Ten centuries ago, Córdoba was the capital of Muslim Spain. With a population of 900,000 it was Europe's largest city and a worldwide cultural and intellectual center. Later, greedy hordes sacked the city, tearing down ancient buildings and carting off many art treasures. Despite these assaults, Córdoba still retains traces of its former glory -- in fact, of the three great medieval cities of Andalusia, Córdoba best preserves its Moorish legacy.
Today this provincial capital is known chiefly for its mosque, the world-famous Mezquita, but it abounds with other artistic and architectural riches, especially its lovely homes. The old Arab and Jewish quarters are famous for their narrow streets lined with whitewashed houses boasting flower-filled patios and balconies. Córdoba has recently joined the ranks of UNESCO's World Heritage sites.
Built between the 8th and 10th centuries, Córdoba's mosque is one of the earliest and most amazingly beautiful examples of Spanish Muslim architecture. The plain, crenellated walls of the outside do little to prepare you for the sublime beauty of the interior. As you enter through the Puerta de las Palmas (Door of the Palms), some 850 columns rise before you in a forest of jasper, marble, granite, and onyx. The pillars are topped by ornate capitals taken from the Visigothic church that was razed to make way for the mosque. Crowning these columns, red-and-white-stripe arches curve away into the dimness. The ceiling is carved of delicately tinted cedar. The Mezquita has served as a cathedral since 1236, but its origins as a mosque are clear.