Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Saturday, 14 November 2009

Cordoba, the city with many faiths

The history of the Spanish city of Cordoba includes a period as an Islamic capital and later as the seat of the Spanish Inquisition, which brought persecution of Muslims and Jews, leaving it with a tangled legacy as David Edmonds reports.

Cordoba Cathedral
Tourists believe the cathedral in Cordoba is a mosque

The security guards in the cathedral are everywhere. They patrol up and down the complex, keeping a suspicious eye on tourists and worshippers alike.

Just when you think you have escaped out of sight, one will appear from behind a pillar.

Stoop down in the wrong place to take a photo, and they will bundle you out of the door quicker than you can say "Hail Mary" - or perhaps "Salaam Aleikum".

Cordoba is mixed up. Theologically befuddled.

Whose preachers should give sermons here? Whose prophets should be revered? In this spiritual slug-fest, whose omnipotent God is more powerful?

The tourist leaflet is unambiguous. Originally, the biggest building in Cordoba, was a church, it proclaims. And it is a Catholic cathedral again. It is run by the Church.

Naive tourists, clutching their guide books, have been turned away at the door for asking a simple, but to the guards, offensive question: "Is this the mosque?"

But it was a mosque.

That is when the prayer police pounce

It was a mosque for hundreds of years. It was the second-largest mosque in the world. And with its marble and onyx columns, its arches and exquisite blue tiles, it still looks like a mosque.

Yet, slap bang in the middle is a garish, gothic cathedral - plonked here by the Christians, who conquered Cordoba in the 13th Century.

Every now and again, Muslims will furtively whip out mats, kneel and bow their heads to the floor. That is when the prayer police pounce.

Many Muslims disapprove of these tactics, these worship raids.

One says he would find it repugnant to pray so close to Christian iconography.

Abdul Barri, a shy, softly-spoken man in his 50s, objects because it causes friction between Muslims and the Christian community.

Cordoba city
Cordoba was declared a world heritage site in 1984

Abdul was actually born a Christian, but converted to Islam 30 years ago. He has embraced a culture as well as a creed. Dressed in flowing robes, he now runs a Middle-Eastern style coffee house, complete with little fountains and hubbly bubblies.

"When I heard about the last prophet," he said, "becoming Muslim seemed the logical thing to do."

His devout Catholic mother had an injunction and a wish.

First, "do not tell anybody," she said. Second, "I want to kill you".

Near Abdul Barri's cafe, day-trippers are being offloaded from coaches. They emerge into the sun, rubbing their eyes, cameras at the ready, and prepare for several hours of resolute sight-seeing.

If there is one deity who really runs this place, it is the god of riches and avarice, Mammon.

Jewish life

I pop into a souvenir store, a temple to poor taste, to buy the gaudiest item on sale - a paperweight of Cordoba's most gifted former citizen, the 12th-Century Jewish philosopher and sage, Maimonides.

Maimonides lived during a golden age of Jewish life in Islamic Spain.

Now, there are more Maimonides paperweights in this store than there are Jewish people living in Cordoba.

One of these is Jaime Casses - though, this being Cordoba, it is not quite as simple as that. Jaime faces scepticism from some of his fellow practitioners.

We meet next to the only synagogue in town, which, like the great mosque, survived the years of inquisition frenzy by being transformed into a church.

Jaime is an earnest young chap with a calling. He was baptised and confirmed into the Christian faith. But slowly he became aware of some curious practices in his family.

Map of Cordoba

On a Friday, every Friday, his mother made a chickpea stew, similar to the Jewish recipe, Adafine.

It is slow-cooked, so avoiding the need to prepare food on the Sabbath.

Jaime is convinced that he has descended from a Jewish family that was forced to convert in the 15th Century, and for 500 years they sustained aspects of the Jewish way of life.

Now he is trying to revive Judaism in Cordoba. But it is surely as thankless a task as watering a dead plant.

Visiting Jewish people are invited to his home for the religious holidays, but with no kosher deli in Cordoba, being Jewish takes dedication.

He sings a Jewish lament in a haunting tenor voice. Will he go through a Jewish conversion process? He shakes his mane of black curly hair. "Why should I? I am Jewish, whatever some old rabbi says."

Tolerant utopia

The visiting throng in Cordoba arrive knowing one thing about the city's past.

The period under Islamic rule was a utopia of tolerance, where Jews and Christians could co-exist and the three monotheistic faiths lived in blissful harmony.

The tourist guides connive by handing out to these seekers of paradise a partial packet of history. The reality was more nuanced.

Cordoba is one of the most important cities in our history
Jaime Casses

There was an era of relative leniency from the 10th Century, but with Christian armies re-conquering territory from the north, and fundamentalist Islam from the south, moderate Islamic rule soon descended into brutality and fanaticism.

Even in the age when Jews and Christians could practise their faith in relative peace, they remained subservient to the ruling Muslims. Muslims could ride horses, others only donkeys.

I feel confused in Cordoba.

As I leave the city, past the church-synagogue, via the mosque-church, and across the bridge by the Museum of the Three Faiths, which celebrates this Orient in the Occident, I think about Abdul Barrie, the Islamic convert who worships in a new mosque, and Jaime Casses, the Christian-Jew determined to resuscitate Jewish life.

"Cordoba is one of the most important cities in our history," Jaime had told me.

"So for me it is a duty."

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