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The Golden Triangle of Andalucia

  by Arline Inge

Where Wonders Never Cease

The Golden Triangle of  Andalucia: The rattle of castanets and the sob of guitars drift into the narrow streets from hole-in-the-wall flamenco night spots.

Not since tears would come to my eyes when Hansel and Gretel got lost in the woods, had I ever imagined that I could be lost in a forest. But here I was, fully-grown and wandering in the late afternoon gloom, softly calling for my husband. Softly because this was no ordinary woods but a hallowed forest with 850 towering trees of jasper, onyx, marble and granite marching off in all directions in the cavernous Great Mosque of Cordoba.

Here on the sun swept plains of the south of Spain’s Andalucia, which the Arabs called Al-Andalus, powerful caliphs who ruled the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages, built their fairytale palaces and mosques in a Golden Triangle of Muslim cities—Cordoba, Granada and Seville. Their Cordoba masterpiece, known as La Mezquita, is one of the best-preserved wonders of Islamic architecture in all of Europe. For more than five hundred years, Muslim worshippers came from near and far to drink in the wisdom of its imams and prostrate themselves before its glittering gold-tiled mihrab (prayer niche). At one time a pilgrimage to La Mezquita was considered a worthy substitute for a trip to Mecca.

It Came as a Surprise

Today, the great stone forest of leafy Corinthian columns and distinctive brick-red and white horseshoe arches is a Mecca of a different sort. Visitors of all faiths revel in this ancient beauty.

When I finally did catch up with my errant spouse, I found him still as a statue, arms akimbo in front of an astounding twist of history—a magnificent baroque cathedral standing right in the center of the forest, its gigantic arches reaching straight up through the roof of the sheltering mosque.

History is full of examples of new societies imposing their own icons on the old. The earlier Visigoths used marbles from Roman temples for their Christian churches. In turn, the conquering Moors built their mosques on Visigoth foundations. And when the Moors, themselves, were driven out of Andalucia in 1492, the new Catholic rulers decided to tear down the Mezquita and replace it with a cathedral as a symbol of the new order. More than 100 precious pillars had been destroyed while the church was going up, before King Philip V, who had actually sanctioned the destruction, had a change of heart and saved this irreplaceable treasure.

The now mid-size city of Cordoba was once the capital of Al-Andalus and the most important city in Europe, its splendors second only to Baghdad and Damascus. We are told it had a million people, 200,000 houses and 600 mosques, plus public baths and libraries. The streets were lighted at night, the fields and gardens watered by a network of canals, and air conditioning was provided by a misting system.

Take a walk through the well preserved old Jewish quarter of narrow winding streets lined with whitewashed houses and flower-decked patios (feel free to peek through the gates), and you’ll witness a remarkable slice of history that is hard to imagine especially these days. Up against the wall of the old town is the statue of the great Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes. In a nearby plaza is his Jewish contemporary Maimonides, the great physician, philosopher, scientist. Under Arab rule, Muslims, Jews and even the Visigoth Christians whom the Arabs had conquered, lived side by side in harmony and produced some of the history’s most profound thinking.

 

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