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'Spain' Cordoba -- or as it's known in Islamic history, Qurtuba -- Malaga and Tarifa

The exterior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba

The exterior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba

CORDOBA -- This time, our journey brings us to Spain, on the Iberian Peninsula. One of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, Spain is a nation known for its siestas, fiestas, football, bullfighting and flamenco and was also host to an Islamic civilization for a full eight centuries.

We leave the Spanish capital of Madrid and head for the city of Malaga, which is around 600 kilometers south of Madrid. The view of Malaga from the city's castle is extraordinary. The population of Malaga is around 650,000, and the place has the feel of a typical Mediterranean city. It is also a very popular stopping-off point for tourists. Malaga is the second largest city in Spain's Andalusia, and interestingly, it was the birthplace of famous artist Pablo Picasso as well as current cinema star Antonio Banderas.

Visitors to Malaga can tour the city in horse-drawn carriages or perhaps take a look at the bullfighting arena.

 After spending some more time in Malaga, we set out for Gibraltar, which lies across from Moroccan shores on the Straits of Gibraltar. From Gibraltar, it is possible to get a very clear view of Africa, as the African and European continents lie very close to one another at this point. From Gibraltar, we head for the Andalusian city of Tarifa, a point from where visitors can, if they wish, catch one of the regular ferryboats and take a 35-minute ride across the Straits of Gibraltar to the Moroccan city of Tangier. It is interesting to consider that not far from Tarifa lies Gibraltar, which is British soil.

In the year 711 Tariq ibn Ziyad set foot on Spanish soil for the first time along with 7,000 soldiers. The moment he arrived, he ordered their ships to be burnt so that none of the soldiers would harbor ideas of leaving again. The arrival of Tariq ibn Ziyad was the first step towards the creation of the Umayyad state in Andalusia. And from there onwards, Muslims were to rule for eight centuries in this land. It took Tariq ibn Ziyad and his soldiers only one-and-a-half months to take control of the enormous land of Spain before them. The centuries that followed were ones marked by tolerance and peace.

 Even today there are many traces of Islam evident in the Spanish city of Tarifa. Narrow streets and homes which bear very similar architectural flourishes to ones found in Morocco are just a couple of these reminders. In fact, Tarifa has strong, regular trade and cultural communications with Africa. Tarifa has many wind farms on its hilltops to generate electricity.

 Another Andalusian city is Marbella, which lies not far from Malaga and hosts many visitors, particularly through the summer months. There is a mosque along with a minaret in Marbella that was ordered built by the king of Saudi Arabia.

Cordoba: a former Islamic capital

We head from here to the Spanish city of Cordoba. This city was for many years the capital of the Andalusian Umayyads. Under the reign of the Andalusian Umayyad state, the population of Cordoba rose above 1 million. This is particularly striking when you consider that nowadays, Cordoba's population is a much smaller, at around 300,000. Cordoba was a striking city even then, notable for its advanced sewage systems, universities, hospitals, libraries, clean streets, clean drinking water and general appeal. Cordoba under Umayyad rule even had street lamps that were connected through the use of an oil system. This meant that Cordoba maintained a clean, well-lit atmosphere while other cities like London and Paris were in the dark.
The minaret of the Great Mosque of Cordoba - A street in Tarifa

 There were enormous libraries at the time in Cordoba, as the city was a capital of knowledge and culture. Interestingly, Ibn Rushd (known in European literature as Averroes) was born in Cordoba; he was a man whose books were to be read for hundreds of years in universities both east and west. Later, these same Andalusian lands were to produce other important thinkers in addition to Ibn Rushd such as Ibn Tufail and Ibn Bajjah. As it turns out, these Muslims from the Umayyad state in Andalusia were to play an important role in the European renaissance. Some of the first European universities were to be formed by students who came to Cordoba to learn. And books written on subjects as varied as mathematics, medicine, astronomy and chemistry as well as other subjects by Andalusian intellectuals were also to become important in the changes that took place in Europe. In fact, the Islamic intellectuals from Andalusia said far in advance of their Western counterparts that the world was in fact round and not flat. And while there were still no schools in Europe, Andalusia boasted a school system that stretched all the way to its villages.

 Another striking aspect of the Islamic civilization here was cleanliness. One of the first moves made by Muslims no matter where they settled was to open up large hamams (public baths) for the local people. In Cordoba alone, there were 990 hamams for the local residents of this city. Europeans at the time were very influenced by the hygienic habits of the Muslims they encountered. In many ways, the state of Andalusia was at the time the most modern and developed part of Europe under the Umayyads, and the city of Cordoba was Europe's largest metropolis at the time. A full 99 percent of the city's residents were literate.

 During those years, seven different races and three major religions could be found in Andalusia. Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in peace and tolerance, an example the likes of which Europe was not to see again for a long time. The heights of civilization achieved at this time in the Andalusian region were unparalleled at the time in Europe.

There is only one mosque left standing these days in Cordoba, though at the time of the Muslim Andalusian state, there were 1,600 mosques in Cordoba alone. The Great Mosque of Cordoba, or the Qurtuba mosque, is a structure built during the eighth century under Abd ar-Rahman I. This mosque went through many different stages and additions, though it was finally completed in the 10th century. The Cordoba mosque is often referred to as the largest, most glorious mosque in the West. It stands on a large piece of land and can hold up to 50,000 people at one time, if you include its courtyard. It is so large that when you enter, you feel almost as though you are wandering through a forest of columns. The mihrab of the mosque is quite memorable, though the mosque's mimber, an unparalleled example of woodwork which took seven years to create, is missing.

 Spaniards call this mosque La Mezquita-Catedral, which means the “mosque-cathedral.” After Cordoba fell in the 13th century, it was consecrated as a cathedral, and in fact, much reconstruction, as well as damage, was done to the original structure at the time. Some say that when Spanish King Carlos V saw the cathedral inside the mosque, he said: “Do you think I would have given permission had I known that you were going to damage this unparalleled piece of architecture? I kind find churches like this one everywhere, but a mosque such as this may never be built again.”

Other still-visible traces of the Muslim culture that used to be so predominant across Andalusia are the fountains you can see everywhere. In the Jewish Sephardim quarter of Cordoba, we see the statue of Jewish thinker Maimonides.

 The Madinat al-Zahra of Cordoba, or in Spanish, the Medina Azahara, was a city formed by Abdurrahman III during the 10th century. This is the spot where the main decisions in leading the Umayyad state were made. Despite its enormous importance in the past, today there are really only traces left of the Madinat al-Zahra. There used to be a local resident population of 100,000 in this city, which was started in 936 and not completed until 1013. Interestingly, history forgot about Madinat al-Zahra after the Muslims left, until 1911, when images of it showed up on satellite photographs. Only 10 percent of the city has been uncovered so far, the other 90 percent is still underground. Who knows what interesting further clues the remaining uncovered parts of Madinat al-Zahra will give us to the extraordinary civilization that once thrived in Andalusia.


Capital: Madrid

Official language: Spanish (Castilian)

Government: Parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy

King: Juan Carlos I

Prime Minister: José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

Area: 504,782 square kilometers

Population: 40,491,052*

GDP (PPP): $1,361 trillion**

Religions: Roman Catholic (94 percent), others (6 percent)

* July 2008 estimate **2007 estimate   


15 October 2009, Thursday


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