Spain: Charming Córdoba – Sephardic and Kingly Cultures

After the amazing visit to La Mezquita, we weren’t sure what (or if) we wanted to see (anything) next – so moving had been the experience.  We tend to alternate between figuring out our destinations (and doing prior research) and just letting our feet wander and see where we end up.  Now was one of those times.

In the tenth century Córdoba was the seat of Jewish learning, scholarship and culture.

Just down the street we happened upon a priceless gem: one of the remaining Jewish Synagogues.  It was built in 1315 and is the only synagogue in Andalusia to survive the expulsion and inquisition of the Jews in 1492 and one of only three ancient synagogues left in all of Spain (the other two are in Toledo).

After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the synagogue of Córdoba was turned into a hospital,  a Catholic chapel in 1588 and later housed a nursery school.  It became a national monument in 1885, and was restored by 1985 in time to celebrate the 850th anniversary of  Maimonides, one of the most important Jewish scholars in history.


statue of Maimonides

a very small but beautiful space

A minyan (ten men) needed for worship

the women's gallery


West wall of the synagogue (note remnants of cross from the chapel days)

East wall - oriented towards Jerusalem

Psalm texts written around doorways and the balcony

Today the Synagogue is an historic site, no longer used for worship.  It is also very crowded as tours from all over the world pour in to the tiny space.  But I was worshiping as I read the (translations of) the Hebrew words inscribed on the walls and I was thinking of so many of my friends who were celebrating Passover this same week.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good. (from Psalm 122)









Just opposite the Synagogue, was a marvelous museum of Sephardic History, with implements, musical instruments, and items from what might be a typical Sephardic household in Spain. The collection comes from all over the Mediterranean where Jews settled during the Diaspora.  There were not so many people here, so easy to enjoy at our leisure, and the explanations were not only in Spanish but also English.  Super!















cabinet to hold the Torah when it is not in use in worship









courtyard at Sephardic museum










poetry from a Sephardic woman poet














By then, we were getting hungry and stumbled upon a small grocery, where the proprietor made us some delicious sandwiches with Serrano jamón, queso, los tomates… while an elderly lady waited for him to finish!  We also got chips, two amazing FRESH oranges, and some Fanta (which I hadn’t had in years!)

the little grocery store where we bought lunch


nice grocer who made us sandwiches of serrano and tomatoes in Cordoba

We took our meal back to the courtyard of La Mezquita and enjoyed the shade of the orange trees (as countless others before us must have enjoyed the same!) while the pigeons begged for food.  Really!  No telephoto needed!


orange trees everywhere

in the Mezquita courtyard

begging pigeon












We finished our day with a tour of the old fortification across the river from the Mezquita.


museum (and former fortification) at the end of the bridge in Cordoba - old roman bridge

The bridge is built on the foundations of an old Roman bridge.  At the other (Mezquita) end, is a monument to Raphael the Archangel in thanksgiving for the end of the Plague. (There are many such statues and monuments, all over Europe!)


statue to St. Raphael the archangel in return for protection from the plague

view of La Mezquita from the tower of the Museum/fort

La Mezquita is the large building on the right. You can see how the cathedral is plopped right into the middle of the mosque.

As we walked back to our hotel, we enjoyed many charming moments in Cordoba.


plants growing between the roof tiles

an impeccably dressed Andalucian gentleman












kids playing soccer in Cordoba

laundry on the rooftops (we can relate!)


The next day was Palm Sunday. We began the morning on the rooftop terrace of the hotel (location of the pool not yet open for the season and blissfully deserted!), watching the swifts and enjoying our grocery store breakfast of somewhat stale croissants and room coffee.



We had hoped to be able to stay for the service in the Cathedral but the timing was not good for our train back to Sevilla.  So instead we wandered over to Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (Spanish for “Alcázar of the Christian Monarchs”), also known as the Alcázar of Córdoba, which is a medieval palace next to the Guadalquivir River and near the Mezquita, that served as one of the primary residences of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Here there are beautiful and extensive gardens,  a statue of Christopher Columbus with Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, as well as lots of other ‘eye candy’ – fountains, orange and lemon trees, roses, calla lilies, one little girl making her first communion that day (probably with the bishop who was coming for the service at the Cathedral) and a few feral cats.  I could have stayed all day!


first set of gardens and fountains at alcazar

fountains everywhere

lemon trees

fun 'sculptures'

gorgeous roses












feral cat





statue of Columbus with his royal patrons

a little girl (and friend) getting ready to make her first communion

Our last memory of Córdoba was of the buggies and the bells pealing to call people to Palm Sunday mass! (In Austria the parade of palms is done with pussy willows, as there are no palms readily available.  However, in Andalucía, there are no such problems! Palms –and olive branches – are everywhere!


buggy driver - a fixture everywhere, only the hats seem to change!

buggy driver - a fixture everywhere, only the hats seem to change!


Click on the photo to hear the bells from outside the wall of old Cordoba.


From Spain 2011

Then it was back to Sevilla to pick up our rental car for the drive to Guacin.

Thanks as always, for reading!


