Their power lasted until the year 711, when a Muslim army crossed over from North Africa and won a decisive victory on the banks of the Salado River. Flying columns fanned out in pursuit of the Visigoths. Cities and provinces were captured. Cordova resisted a siege for two months before it fell. Like the Visigoths before them, the Muslims understood the importance of the city on the Guadalquivir and made it the capital of their Iberian empire.
A decisive event in the history of that empire occurred in 750 far off in the Middle East. The ‘Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyad dynasty. The last of the Umayyads, Abd Al Rahman, escaped the fate of his family. He wandered through North Africa and made his way to Spain where he was accepted by the Iberian Muslims who remained loyal to the Umayyads.
Thus did Islamic Spain restore the Umayyad Caliphate, a political reality that became official when Abd Al Rahman III formally assumed the title of Caliph and the traditional designation “Commander of the Faithful.” Soon the capital of Umayyad Islam, Cordova, rose to an equal brilliance with the capital of Abbasid Islam, Baghdad.
“Cordova is the jewel of the world,” says a medieval German manuscript. Visitors from the trans-Pyrenean nations of Europe, whose homelands were struggling through the worst period of the Dark Ages, were astonished by the magnificence of the Moorish capital. They found a city of 500,000 inhabitants and 100,000 buildings—by far the largest metropolis west of Constantinople and north of the Mediterranean.
There were hundreds of mosques and public baths in Cordova. More striking to visitors, for whom books were rare and precious things, were the city’s 70 major libraries—including one collection of 400,000 volumes gathered by the Caliph Al Hakam II. The paved streets contrasted with the dust and mud that would remain familiar irritations in Paris and London for centuries to come.
Dominating the Cordovan skyline stood the Great Mosque. Begun by Abd Al Rahman I in 786 and added to by subsequent rulers of Iberian Islam, the Great Mosque grew into the wonderful structure known today as the Cathedral of Cordova. Several modern writers have used the word “forest” in referring to the interior columns, an apt term since there are over a thousand of them supporting the huge roof.
The Great Mosque shows how skillfully the Moors employed the arch. They adopted the horseshoe arch of the Visigoths and made it so popular elsewhere that it has become known as the “Moorish arch.” They are thought to have invented the system of intersecting arches designed to withstand the stresses and strains of a lofty roof supporting a massive cupola hewn from marble. This architectural principle was copied and widely used in the building of Europe’s great cathedrals. The Europeans who learned about it in Cordova expressed amazement after walking through the galleries and the loges and the spacious courtyard of the Great Mosque.
Cordova also possessed its Versailles, 700 years before Louis XIV. Madinat Al Zahra did not survive the Middle Ages, but we know from the written reports of eyewitnesses that the royal palace on the outskirts of the city took 100,000 men and 20 years to build. It had 400 rooms and a Hall of the Caliphs featuring glass doors and alabaster windows. Here, overlooking colorful gardens and bubbling fountains, the lord of Islamic Spain held court, ruled his realm and took his ease.
The common people made their own contribution to the greatness of Cordova. Their native crafts became famous. Indeed, the English word “cordwain” comes from “Cordovan” and refers to the beautiful leatherwork that became admired throughout the civilized world. An English merchant of the time reported that the Londoners were “struck by leather as pliable as wool and as tough as horsehair, and marveled where I had found it.”