The city of Cordoba is the capital of Cordoba Province. It's situated at the highest navigable point along the great Guadalquivir River, which flows westward through the center of the Province toward Seville (138 km SW) and into the Atlantic Ocean. To the north of the city sits the Sierra Morena Mountain Range. Population of Cordoba is approximately 311,000 people with no significant Jewish community today.
The Romans (206 B.C.E.) built the original city on the most strategic site of the Guadalquivir River. From Cordoba, they shipped Spanish olive oil, wine and wheat back to Rome. They built the mighty bridge that spans the river, El Puente Romano. But the city's greatest glory was to be achieved under the Moors (711). Cordoba became the capital of El Andalus and was destined to become a center of Moorish art, architecture, philosophy and poetry.
The city's most famous landmark, Mezquita, or Great Mosque, was one of the largest in all Islam. An investigation into the history of this magnificent structure reveals the checkered story of Cordoba's past. The Romans built a pagan temple on the site which was destroyed by the Visigoths (400 - 711) when they conquered Spain. In its stead, the Goths erected a church for St. Vincent which, in turn, was razed by the victorious Moors, who set to work building the Mezquita. The spectacular landmark took more than 200 years to complete and more than 1,000 pillars of granite, onyx, marble and jasper support its arches. When the Christians seized the city in 1236 they were awed by the beauty of the mosque and decided to build a cathedral in the midst of its columns and arches. Another famous monument is the Alcazar, or Fortress, which was constructed by the Christians in 1326.
Cordoba plays a pivotal role in the history of Jewish life in the middle ages. In the tenth century it became the seat of Jewish learning, scholarship and culture, gradually eclipsing the Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbeditha. Its preeminence was undoubtedly the result of the grand achievements of one man, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (915-970). A doctor, diplomat and scholar, Hasdai served the courts of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III and his successor Hakam II. His meteoric rise to power and influence brought acclaim to the Jewish community.
Hasdai's family wealth made it possible for him to surround himself with Jewish poets, philosophers and scholars. Under his tutelage, the great grammarian, Menahem ben Sharuk (910-970) completed the first dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, and launched a systematic investigation into Hebrew grammar. As secretary to the great diplomat, it was Menahem who penned Hasdai's famous letter to the King of the Chazars. Vying for Hasdai's favor was Dunash ben Labrat. He was a merciless critic of Menahem, and the two maintained an intense rivalry throughout the balance of their lives. Ben Labrat's contribution to Hebrew poetry was the introduction of meter.
Hasdai did not neglect the study of the law. He maintained a correspondence with Saadiah Gaon, the head of the Sura Academy and frequently sent money. His generosity earned him the title Resh Kallah, Head of the School. But Hasdai was not content with looking eastward for halachic guidance. He established an academy for Talmud study in Cordoba and purchased copies of the Talmud from the Babylonian communities. Under the guidance of Moshe ben Chanoch, the Cordoba academy flourished, becoming the Andalusian Sura.
The Cordoba Jewish community of Hasdai's time, situated near the alcazar, southwest of the city, was wealthy and vibrant. But the situation would soon change. In 1013, the Berbers lay seige to Cordoba and the city entered into a process of gradual decline, marked by occasional periods of glory. In later years, another famous native of Cordoba, Moses Maimonides, would flee the city, forced out by the ferocity of Almohade persecutions. In 1236 Cordoba was reconquered by the Christians and the community was labeled a "scandal against Christianity." Ferdinand and Isabella used Cordoba as their headquarters when they waged war against the remaining Moors in Granada, and the tribunal of the Inquisition established in Cordoba was especially cruel. Many Conversos were martyred during the 1480's. In 1483, Jews were exiled from Andalusia.
One of the only three pre-expulsion synagogues remaining in Spain, the Ancient Synagogue at Calle de los Judios 20, which was built in 1315, was declared a national monument in 1985. Nearby, a statue of Maimonides has been erected in the Plaza de Tiberiades (named to perpetuate the connection between his birthplace and where he is buried).
The entrance to the ancient Juderia is near the Almodovar Gate.
A small Jewish museum - Casa de Sefarad - Casa de la Memoria - contains items from local pre-expulsion Jewish homes and also an exhibition on the Sepharadic tradition. There is also an area dedicated to Sepharadic (Ladino) Music.
Sources: This material was originally published in Sparks! - an e-zine for Jewish families located on the Internet at http://www.sparksmag.com; Jewish Travel Guide 2006 International Edition published in association with the Jewish Chronicle