Cordoba, Spain by Ian Randall

The city of Cordoba has had a long history and the echo of Punic, Latin, Visigothic, and Arabic sounded along the winding streets of its old city before Spanish came to be spoken.  The Visigothic city fell to the conquering armies of the Umayyad Caliphate in 711, and became the capital of the new province of al-Andalus some five years later. Much like North Africa, which quickly slipped from the grasp of the Caliphate centered first in Damascus and then Baghdad, Cordoba and al-Andalus broke away in 756 and became the center of something new. Abd al-Rahman, a member of the Umayyad dynasty, fled to the city in that year as the victorious Abbasids demolished what remained of the old caliphate. Al-Rahman established himself in Cordoba, and began the two and a half century history of that city as the glistening capital of a new center of Islamic learning and power.

The city was remade in part, as many inherited cities in the Islamic world were, to suit its new status (Figure 1). The Roman walls were kept, and the old Visigothic fortress along the Guadalquivir River was transformed into a palace for the new Caliphs (Figure 2). Called today the Alcazar, from al-Qasr, it was divided into two sections, one for the city garrison, the other for the Caliph’s residence. Magnificent gardens were attached and still draw a number of visitors each year to see its verdant trees and the later, Moorish waterworks nearby. The Caliph’s stables and a new bath complex were constructed to the West. A grand mosque for the city was constructed on the site of the old Visigothic church of St. Vincent, now called the Mezquita (Figure 3). This structure saw considerable reuse of the previous church’s elements, including capitals, some non-figural sculpture, and some decorative panels that were deliberately defaced before being incorporated.  Within the mosque once can see the influence of the house of the prophet in Medina, with its overlapping central courts and series of columned payer halls (Figure 4). The Mezquita, converted into a cathedral after the Reconquista, features a blending of styles in its architecture that attests to the multicultural nature of the city under Muslim rule, with Berbers, Jews, Arabs, and Latin Christians producing a hybrid culture that flourished throughout the Early Middle Ages and came to rival the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad.

Much recent scholarship has focused on the nature of this society, particularly the religious tensions and accommodations that resonated in Spain up to the expulsion of the moriscos in 1609, and find relevance in the immigration issues facing Europe today. For archaeology this has meant an emphasis on architecture, burials, and more portable material culture, as well as attendant studies in history and art history on textual and visual hybrids. This early period of Muslim rule is placed in contrast to later eras when Cordoba was ruled by the Almoravids, Almohads, and later Christian kingdoms when religious conflict became the norm.

The city of Cordoba displays one of the ways in which inherited cities came to adapt both the physical landscape of their previous manifestation and pre-existing cultural forms to produce something new, a unique historical expression that stands in contrast to generalizing and stereotypical views of a singular ‘Islamic’ past that is all too often dropped onto periods of Islamic rule across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.