jewish expulsion of Córdoba. Spanish Jews, known as Sephardi, settled in Córdoba during the Roman and Visigothic eras. The Sephardic house serves as a museum dedicated to the Sephardic culture and occasionally hosts events and performances.
It’s worthwhile to enter the synagogue and cultural landmarks of Juderia. Still, in my opinion, nothing beats getting lost in this absurdly inviting neighborhood.
Other religious sites of note
Córdoba’s heritage is unconditionally linked with religion. So much so, in fact, that the city played host to the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) 2007 Conference on Religions and Dialogue of Cultures.
That said, there are a number of less prominent sites that are worth exploring –
Archaeological Museum – Houses ruins and artifacts dating from Córdoba’s Roman era to the Renaissance. The museum was built on the ruins of a Roman theater that are integrated into the exhibit. (Free for EU citizens, €1.5 for non-EU citizens).
Arabic Baths – Located in the city center, Córdoba’s hammams emulate the 9th century originals, yet are adapted for modern comforts. (Thermal circuit €15).
The Courtyard Quarter – Just behind the Alcázar is Córdoba’s Courtyard Quarter. This eccentric neighborhood is one of the oldest in the city. It was originally built to accommodate the rising Christian population following Ferdinand’s conquest. The buildings were modeled to respect the Moorish styling of the original area, yet the streets are on a grid – unlike the rest of the typically winding Arabic alleys.
Convent of Santa Cruz – Near the Church of San Pedro is a 13th century convent that still houses nuns today. The building is notable for its combination of Moorish and Baroque architecture. While the convent is beautiful, it’s better known for delicious pastries baked by its nuns, daily.
Iglesia de San Francisco – Built in 13th Century, this partially restored Fernandine church is a treasure of Córdoba’s Christian heritage. In the 19th century, it housed Franciscan monks, but the dissolution of the monastery left the church in a derelict state. Today, it stands quietly in a tucked away neighborhood near the city center.
Iglesia San Agustín – One of the most unique churches in Córdoba, San Agustin is a 13th century gothic temple built on the ruins of a mosque. It was sacked by Napoleon in the 19th century and was closed to the public before being restored last year. Its ceiling is covered by baroque frescoes with the image of Virgen de las Angustias.
Have you traveled to Córdoba? Been to any religious monuments I may have missed? Tell me about your experiences in the comments below.
Also published on Medium.