Three Cultures, One City: Born in Antiquity, Cordoba Still Shapes the Modern World

By Neil Melançon, Louisiana Farm Bureau Information & Public Relations Assistant Director

In the 1950s when the city of Cordoba decided to expand its city hall, excavators stumbled across what is likely the most important Roman temple in the city’s history.  It dates back to a time when the the city was an important Roman capital in the richest province in Pax Romana.

It’s fitting, then, that as the city sought to expand it’s seat of power, it discovered one in antiquity.  The city seems to find its way to the top century after century.  With throngs of tourists in the streets, it could be climbing there once again.

Cordoba is a city full of winding streets, narrow alleyways and surprising plazas, almost as if the city is a physical metaphor for how much history and culture is contained within it.  It’s known as the city of three cultures—Christian, Muslim and Jewish, three religions that have left an indelible impact upon the city long after its heyday as the capital of a world power.  

The cultural tapestry was on full display Saturday morning as Class XV wound its way through those streets.  From the aforementioned Roman temple to 12th century Visigoth walls to hidden gardens no less beautiful for their miniature scale, the excitement seemed to build at every step.

Also at every step, it seemed, was the looming bell tower of the Mezquita-Catedral, the mosque that was converted into a cathedral during the Reconquista.  When the group finally reached the building at the end of the tour, their excitement was rewarded.  Beautiful garden courtyards gave way to Muslim-influenced arched hallways lined with Roman columns and Christian frescos.  The blend of cultures and history itself reaches a crescendo in the great nave of the Cathedral, soaring dozens of feet overhead.  Below, the graves of kings, martyrs and saints are entombed in the floor, speaking to the long eons that have passed since the place was constructed.  

While not every inch of the Mosque-Cathedral is adorned, no stone seems to be placed without care.  Intricate frescoes, stele, statues, crucifixes and paintings are placed where the eye is never left wanting.  Where more plain features occur, an interplay of light from stained glass, braziers, modern light and the sun itself give a splendor all on its own.

While the Mosque-Cathedral, like the city itself, is a blend of cultural influences, it is also like the city in that they haven’t rested easy.  Islam wrested the city from the Visigoths in the 8th century.  The Reconquista, Reconquest, of Spain saw the city fall back into Christian hands in the 12th century.  For hundreds of years, they resided in peace, until the Spanish Inquisition demanded Jews and Muslims alike convert or face expulsion, torture and death.  The city once again enjoyed peace and many of the city’s places are named with Jewish and Muslim names.  Even to this day, Muslims have asked to once again share the Mosque-Cathedral and be allowed to pray within its walls.  So far, they have been rebuffed by the Vatican and Spain, a situation not without its tensions, mirroring current political reality.

Everyone left the Mosque-Cathedral with at least some new perspective.  I think it invigorated everyone to spend their free time in the afternoon exploring to some extent or another.  We came back together that night in the Jewish Quarter for a meal and show in a setting far more intimate than the church, but no less cultural. 

Flamenco is the national dance of Spain.  Suffice it to say, most in the tour had not witnessed a performance before, but all were moved by it.  With it’s vigorous floor stomping, sometimes that motion was quite literal.  If you haven’t seen it, Flamenco dance has the rhythm of tap, the energy or Irish Riverdance-style dance and the presentation of peak emotion in theatre.  The energy of it and passion belies a control and endurance that speaks to the discipline of its performers.  The Spanish guitar is accompanied by a wailing-style singing in which you can hear echoes of the Muslim call to prayer.   It wasn’t long before Class XV were shouting along with the dancers and clapping to the beat, showing appreciation with both applause and the traditional cry of “Ole!”

Even with all the passion and intimacy displayed by flamenco, there’s a remoteness in the dancer’s faces.  One gets the sense that the dance is both for the audience and not for them as well, as though through every balletic twirl, every vigorous stomp, every poised gesture at the crowd, not just skill is shown, but the upholding of national pride is maintained, regardless of its reception.  

For a a city and a country that has seen rise, fall and rise again, it’s appropriate this was the close of the day for the class (well, maybe not *the* close—the city has quite the nightlife, too!).  We head to Seville tomorrow with a eyes open for more of the richness this city and this country has shown us from centuries past to now.