Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Visit to the Mezquita of Cordoba

For those of you heading to the medieval city of Cordoba, here's a tip: visit the Mezquita before 10am. It's free  during daily mass and the crowd is thin; just remember to dress appropriately. After 10:30am when the floodgates open, expect the Mezquita to be heaving with busloads of tourists, and don't let me tell you so. 

Getting to Cordoba is a breeze; the quick AVE train takes you from Seville to Cordoba in less than 60 minutes, making it an easy day trip. There's also convenient left luggage facilities at the bus and train stations if you wish to lock up your bags while visiting Cordoba, which is what we did since we planned on going directly to Granada. It's then a quick 5 EUR taxi ride to the medieval walls of the beautiful Mezquita of Cordoba. 

The Mezquita symbolizes the confluence of religion and powers on the Iberian peninsula during the 12th and 13th centuries. Construction of the Mezquita started in 784 AD under Abd Rahman I and evolved over two centuries blending various architectural forms in  which a minaret, mihrab, courtyard were subsequently added by various rulers. 

The Great Mosque expanded over time, accommodating as many as 10,000 worshippers. In 1236, King Ferdinand III captured Cordoba from the Moors and converted the Mezquita to a place of Christian worship. It wasn't until the 14th century when King Alfonso X ordered the construction of two chapels within the structure of the mosque. Today, this remarkable piece of architecture is declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While majority of the mosque was destroyed to accommodate the construction of the Villaviciosa Chapel and Royal Chapel, the layout of the floor plan is still very much Islamic. Entering the Mezquita, you are immediately captivated by a forest of symmetrical columns made from a mix of jasper, onyx, marble, and granite, many taken from old Roman and Visigothic buildings. The double arches of alternating red and white voussoirs gives the interior a beautiful visual effect, as does the lavishly decorated mihrab that adorns the ibla wall  facing the direction of Mecca. 

The most significant Christian addition is perhaps the impressive 16th century Baroque choir set in the middle of the building. It's interesting to see the juxtaposition of different architectural styles; the elegant Islamic arches is vastly different from the intricately carved Gothic vault ceilings. The minaret was also converted to a Baroque bell tower. The orange tree-clad courtyard, Patio de los Naranjos, with several ablution fountains were originally built for the Muslims to use before prayer. Allow yourself enough time to wander through the Mezquita and take in the architectural delights of the once powerful Moorish empire.

The Mezquita is not the only sight to see in Cordoba. Not as grand as the Alcazar of Seville, the palace-fortress built by Alfonso XI in the 14th century known as  Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos is also worth visiting if time permits. Throughout its life, the palace was used as the Court of Inquisition, then a civil jail, and finally a military prison before it was converted into a museum. The expansive garden and dazzling water ponds makes for a nice walk even in the sweltering 40C heat.

If can deal with the heat, I also recommend a quick walk across the pedestrianised bridge, Puente Romano, for panoramic view of the Mezquita. On the far side of the bridge is Torre de la Calahorra, a medieval watchtower. You cannot beat the view of the Mezquita's bell tower from the tiny narrow alleyway of Callejon de las Flores, which perfectly frames the elegant tower. 

The Old Jewish Quarter comprising of windy labyrinth of alleyways, flower-filled patios, and whitewashed houses makes for an atmospheric place to wander around and get lost in. After a hard day of sightseeing, we made sure to reward ourselves with a glass of Montilla, a fabulous local white wine unique to the Andalucia region, and it was on to Granada.

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