In Córdoba, “nadie escapa de la poesía” (nobody escapes from poetry) wrote Shmuel HaNagid, in the tenth century. Rills of water flow softly in a fountain somewhere nearby. Plaintive notes sound from a single guitar on a quiet street. Flowers brighten white-washed buildings in Casco Viejo, the largest old town in the country. A forest of columns awaits you at the largest mosque in the world. The scent of jasmine wafts nearby, somewhere. It’s easy to understand why Spaniards say Córdoba is the heart of their country.
Pat and Dallas and Magellan and I arrived a week before Cosmopoética, the city’s annual poetry festival. Travelling by train from Seville set a leisurely tone for our day. (Driving in the city is difficult and parking they say is worse.) Forty-five minutes after leaving the Seville station, we were strolling toward La Mesquita, one of Córdoba’s four UNESCO-protected sites, more than any city in the world. Entry is free from opening time for an hour before the tour groups arrive. Did Pat say “hurry”?
Acequias, so much more poetic than its English translation “brick-lined canals”, convey water to hundreds of orange trees in the great forecourt of La Mesquita, the largest mosque in the world. In ancient times, the forecourt was as far as commoners visiting the mosque could go. Except maybe for someone like Dallas. Did the caliphate welcome former models into their inner sanctum?
Inside La Mesquita, grand columns and curving arches of marble, granite and jasper reimagine the garden of orange trees in the forecourt. You feel a sense of intimacy and reverence, the seemingly endless columns of mystical infinity drawing you inward. “The thing that struck me about Córdoba was the serenity about this place, something you felt as soon as you entered,” says Pat. “The low ceilings (relatively compared to other “religious” buildings) was noticeable to me but also gave that feeling of comfort that I really can’t describe properly. It was hard to get a good photo to show this.” Magellan, appreciating the Moor’s application of advanced mathematical calculations, tried to figure out how they achieved it.
In Córdoba you see the influence not just of the Moors but also the Romans, who founded it in 169 B.C. and the Jews. Córdoba’s grandeur began with the Spanish Muslim leader Abd al-Rahmãn I who made the city his capital in 756. It was he who founded La Mesquita, which was completed in the tenth century by his successors.
At the time of the city’s apogee (when Shmuel HaNagid was working as an Arabic scribe), Córdoba was the largest city in the world and the most intellectually advanced culture in Europe. Full of libraries, palaces and mosques, prized for its elaborate silks, leatherwork and jewelry, renowned for its production of religious works and home to a million citizens, Córdoba was described by a Christian poet as “the ornament of the world”.
Not a favourite of poets, Abd-al- Rahmãn I and his successor Muslim clerics, regarded the literary life of Shmuel HaNagid (which exemplified the interplay between Arab and Jewish cultures) as profane and heretical. The vast majority of his poems were confiscated and only found by chance in 1924. Some of his contemporaries weren’t so lucky. For celebrating earthly pleasures, the caliphate sent them to an early “paradise”.
Civil war dismembered the caliphate early in the eleventh century and in 1236, Córdoba fell to the Castilian King Ferdinand who reclaimed it for Christian Spain. Incongruously, a soaring Renaissance cathedral was constructed around the heart of La Mesquita, Gothic stained-glass windows lighting Arabic arches and honeycombed Moorish ceilings.
They named/renamed it the Mezquita-Catedral. It’s the only building of its kind in Spain, (thankfully I say). Speaking to its architects, King Charles V was truthful if not poetic: “You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace.”
Proud of our good timing, we left Mezquita-Catedral soon after the tour buses rolled up, having a look at the Moorish bridge with sixteen arches on Roman bases that connects Córdoba with its suburbs across the river before making our way to the Jewish Quarter and its fourteenth century synagogue.
Judeo-Arabic co-existence in Córdoba is still passionately disputed: myth or reality? If it did exist, it ended with the arrival of the Christian kings and fundamentalist Moroccan warrior tribes, when “Caught between Cross and Crescent, the Jews suffered from the intolerance of both.” Seneca, the Córdoba-born Roman philosopher, summed up the situation centuries before: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.”
The synagogue is simple, square with a high room with a gallery at one end. We saw a few glimpses of the medieval ghetto and in the tiny Plaza Maimonides a bronze statue commemorates the Jewish philosopher of the same name.
Poetry tells the story of this vanished community.
During the Berber revolt of 1010-1013, Shmuel HaNagid fled south with Jewish and Muslim refugees to Malaga. Impoverished and on his own, he opened a spice shop, worked as a scribe and wrote nearly 2,000 poems, including this one:
Could kings right a people gone bad,
While they themselves are twisted?
