One of the pleasures of travel is the opportunity to spend time in the confluence of history — a reminder that people, places, cultures, civilizations are always in flux.
Empires rise and fall; culture and language are born, only to disappear into the mists of time; cuisines are enriched by contact and trade with travellers and those just passing through (especially when passing through means sticking around for a few centuries).
Andalusia in southern Spain is such a place that stands at the crossroads of history. Scratch the surface of this multi-textured region of the Iberian peninsula and it is easy to see history at work here. Cordoba, a lively city on the banks of the Guadalqivir river, was once a Roman city during the time of the Republic and later, after being captured by the Moors in the 8th century AD, the capital of the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba, a region that included most of the Iberian peninsula. Signs of the various rulers are abundant in the city’s architecture, an enticing blend of Roman and Moorish arches and quintessential Spanish tiles. Fountains can be found throughout the city, a legacy of the water-loving Moorish populace, while the famed patios (interior courtyard gardens), built in the Arab style, provide a welcome cool retreat in the hot summer months.
Roman Bridge across the Guadalquivir river
In the 10th century, Cordoba, at the height of the caliphate, was the most populous city in the world, as well as a center for education under the rule of Al Hakam II, who established several libraries, in addition to the medical schools and universities in existence at this time. Developments in mathematics and astronomy flourished during this period, when the city of Cordoba was the intellectual center of Europe. Along with the great Mosque of Cordoba (Mezquita), the city boasted 3,000 mosques, magnificent palaces and what was then the largest library in the world.
In 1236, Cordoba was retaken by King Ferdinand III and the Mezquita converted into a Catholic church. The most significant alteration was the construction of a nave in the middle of the structure, built after the go-ahead from Charles V, king of Castile and Aragon, who, when he travelled to Cordoba to view the result reportedly stated that “they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.”
Such are the lessons of history — viewed through the lens of future centuries — that it may be a good idea to leave glorious works of architecture alone. That said, much of the spectacular architecture of the Mezquita remains intact, including the maze of interior Moorish arches and the courtyard gardens filled with orange trees.
Speaking of orange trees….if you travel to Andalusia in the spring you will be welcomed by the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms wafting through the warm air. Mixed with the occasional cloud of perfume rising up from the myriad jasmine plants growing all over the region, the scent is so uplifting it will raise even the darkest mood….making Andalusia a wonderful place to visit when you need to shake off the dregs of winter!
Sleepy Jerez de la Frontera, with its charming train station, is another interesting place on the history map. Famous as a wine-growing region, particularly for distilled and fortified types such as sherry (being an Anglicization of Xeres or Jerez). Jerez has been a centre of wine-making since it was first introduced to Spain by the Phoenicians in 1100 BC. After the Moors conquered the region in the 8th century AD, they introduced distillation, leading to the develop of brandy and other fortified wines.
Jerez de la Frontera train station – interior
Jerez de la Frontera train station – exterior
Wine production continued unabated through five centuries of Arab rule. In the 10th century however, Al Hakam II (the Caliph of Cordoba during Moorish rule) ordered the vineyards to be destroyed. Quick-thinking citizens of Jerez appealed to the Caliph to reverse his ruling on the grounds that the raisins produced in the vineyard also provided food to the empire’s legion of soldiers.
Luckily for sherry lovers everywhere, the Caliph spared the majority of the vineyards, and sherry-making continues to be an important source of revenue for the city.
In spite of the current economic crisis — which can be felt all over the region — life appears to be going on more or less as usual, much as it has been for centuries. As we stand on the crossroads of history, acknowledging time’s long reach allows us to stop for a moment in the midst of our worldly cares, to lift our nose from the grindstone, set aside the burdens of daily life and remember all those who have come before. Scientific discoveries made, empires built and lost, libraries and universities and mosques and cathedrals constructed… and then fallen into dust.
So let’s enjoy the days of wine and roses (and orange blossoms!) while we can, as they are all too fleeting, and — like so much of what we think to be an unchanging world — ‘this too shall pass’.