Spain: Charming Córdoba and La Mezquita

Spring break in Austria consists of almost 3 weeks for University students.  We took not quite a week of that to visit Spain, working around field work for Bill and a visit to us from some French friends over the Easter holiday and scheduled meetings after that.  It took us quite a while to figure out where in Spain we wanted to go, but we finally settled on the south of Spain, Andalucía, drawn by reports of its natural beauty and intrigued with Semana Santa.  We toyed with the idea of spending our entire 6 days on a beautiful  Mediterranean beach but discarded that idea for the lure of history, art, tradition and birds.


Andalucía is in the southernmost part of Spain and is the southernmost part of the Iberian peninsula


Our route took us by air to Sevilla, then immediately to Córdoba by the AVE train, back to Seville where we rented a car and then down to the ‘blanco peublo’ of Gaucín, on to Gibraltar, and then back up to Sevilla for a few days before we returned home.

The abundance and/or particularity of birds we had hoped for didn’t materialize, mostly because the weather was somewhat uncooperative during our time in the natural areas.  Nevertheless, what we did see was a veritable feast for the eyes and the spirit.

We left Graz under cloak of darkness, but it wasn’t dark in the airport where one could purchase duty free items.  You would think with these warnings that there would be less smoking in Europe, but in fact Austria has one of the highest smoking populations of all the EU countries.

cartons in the duty free store in the airport. EU means business but it doesn’t stop anyone!

We arrived in Sevilla in a wave of heat and after collecting our bags, made our way to the bus stop to the Santa Justa train station.  This was probably the most uncomfortable part of the trip.  The bus was crowded with people and bags, no place to sit, no room to move and the bus driver just kept piling people on.  Fortunately, Santa Justa was the first stop.  We had a 2 hour wait in the train station so we passed the time snacking and window shopping in the various stores.

Sevilla Santa Justa train station

Entrance to the AVE (high speed) trains (and maybe all trains) is quite controlled.  Luggage passes through screening, and your passports and tickets are checked twice.  The nice thing about the AVE is that all seats are reserved, even in second class.

waiting for the AVE train in Sevilla

‘beak’ of the AVE train…or is it the tail?



AVE is an acronym of Alta Velocidad Española (or literally high-speed trains) but is also a play on words for the Spanish word for bird, ave, which is the symbol of the train!


This was a case where maybe the 45 minutes between the two cities was too fast…hard to enjoy the scenery with everything zipping by at 300 km/h (186 mph).  Still we could see the beautiful orange orchards which morphed into olive orchards as we approached Córdoba and a quick glimpse of a castle on a hill outside the city.



On Google maps, it looked like our hotel in Córdoba was within walking distance of the Córdoba train station.  I had emailed the hotel before we left, asking for better directions, but never heard a word.   Eventually, we got on a city bus which dropped us ‘not too far’ from the old quarter of Córdoba where we were staying.  ‘Not too far’ is far different when it’s 85 degrees outside.  We finally arrived at our hotel, located in the historic heart of the city, on Plaza de Maimónides, near an early 14th century synagogue and La Mezquita – a home now to a Cathedral built in the middle of Islamic Mosque.   That juxtaposition says it all regarding Córdoba.  In the early middle ages it was one of the biggest and most vibrant cities in Europe and North Africa and a prime example of the ability of Jews, Muslims and Christians to live peacefully side by side.  First a Roman outpost (206 BC), it rose to splendor under the rule of Arabs from North Africa (711-1200). In the 10th and 11th centuries, Córdoba was one of the most advanced cities in the world as well as a great cultural, political, financial and economic center.   It declined as the caliphs became less competent and was captured by King Ferdinand III of Castile in 1296.

We first saw the Mezquita from the outside, in late afternoon, as we walked around the narrow streets of Córdoba, and then again in the moonlight after we emerged from our first Spanish tapas experience. (As is typical with Spain and Italy, things close up around 4 PM but then re-open around 6 or 7 PM for the rest of the evening.)

The Mezquita from the outside in the afternoon

You can see the ancient walls of the mosque (begun in 784, open for prayer 785, completed, more or less, in 793), and behind it, part of the Córdoba Cathedral which was built in the middle of the mosque in 1523, taking some 200 years to complete. The shadow is from the mosque’s minaret, which was mostly consumed for the bell tower of the cathedral.  To be fair, Christians worshiped on this spot in the Church of St. Vincent prior to the Muslim takeover in the 700’s.  In fact, the Abd ar-Raham bought first one half and then the other half of the basilica to erect a mosque on the site.  He paid the Christians well for their property and allowed them to build new churches in other parts of Córdoba.

The old quarter of Córdoba, where we stayed, is full of narrow streets, where lovely courtyards surprise you around each turn.  You are mostly welcome to enter the courtyards to look; in fact there is a competition later in the month for the most beautiful one!

narrow streets

one of many courtyards or patios in Córdoba













We also found stores and bodegas (wineries) displaying famous Serrano ham (the same ham sells for 200-300 Euros in the duty free shops!).

