Tucked into a bend of its river, the Andalusian town of Cordoba has a glorious Moorish past. While its old wall evokes the history of a long-ago empire, its elegant cityscape and convivial squares show a modern pride. Typical of southern Spain, it's a people-friendly place filled with energy and color.
Cordoba's centerpiece is its massive former mosque — or, in Spanish, Mezquita (for pronunciation ease, think female mosquito). Magical in its grandeur, this huge building dominates the higgledy-piggledy old town that surrounds it.
At its zenith, in the 10th century, the mosque was the center of Western Islam and a cultural hub that rivaled Baghdad and Constantinople. A wonder of the medieval world, the mosque is remarkably well-preserved, giving visitors a chance to appreciate Islamic Cordoba and the glory days of Muslim rule.
Grand gates lead to an outdoor courtyard sheltered by orange trees. Long ago, worshippers washed here before prayer, as directed by Muslim law. Entering the mosque, you step into a fantastic forest of delicate columns and graceful arches that seems to recede into infinity, as if reflecting the immensity and complexity of God's creation.
Inside, it's easy to picture Cordoba as the center of a thriving and sophisticated culture. During the Dark Ages, when much of Europe was barbaric and illiterate, Cordoba was a haven of enlightened thought — famous for a remarkable spirit of religious tolerance, artistic expression, and dedication to philosophy and the sciences.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims had figured out how to live together more or less harmoniously. Everyone spoke the same language, cooked the same dishes, wore the same type of clothes, and shared the same public baths. It was one culture, with three religious traditions.
But in 1236, when Christians conquered the city, everything changed. According to legend, one morning Muslims said their last prayers in the great mosque, and that afternoon the Christians set up a portable altar to celebrate their first Mass.
Later, as if planting a cross into the mosque's religious heart, they build an imposing cathedral in the middle of the Mezquita. Towering overhead, the cathedral's bell tower encloses what had been a minaret. In its juxtaposition of traditions, the Mezquita uniquely embodies the interplay of Spain's Christian and Muslim cultures.
Cordoba has a fortress (Alcazar), a 14th-century synagogue, a Roman bridge, and the Museum of Al-Andalus Life (unabashedly pro-Muslim), but most tourists leave the city having seen only the Mezquita and the trinket shops and cute medieval quarter that surround it.