How, in the woods, could shadows that bend
Be straight when the trees are crooked?
In the shadow of the mosques were synagogues where the poetry of the Sephardim, inspired by Arabic models, also embraced the earthiness of life. Don’t you love the irony in this poem by Todros Abulafia, a Silver Age Hebrew poet of the thirteenth century?
That girl emerged from her lover’s soul—
Not from any rib or bone.
And from her heart comes honey. Amazing!
How could honey come from stone?
One of the most pleasurable things we did in Córdoba was wander tiny alleyways and peak into renowned patio gardens, one of the city’s four UNESCO features.
Every May the city holds the Courtyards Festival of Córdoba. Can you imagine the beauty? Were I to return, a guided tour of private patio gardens would be my highest priority.
Another thing I’d do is search out the Callejero Pirata de Córdoba, the mysterious artist nicknamed the Street Pirate of Córdoba who has jazzed up the white-washed walls of crumbling buildings with poetic quotes and Andalusian philosophies in black, square letters. The person’s identity is unknown, but the pirata has created more than fifty “poems”.
I’d also go to Museo Julio Romero de Torres, dedicated to Córdoba’s most famous painter whose work shows a certain Romantic vision of life in Andalusia. Don’t you think we needed more time in Córdoba? Dallas says four to five days would be great.
My fellow travellers patiently indulged alleyway searches for Casa el Pisto, where “locals far outnumber tourists in this traditional-style tapas bar” and the house’s specialties include “the famous Córdoba Salmorejo” (a thick tomato soup; I loved it), “oxtail, Flamenquín (a breaded pork roll stuffed with ham) and ‘Pisto’ vegetables from the pan.”
They were equally kind in finding Plaza del Potro (Square of the Colt), the centre of commercial life between Córdoba and the rest of Spain in the fourteenth century. The courtyard has a celebrated reference in one of my favourite novels, Don Quixote. An inn keeper makes fun of the chivalrous illusions of Don Quixote with sarcastic references to infamous brothels and disreputable districts, like calling the plaza’s colt sculpture that gushes water “the spout of Córdoba.”
Wondering about modern-day poets in this city of 330,000 people, I discovered Elena Medel. Her poems have been translated into fifteen languages, she’s won all kinds of literary awards and participated in Cosmopoética. When she was only sixteen years old, Elena Medel published a prize-winning collection of poetry, My First Bikini. Her poems draw an analogy between the explosive A-bomb the US tested in the Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands to the power of coming-of-age, “the body ready for that first bikini, and the mind trying to make sense of what that means.” One poem begins with the nine-year old narrator telling a boy she loves him, to which the boy replies that he wants a fishing pole. The girl saves her money and buys him one for Christmas. He’s sort of pleased but she ends up using it most often and when she tries to give it back, the boy no longer wants it. “Tell me,” she cries, “is my body really a dump?” A few years later, she recognizes the delayed power of her desirability and answers her own question:
I think it’s because
I finally managed to turn myself into your hook.
At last, you bite.
To end the memory of our day in Córdoba, here is a poem by Luis de Gongora y Argote who, in the seventeenth century, briefly revived Córdoba’s cultural prestige—as others today are clearly attempting:
Oh lofty wall, oh crowned towers
Of honor, of majesty, of gallantry!
Oh great river, great king of Andalusia,
Of noble sands, since not golden!
Oh fertile plain, oh raised mountains,
That privileges the sky and gilds the day!
Oh always glorious my homeland,
As much for feathers as for swords!
If among those rubble and debris
That enriches Genil and Dauro bathes
Your memory was not my food,
Never deserve my absent eyes
See your wall, your towers and your river,
Your plain and sierra, oh homeland, oh flower of Spain!
The callejero pirata de Córdoba, the mysterious artist nicknamed the Street Pirate of Córdoba has a Facebook page here and admirers have created a map on Google showing the locations of his/her/they’s artwork.
Carlson, Liz. “Mysterious Walls of Córdoba.” The Young Adventuress. March, 2012.
Cole, Peter, translator. The Dream of the Poem:Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492. Princeton: Princeton Univerity Press, 2007.
Ferries, Laura.“Discover Córdoba’s Developing Underground Poetry Scene.” The Culture Trip. April 27, 2018.
Elena Medel’s website.
Peterson, Heather. “My First Bikini.” The Miami Rail.
Ramm, Benjamin. “The 1000-Year-Old Lost Poetry that lives on in Hebrew.” BBC. June 16, 2017.