After walking through many streets, we finally settled on tapas in the courtyard of a small restaurant or taberna.  Never mind that we were the first people there – at 8 PM, we could wait no longer!  We were given the ‘best table in house’ by the fountain, we are certain, to encourage others to enter.  That they did.  We settled for the tapas of Córdoban gazpacho (Salmorejo), aubergines (eggplant) in honey, calamari, fish, oxtail, and desert all accompanied by half-bottles each of red and white wine and bubbly agua minerale.

the little tapas restuarant we ate in both nights in Cordoba

tapas from another night at the same taberna

Counter-clockwise from about 10 o’clock:  meat, meat, quiche, fried aubergines with honey, fish, anchovies, mussels, squid, lemon, manchego cheese, and in the middle Salmorejo and vegetable croquettes. So good!

Canaries Lolo and Pepe sang at our tapas restaurant in Cordoba. This is Lolo.

Afterwards we strolled through the streets to our hotel.  The Mezquita was lovely in the moonlight.

Mezquita in moonlight


Our first look into the Mezquita would need to wait until the morning.

One of the great pleasures in Spain is enjoying freshly squeezed juice from those luscious orange trees.  We ate our meal in a little cafe right across from La Mezquita.  Although the sign said “abren a las 7:30, the proprietor didn’t open until almost 8.  No matter, the food was delicious and the coffee, well, Turkish coffee.

great breakfast – croissant, café and freshly squeezed juice

The mosque/cathedral is open – and free –  from 8:30 – 10:00 for individuals only, so one is free to explore this wonder in relative silence.  I was wholly unprepared for what happened when we walked in.


Celtic spirituality speaks about thin places – those places in space or in time where the distance between what we call ‘heaven’ and the ‘normal’ human existence is diminished.  Thomas Merton believed, as do I, that the gates of heaven are present in each moment, only we don’t see them, so distracted or blind are we.

When we entered the Mezquita, that felt like one of those thin places.   Awe and wonder ascended as my tears descended.  It was completely overwhelming, in the best way. (Another surprise.)    Beauty, symmetry, spaciousness and a kind of  light surrounded us.  People moved quietly and respectfully, as they danced around one another.  The only sound, really, was the clicking of shutters and the softness of footfall.

the arches and columns recall palm trees in the desert

interlocking arches give the mosque its structural support and its beauty


it appears to go on forever

The 856 columns (originally 1,013) supported a timbered roof and were mostly constructed of materials plundered/recycled from Roman ruins.  There are very few the same.  The newer part of the mosque has more uniform columns and less interesting architecture. The mosque was at its zenith 104 meters long.

timbered roof with colored glass

the Mihrab, the symbolic doorway leading to heaven

to which your eye is drawn

scallop shell symbolism with Arabic calligraphy

scallop shell symbolism with Arabic calligraphy below

close up of calligraphy

ribbed and vaulted ceiling, added later by Al Hakan in 961

other vaulted dome of the mosque (there are 3)

So, into the middle and around the outer edges of this beautiful work of art from three separate architects, was inserted a cathedral.  King Carlos I gave permission (against the wishes of Córdoba’s city council) for the center of the Mezquita to be ripped out to allow construction of the Capilla Mayor (the altar area of the cathedral) and the coro (choir).  According to various accounts, the king regretted his decision and said, after visiting the results, “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that ws unique in the world.”  The marble and jasper rettable (behind the altar)(17th c) and the carved wood choir stalls from the 18th c. – albeit beuatiful and elegant- seem dark and heavy compared with the exquisite lightness of the mosque.

altar of the capilla mayor in the Mezquita cathedral

choir of the capilla mayor in the Mezquita cathedral

cleaning day in preparation for Palm Sunday

detail of choir seats

detail of the pulpit at the Cathedral

At this point, may I direct you to a wonderful piece of writing and speaking by my good friend and former neighbor, Gary Hawk.  Gary and his wife Joyce took a walking trip of Andalucía several years ago, and Gary preached a sermon in our church around Psalm 19 using this image as one expository point. You can find the sermon, which contains a great deal of history about the mosque/cathedral HERE. When you get to the page, select Gary W. Hawk as speaker and find the sermon “Between The Pulpit and the Bull”.

The cathedral also inserted a number of smaller chapels all around the outside edges of the mosque, as if to reinforce the supremacy of Christianity at that time.

one of the chapels in the cathedral

A moment of beauty prevailed, though, when the priests began to chant from the choir prior to the beginning of the morning mass.

priests chanting prior to mass

I closed my eyes and imagined also the Iman’s call to prayer, the Rabbi’s or Cantor’s chant of the Sh’ma.

“Life is this simple.  We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story.  It is true.  If we abandon ourselves to God, and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently.  The only thing is that we don’t see it.”  … “Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand.  It is wide open.  The sword is taken away…..” – Thomas Merton

Click on the image below to open the movie.

From Spain 2011

As preparations for Palm Sunday began in earnest, we were ushered out of the Mezquita to allow for paying groups to enter.

getting ready for Palm Sunday at Mezquita

More wondrous sights awaited in Córdoba.

Thank you, as always, for reading.  Hasta mañana.