Composite Córdoba: Walled In, Walled Out

It’s the Saturday of Semana Santa—Holy Week—in the Spanish city of Córdoba. The place is packed with religious revelers here to witness the processions of the Catholic brotherhoods known locally as the estacion de penitencia

These holy cavalcades occur all over Spain in the week leading up to Easter. I got my first dose of one yesterday in Seville, where my youngest daughter Brooke is studying. 

Imagine music festival crowds packed into slender streets and compact plazas sized for medieval pedestrians and their pull carts. Add to this ringing bells and marching bands and statues of Jesus and Mary held aloft by parading penitents in satin robes and pointed hoods that look eerily like the Klu Klux Klan.

For the record: the penitents wear the conical headgear, which dates to the 12th century, to signal atonement and closeness to God—not white supremacy. 

I’ve been in Spain 24 hours, 12 hours of which have been spent on the periphery of these massive processions—first in Seville and now in Córdoba.

For an uninitiated (and agonistic) American like me, the processions are both mystifying and overwhelming. By Day II of our Spanish vacation, festival fatigue finds me sandwiched in between two tour groups stalled in front of the Mezquita, Córdoba’s famous mosque-cum-cathedral.  

Feeling walled-in, I find a gap in the crowd and make a beeline for a medieval gateway that places me just outside the ancient walls of Córdoba’s historic center. 

From the outside, the walls that enclose ancient Córdoba are neat and uniform—and completely deceiving.  As histories go, Córdoba’s past lives are as mixed and messy at they come. 

Situated beside the deep and highly navigable Guadaqualvir River, Córdoba was a stomping ground for a host of ancient superpowers. There were the Romans in 152 B.C., who took over the city from its original Carthaginian inhabitants. Next up were the Islamic Moors from North Africa, who booted the Romans out in 711, only to be ousted five centuries later by the Christian crusaders in part responsible for the Semana Santa festivities.

Here’s the cool and somewhat unique thing about historic Córdoba—

Its fortress walls accommodate what its competing occupiers could not—each other. Built and rebuilt over the centuries, they are the earthy composite of pagan Rome, ancient Islam and Christian crusades.

From my current vantage point just outside the Puerta de Sevilla, there’s no telling where the builders of one epoch left off and another began. Side by side in peaceful co-existence, the stones give evidence of the wholeness of history and its power to bind us together.

The passing of time. This is what I see when my eyes canvas the stone surface before me. Where soldiers once stood with arrows and spears pointed upward, cars are now parked in neat rows, a different world order, no less precarious or permanent.