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Volume 14, Number 4April 1963

In This Issue

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In the days of Islamic Spain, one city made a bold bid for much of the world's talent

Cultured Cordova

A raffish figure cantered down the dusty Spanish road to Cordova in the year 1120. His mount was an overage plow horse, his saddle a battered and discarded veteran of many military campaigns. On the right shoulder of his rough tunic perched a chattering monkey. In his hands he held a lute, and as he rode he strummed a melodious tune of his own devising.

The rider paused on the crest of a hill and smiled as he looked at the city spread out below, crowded with buildings, thronged with people. Grasping his monkey's paw, he said gaily: "My friend, you are gazing at fame and fortune."

An hour later they were in the bazaar of Cordova, and the simian acrobat was entertaining a circle of curious onlookers. The minstrel sang songs for them—lively, doleful, amorous, comical. The monkey passed the hat through the audience, chattering volubly as coins clinked into it. Then the interesting visitor called his monkey and disappeared in search of a lodging for the night.

This individual was one of the most colorful and most gifted personalities in Islamic Spain. His name was Ibn Quzman, a wandering minstrel who became a great poet of Arabic literature.

Ibn Quzman was right in supposing that fame and fortune awaited him in Cordova, for there, more than any where in Spain or all of Europe, a poet and musician might hope to find patrons of his art.

Cordova was an ancient city before the advent of Islam. When the Visigoths came storming across the Pyrenees after the fall of the Roman Empire, they made straight for the lush terrain to the south. They found a strategic spot on the Guadalquivir River from which they could control the area. It was far enough from the mountains to be defended against other barbarian tribes, and far enough from the Mediterranean to be safe from marauding pirates. The river gave access to the sea. Armies could be quickly dispatched to every part of the province, and the land was fertile enough to support a large population.

Their power lasted until the year 711, when a Muslim army crossed over from North Africa and won a decisive victory on the banks of the Salado River. Flying columns fanned out in pursuit of the Visigoths. Cities and provinces were captured. Cordova resisted a siege for two months before it fell. Like the Visigoths before them, the Muslims understood the importance of the city on the Guadalquivir and made it the capital of their Iberian empire.

A decisive event in the history of that empire occurred in 750 far off in the Middle East. The 'Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyad dynasty. The last of the Umayyads, Abd Al Rahman, escaped the fate of his family. He wandered through North Africa and made his way to Spain where he was accepted by the Iberian Muslims who remained loyal to the Umayyads.

Thus did Islamic Spain restore the Umayyad Caliphate, a political reality that became official when Abd Al Rahman III formally assumed the title of Caliph and the traditional designation "Commander of the Faithful." Soon the capital of Umayyad Islam, Cordova, rose to an equal brilliance with the capital of Abbasid Islam, Baghdad.

"Cordova is the jewel of the world," says a medieval German manuscript. Visitors from the trans-Pyrenean nations of Europe, whose homelands were struggling through the worst period of the Dark Ages, were astonished by the magnificence of the Moorish capital. They found a city of 500,000 inhabitants and 100,000 buildings—by far the largest metropolis west of Constantinople and north of the Mediterranean.

There were hundreds of mosques and public baths in Cordova. More striking to visitors, for whom books were rare and precious things, were the city's 70 major libraries—including one collection of 400,000 volumes gathered by the Caliph Al Hakam II. The paved streets contrasted with the dust and mud that would remain familiar irritations in Paris and London for centuries to come.

Dominating the Cordovan skyline stood the Great Mosque. Begun by Abd Al Rahman I in 786 and added to by subsequent rulers of Iberian Islam, the Great Mosque grew into the wonderful structure known today as the Cathedral of Cordova. Several modern writers have used the word "forest" in referring to the interior columns, an apt term since there are over a thousand of them supporting the huge roof.

The Great Mosque shows how skillfully the Moors employed the arch. They adopted the horseshoe arch of the Visigoths and made it so popular elsewhere that it has become known as the "Moorish arch." They are thought to have invented the system of intersecting arches designed to withstand the stresses and strains of a lofty roof supporting a massive cupola hewn from marble. This architectural principle was copied and widely used in the building of Europe's great cathedrals. The Europeans who learned about it in Cordova expressed amazement after walking through the galleries and the loges and the spacious courtyard of the Great Mosque.

Cordova also possessed its Versailles, 700 years before Louis XIV. Madinat Al Zahra did not survive the Middle Ages, but we know from the written reports of eyewitnesses that the royal palace on the outskirts of the city took 100,000 men and 20 years to build. It had 400 rooms and a Hall of the Caliphs featuring glass doors and alabaster windows. Here, overlooking colorful gardens and bubbling fountains, the lord of Islamic Spain held court, ruled his realm and took his ease.

The common people made their own contribution to the greatness of Cordova. Their native crafts became famous. Indeed, the English word "cordwain" comes from "Cordovan" and refers to the beautiful leatherwork that became admired throughout the civilized world. An English merchant of the time reported that the Londoners were "struck by leather as pliable as wool and as tough as horsehair, and marveled where I had found it."

The Cordovan craftsmen who worked with baked tile were equally adept. They turned out glazed cups, dishes and jars, all intricately decorated and brought to a glittering sheen that rivaled Chinese porcelain. Known to collectors as "Mudejar," the pottery of medieval Cordovan kilns still ranks among the most valuable on the market.

Spain's agriculture, too, was advanced by the Muslims. They constructed aqueducts and lateral pipes for irrigation. They introduced exotic plants that are now characteristic of Andalusia, including oranges, peaches and cotton. The typical "Spanish garden," as it is popularly called today, is actually a Moorish garden.

With wealth piling up in Cordova, the caliphs and their more opulent subjects turned to patronizing the fine arts.

Ibn Quzman, representative of the popular minstrelsy, wrote more than 300 poems, of which about half survive. Ibn Zaydun, a troubadour, developed highly-technical verse forms and saluted his native city with his poem "Cordova." The composer Ziryab perfected the lute and sang his thousand songs at the palace. The philologist Al Qali produced one of the first studies of the grammar of the Arabic language. The historian Ibn Hasan wrote his chronicle of Islamic Spain at the request of Abd Al Rahman III.

Cordova was also regarded as a center of philosophical thought with Islamic scholars such as Ibn Rushd studying and developing the ideas of the Greeks. Known in Europe as Averroes the Commentator, Ibn Rushd gave an important impetus to the medieval philosophical tradition that culminated in the scholarly accomplishments of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.

Ibn Quzman, the poet and minstrel, and Ibn Rushd, the scholar, both characterized ancient Cordova—a city still remembered for its color as well as its culture, long after Islamic Spain has vanished into history.

This article appeared on pages 11-13 of the April 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for April 1963 images.