If there is one city that captured the imagination and interest of people in medieval Europe, it has to be Cordoba. This ever so gallant and elegant city stretched on the two sides of the river Guadalquivir (originally Arabic for Wadi al Kabeer) is a memento of all things intellectual flourishing from the 9th century until its demise 300 or so years later.
There is no way anyone can give a short and succinct history of this city. There are too many names to mention, too many questions still unanswered and too deep a longing to unearth a history that lives underneath this cobbled old town. There is no timeline that would authentically describe the once thriving culture and there is no point in listing all the dates and names that made this place the centre of Europe once with its intellectual heritage we still thrive on today.
Yet, if any place deserves to be studied it is Cordoba and not as the little sister of Granada, but for its own independent spirit that held a torch for the rest of the Medieval world for centuries. Here lived many generations of craftsmen, literary geniuses, men of letters and scientific spirits that encouraged the rest of humanity to seek, reflect, contemplate and come to their own conclusions. The art of thinking is what Cordoba was known for; this dying art we no longer seem to practice. The art of exercising rationale and the mystical and alchemize the two into a form a magic that eventually transformed the world. There is a merit to thinking but there is also merit to distilling wisdom from thinking that makes us diligent and powerful in the way we participate in the world.
Cordoba was a small backwater at the time of the Visigoths, like many other settlements with bad management and town planning. It stood without proper systems or management skills and held no allure. Except for one man, it provided a place of refuge. Abd Ar Rahman I settled in Cordoba for his strategic vision and was followed his entire dynasty who ruled here. His vision was for long term and while even historians get bored with the monotonous ruling of the Umayyads (each ruler was there over two decades, from the same family, building the same legacy), we can see why that turned out to be the advantage for them. After three generations of rulers, they provided stability to the economy, created systems that were envied in the rest of Europe, and logistical consistency that gave trust and credibility in the hearts of other world powers of the time. Stability was a luxury in Medieval world where the “grab what you can” way of living ruled and divided. Unity can only be envisaged when a baseline stability is provided for systems to function well. Today, of course, you see little if this. Much of Cordoba’s history is presented to tourists and is highly curated. But underneath it all, we have history gleaming from under rocks and gargantuan buildings, scattered across the Jewish quarter, the Muslim old town under the Christian sun.
The three Abd Ar Rahmans (I,II and III) built Cordoba up to the highest standards in culture, literacy and craftsmanship. The mosque was extended constantly to accommodate the growing number of worshippers, and made the economy flourish like no other on the land.
We have 48 golden hours in Cordoba, and all I can do is list all the names of people who made this place outstanding. I have a few lists- famous people of Cordoba, the inventions that were born here, the names of people who made this town flourish in the fields of education, philosophy and the arts….my hand-made leather journal is overpouring and I am not stopping. This is what makes my heart pulsate- history coming alive on each page. AlZarqali, Ibn Hazm, Ibn Rushd, Lubna of Cordoba…..
I walked across town with my kids who roll their eyes as soon as I start telling stories, but I am hopeful that something will stick. One day, my hope is, they will bring their children here to tell the same stories. As I walked past a shop, I saw a little note on a board. It is about a famous andalusi woman, Wallada. I smiled, she is part of one of my novels and a fascinating Muslim woman. She is knowns for setting up literary salons in Cordoba gathering talented women who wrote poetry, were trained in the arts of calligraphy, and had an interest in all things intellectual. Did you know that there were over 600 female poets of Andalus? No, I guessed, it is not something we learn about. Wallada was an outrageous women in some estimations, as she walked around with her robe open, the Qur’an embroidered on it, while she had open relationships with men. Amongst the many things Wallada was a qayna woman. The concept of the qayna originated from the Abbasids in Baghdad and reached Al-Andalus. One room of the Sefarad Museum is filled with portraits of women and I could not help but notice that all women are painted with a book in their hand or on them. Knowledge was widespread and women were leading. So, ladies and gentlemen, meet the women who held the key to progress, prosperity and power – Fatima Bint al Mutanna, Lubna de Cordoba, Wallada the Omayyad, Hafsa al Raquniyyah and the wife of Dunas Bent Labrat. You can read more about the qayna system here: