Cordoba: A City of Light

By Salman Yazdani

Located in the Iberian Peninsula, Cordoba was one of the prominent centers of learning and culture in the enlightened Muslim world.  While the rest of Europe was going through its dark ages, this was the most prosperous and sophisticated metropolis in the continent.  It was the capital of Muslim Spain, spanning the region known today as Spain and Portugal, during 756 to 1031 C.E. and this was its most glorious period.

In his essay titled, “The ornament of the world: Medieval Cordoba as a cultural centre,” Robert Hillenbrand writes:

The city was remarkably clean by medieval standards.  Ibn Sa’id, a 7th/13th century historian who knew Cordoba especially well, notes that ‘Spanish Muslims are the cleanest people on the earth in respect of their person, dress, beds and in the interior of their houses.’  The streets were well paved and lighted, the lights being attached to the outer doors and corners of the houses – which, as al-Muqaddasi notes, had tiled roofs.  Cordoba was abundantly supplied with running water, for the supply of which ‘Abd al-Rahman I had constructed an aqueduct.  The city was huge, which in itself is notable…

The grand mosque in the centre of the city was the glory of Cordoba.  This was the most exquisite and largest mosque in the biggest city in Southern Europe.  Abd ar Rahman I and his descendants took two centuries to complete it, starting in 784 C.E.  “At the very least one may conclude from the frequent extensions of the Great Mosque that the population of the city was growing by leaps and bounds through the 3rd/9th and 4th/10th centuries. … [The great] mosque was famed as a centre for higher learning on a par with Cairo and Baghdad and was the earliest medieval university in Europe,” writes Hillenbrand. In 1236 C.E., immediately after the fall of Cordoba this magnificent mosque was converted into a Catholic church.

A Multicultural Guidepost

During the Muslim rule, the city offered an opportunity to the European traveler to see the unique advanced world.  What they saw was astounding.  While most of Europe languished in poverty, Cordoba was a centre of prosperity and enlightenment.  In the 9th and 10th centuries this was the most exciting city of Europe having a dazzling civilized air and multicultural society – Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together at all levels. The Christians and Jews were allowed to maintain churches and synagogues and follow their religions freely.  They were also allowed to participate in economic and social activities.

“The role of non-Muslims in this cultural flowering was crucial, especially as Arabs, Christians and Jews alike were bilingual in Arabic and the local Hispano-Latin dialect…other Christians served as administrators (occasionally reaching high office), financiers, physicians, artists and master-craftsmen,” remarked Hillenbrand. Relations between Muslims and Christians were sometimes strained but they were usually caused by small groups of extremists.

George Barnard Shaw also commented in his book The Jews of Islam, Generally, the Jewish people were allowed to practice their religion and live according to the laws and scriptures of their community. Furthermore, the restrictions … served to define the relationship between the two communities, and not to oppress the Jewish population.” So much so that, Maria Rosa Menocal, in her book The Ornament of the World, argues that the Jews living in Muslim Spain were far better off than those living under Christian rule in other parts of Europe.

An Intellectual Lighthouse

Caliphs took keen interest in collecting books and imparting knowledge, which made this city a centre of learning.  Hence, libraries and schools played a significant role in perpetuating the intellectual reputation of Cordoba; women also played a crucial role. As Hillenbrand describes:

Al Hakam II himself a respected historian, invited professors from the eastern Islamic world to teach at the Great Mosque and provided endowments for their salaries.  He also built twenty seven free schools amd had in the Alcazar a library of 400,000 volumes whose catalogue itself ran to 44 registers of 50 leaves apiece … the library (somewhat like the Great Mosque) was constantly outgrowing its accommodation, so that its premises had to be moved no less than five time… To put such stories in context, it is well to remember that the contemporary monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland had one of Northern Europe’s manor libraries with perhaps 600 books… At least an equally significant factor in the spread of literacy were the Islamic schools which employed scores of female copyists … poet Ibn Hazm wrote: ‘women taught me the Quran, they recited to me much poetry, they trained me in calligraphy…’  Other women who were more highly educated worked as secretaries, as teachers and as librarians; yet others practiced medicine and law … some, like the princesses Wallada bint al-Mustakfi and Aisha, were famous for their poetry…

The knowledge of medicine, mathematics, astronomy and botany was regularly updated by the constant contact with Baghdad and the east. As a result, Cordoba was far more advanced in anything than the rest of Europe.  Scholars and scientists made new discoveries in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, surgery, geography, and so on.

It was this mathematical know-how and advancement of Muslim architecture that permitted the building of the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages.  Margarita Lopez Gomes chronicles in her essay, “The Mozarabs: Worthy bearers of Islamic culture”:

The great historian of Spanish art, Manuel Gomez Moreno, has bequeathed us many works on Mozarab art and Islamic cultural influence… Mozarab travelers began building churches and monasteries in the 3rd/9th and 4th/10th centuries…these churches exhibit a further development of artistic elements brought from al-Andalus: the horseshoe arch, elongated and joined together with voussoirs; windows with geometric lattice-work or in paired horseshoe arches the panel (alfiz) around the arches flat doors cupolas with egg and leaf ornaments and arris reminiscent of the Mosque of cordoba…

Since this city was far more advanced in medicine, people from all over Europe came to Cordoba in search of cures. A time when most other Europeans would take their sick to the graves of dead saints, Muslim physicians discovered that disease was transmitted through tiny airborne organisms.  This discovery led to the study of germs, and hospitals were constructed to quarantine and treat the sick.  These hospitals had separate wards for patients suffering from different kinds of diseases; even mental illness was treated while the same illness in Europe would lead to death by burning alive.

Muslim Cordoba was indeed a highly civilized, multicultural society and a city of light.

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