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Andalusia's Journey

Beyond the mosque's imposing walls, Cordova retains its memorial splendor and inviting shelter. To this day, the houses communicate a sense of welcome: inner courtyards are often furnished with a fountain, and the rooms are dispersed around it, very much as they are in houses in Aleppo thousands of miles to the east. Streets are narrow and winding because, as in medieval Cairo, the idea is to cajole the pedestrian with promises of arrival. Thus one walks along without having to face the psychologically intimidating distance of the long, straight avenue. Moreover, Cordova is one of the few cities in the Mediterranean where the intermingling of Arab and Jewish quarters doesn't immediately suggest conflict. Just seeing streets and squares named after Averroës and Maimonides in 21st-century Cordova, one gets an immediate idea of what a universal culture was like a thousand years ago.

Only five miles outside Cordova stand the partially restored ruins of what must have been the most lavish, and certainly the most impressive, royal city in Europe, Madinat al-Zahra (City of the Flower). Begun by Abd ar-Rahman III in 936, it, too, was a vast echo of palace-cities in the Arab East, which it almost certainly overshadowed for a time. It is as if Andalusia's rulers and great figures were unable ever to rid their minds of the East. They relived its prior greatness on their terms, nowhere with more striving for effect than in Madinat al-Zahra.

Now an enormous excavation, Madinat al-Zahra is slowly being restored. You can stand looking down on the symmetrical array of stables, military barracks, reception rooms, courtyards—all pointing at the great central hall in which the king received his guests and subjects. According to some scholars, Abd ar-Rahman wanted not only to assume the mantle of the caliphate, thereby wresting it from the Abbasid king in Baghdad (who couldn't have paid much attention to Abd ar-Rahman's posturings), but also to establish political authority as something that belonged in the West but had meaning only if snatched from the East. For an Arab visitor, it is hard not to be struck by the rather competitive Andalusian reference to the better-known Eastern Muslim empires, mainly those of the Abbasids and Fatimids, who to this day form the core of what is taught and propagated as Arab culture.

A special poignancy hangs over Andalusia's impressively animated spaces. It derives not only from a pervasive sense of former grandeur but also from what, because so many people hoped to possess it, Andalusia tried to be—and what it might have been. Certainly Granada's Alhambra is a monument to regret and the passage of time. Next to the wonderful 13th- to 14th-century Nasrid palace and superb Generalife gardens looms the ponderous 16th-century castle of the Spanish king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who obviously wanted his rather ostentatious abode to acquire some of the luster of the Arab complex. Yet, despite the Alhambra's opulence and its apparently hedonistic celebration of the good life (for rulers, mainly), its arabesque patterns can seem like a defense against mortality or the ravages of human life. One can easily imagine the beleaguered and insecure Boabdil using it as a place of perfumed forgetfulness—perhaps even at times reexperiencing the studied oblivion cultivated by Sufi masters such as Ibn Arab.

The schizophrenia inherent in Spain's identity is more apparent in Granada than anywhere else in Andalusia. Because the Alhambra sits on one of several hills high above the city, Granada proper has paid the price in clogged streets and overbuilt residential and commercial quarters through which the Arab palace must be approached. Granada as a whole embodies this tension between high and low. A mazelike system of one-way streets connects the Alhambra to Albaicín, the old Muslim quarter. Despite the wonders of the Alhambra, being in Albaicín is like feeling the fantasy of summer and the realities of a grim winter very close to each other. The resemblances between Albaicín and Cordova's barrios are striking, except that, as the name suggests, Albaicín—Arabic for "the downtrodden and hopeless"—was indeed an area for the poor and, one can't help feeling, where the last Arabs and Jews huddled together before their eviction in 1492. Nothing evokes Granada's riven history more superbly than the "Albaicín" movement in Isaac Albéniz's greatest musical work, the redoubtably difficult-to-perform piano collection Iberia.

By contrast, Seville's spirit is very much of this world—part feline, part macho, part dashing sparkle, part somber colonialism. Seville contains Spain's finest plaza de toros and also its largest cathedral. And it is here that all the archives of Spain's imperial conquests are housed. But before 1492, Seville was the administrative capital of the Arab monarchy that held sway over Andalusia. Where the Catholic empire-builders set their sights on the New World, the Arabs were taken up with the Old: Morocco, which before the final Reconquista was considered to be part of Andalusia. Similarities in metal, leather, and glazed pottery design between Spain and North Africa reinforce a prevailing unity of vision and religious discourse.

If Seville is a city where Catholic and Muslim cultures interact, it is to the decided advantage of the former—though given Seville's special status in the Western romantic imagination as an extension of the Orient, it's probably truer to say that Seville is the triumph of Andalusian style. This, after all, is the city of Mérimée's and Bizet's Carmen, the heart of Hemingway's bullfighting obsession, and a favorite port of call for northern European poets and writers for whom citrus blossoms represent the salutary opposite of their dreary climates. Stendhal's espagnolisme derives from Sevillian themes, and the city's Holy Week parades and observances have gripped many peregrinating artists.

Not that the Arabs haven't made their own indelible mark on the city. Standing watch over the landscape is the four-sided Giralda, a minaret built by an Almohad (basically an austere fundamentalist sort of Islam) king in the late 12th century. Its upper third was added to, for purposes of "improvement," by zealous Christians 400 years later. Despite some unnecessary flourishes, the tower was so magnetic that a contemporary chronicler observed, "From a distance it would appear that all the stars of the Zodiac had stopped in the heart of Seville." Incorporated into the cathedral, whose awesome bulk testifies to Catholic ambition and consolidation of power (Christopher Columbus's tomb is inside), the Giralda leads an independent existence as an ornate symbol of how even the harshest of ideologies can be filled with grace.

In the long run, and almost in spite of its kings and magistrates, the Andalusian style seems to have fostered movement and discovery rather than monumentality and stability. It enacted an earlier version of our own hybrid world, one whose borders were also thresholds, and whose multiple identities formed an enriched diversity.

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