Monday, 15 February 2021


Córdoba’s Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral
Andalusia is a gorgeous region of hills, creamy-beige rock, rivers and farmland bordering Spain’s southern coast. 

As you explore the region, you see the influence of Roman and Islamic conquest. It was under Moorish rule from the 8th-15th centuries, a legacy that shows in its architecture, particularly at sites like the Alcázar Castle in Seville and Córdoba’s Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral and Granada’s Alhambra palace in southern Spain. 

If you look closely, there is a lovely echinoderm fossil about the size of your hand embedded within the masonry stones of the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral.  

Fossils are common in the ashlars and masonry in Córdoba. Despite having other limestone and granite quarries nearby, the calcarenites limestones with their embedded macrofossils were the most sought after because of the ease with which they could be worked and their relative lightness.

This is one of my favourite places to visit, both for the wonderful architecture, intense human history and the wonderful Hauterivian, Early Cretaceous fossil outcrops in the Baetic Cordillera. 

The Sierra Nevada range, which boasts Spain’s highest peak, Mulhacén (3479m), is 75 kilometres of snowcapped peaks sprinkled with quaint Alpujarras villages lost in time. 

Echinoid Fossil in the Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba
Each of these shows the juxtaposition of Muslim and Christian architecture and none more so than the especially stunning, and oh so grand Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba. 

It was originally a small temple of Christian Visigoth origin then expanded again and again to reach a grand scale which speaks to its unusual and collaborative history. 

In 711, Muslims invaded and conquered Spain over the course of seven years. History is a tricky business to sort fact from fancy. One tale about the origins of the Muslim invasion mentions an oppressed Christian Chief, Julian, who wanted to get out from under the thumb of the tyrannical Visigoth rule. 

While powerful, the Visigoths made up only 1-2% of the population and had ruled for more than 300 years. |Their grip over the country and its growing rebellious population was already starting to crack. Julian resented King Roderic, the ruler of Spain and sought the aid of Musa ibn Nusair, the governor of North Africa to help him wage war. Musa was happy to oblige and sent the young general Tariq bin Ziyad with an army of 7,000 troops. 

Alhambra Palace, Granada, Spain
The Rock of Gibraltar — the massive monolithic limestone formed from Early Jurassic limestones and dolomites that grace the southwestern tip of Europe on the Iberian Peninsula — owes its name to Jabal At-Tariq — Arabic for 'Rock of Tariq' — the place where those first Muslim troops landed. 

Tariq did invade Spain but was driven as much by greed and conquest as by Julian's alleged appeal for help. The seasoned Muslim army defeated the Visigoths handily and King Roderic lost his life in the process at the Battle of Guadalete. I visited King Roderic's home city of Toledo, on the banks of the Tagus River. 

The city was the seat of a powerful archdiocese for much of its history and has some of my favourite feats of architecture — the Gothic Cathedral, the Catedral Primada de España ("The Primate Cathedral of Spain"), and a long history in the production of bladed weapons and lovely pottery dishes.

The Muslims — or Moorish — went on to conquer most of Spain and Portugal with ease. They washed across the land and by 720 Spain was largely under Muslim control. The combined Arab-Berber forces crossed the Pyrenees into Septimania and occupied territory in Gaul until 759. Their ultimate intension was the conquest of Constantinople, but their chosen path was through Spain.

Margocalizas del Jurásico Inferior
The churches and palaces you visit today are a visual memory of that piece of history lost in time. The mosque-cathedral was divided into Muslim and Christian halves. This sharing arrangement lasted until 784, when the Christian half was purchased by the Emir 'Abd al-Rahman I, who then demolished the original structure to build the grand mosque of Córdoba on its ground.

Córdoba returned to Christian rule in 1236 during the Reconquista, and the building was converted to a Roman Catholic church, culminating in the inclusion of a Renaissance cathedral nave in the 16th century. 

If you are visiting Andalusia, it is well worth a trip. Bring your camera and comfortable shoes. 

There is a converted convent that is now a boutique hotel with a rooftop terrace — the Balcon de Córdoba — that I highly recommend. It is on Calle Encarnacion 8, 14003. If you are planning a stay, give them a jingle and enjoy their Old World style. Tel: +34 957 49 84 78.

Photo: The specimen you see here of the Lower Jurassic ammonite Margocalizas sp. is in the collections of the deeply awesome Manuel Peña Nieto of Córdoba, Spain.

Photo: Echinoid in the masonry of Córdoba’s Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral: Miguel López Pulido