May 18: the ornament of the world

2012/05/18 § Leave a comment

During this month in 766 Córdoba was chosen as the capital of the independent Arab Muslim emirate of al-Andalus.

Córdoba is one of the most fascinating cities in the world, period.  Its history stretches back farther than you think–past Ferdinand & Isabella, past the Moors.  Even before then, it was old: old when the Iberian Romans sent young hometown hero Hadrian off to the capital to see if he could make a name for himself; old when the Carthaginians scooped silver out of the earth.  This is an old place.

But in the long history that has made it so old, no period was as glorious as the time during which the emirate of al-Andalus chose Córdoba as its capital.  The move set off one of the greatest cultural expansions any city in Europe, or elsewhere, has seen.  By the eleventh century, when Christian Europe was still pinching itself over the world not bursting into flames in 1000 AD, Córdoba had grown to a population of one million.  Not only was it huge, it was brilliant, with a court that encouraged science and literature; it was home to the world’s largest library, and in general a richly multicultural city.  Jews, Christians and Muslims lived and worked together, building a rare city with synagogues, churches and mosques of equal quality.  So famous, rich and brilliant was the capital that it was called “the ornament of the world.”

The architectural remnants of Córdoba that are a testament to this period are scattered, but worth the hunt.  The Mezquita (mosque) is of course the central monument of the emirate, even with the extraordinary vandalism of the thirteenth-century chapel stuck into its center.  Churches from the period are of course not difficult to find.  One of the great remnants from the period is the synagogue that amazingly survived demolition–highly rare in Spain.  But most of the material culture of al-Andalus–like the social culture–is long gone (although you can read a rich account of it in Maria Rosa Menocal’s book, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain; see info here).

Under the so-called Reconquista Catholic emperors conquered al-Andalus, and for generations squeezed the tolerance and brilliance out of the peninsula.  It was under Ferdinand and Isabella that Jewish and Muslim families were finally expelled from land they had for centuries called home and helped to burnish into a shining glory of Europe during the otherwise Dark Ages.  It reminds us that, as the poem says, nothing gold can stay–and we mourn the loss of this medieval jewel with the twentieth-century poem:

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost, 1923

Image: the Mezquita (Clio’s)

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You are currently reading May 18: the ornament of the world at Clio’s Calendar: Daily Musings on Architectural History.

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