The administrative centre of Roman Hispania Ulterior, the flourishing capital of al-Andalus and the powerful Umayyad dynasty, Cordoba today is a World Heritage Site of outstanding beauty, and rightly proud of being a city of the three cultures. Although they had settled in Andalusia long before, Cordovan Jews saw their earliest period of splendour when, in 929, Caliph Abd ar-Rahman II came to power. This was mainly due to the influence of his prime minister, a Jew named Hasday ben Saprut, the head of the Andalusian Hebrew communities, and one of the great figures of Andalusian culture at that time. The fall of the Caliphate and the proclamation of the Kingdom of Taifas a century later, (1031), meant another golden age for many Andalusian Jewish communities, when local monarchs encouraged cultural development. But in Cordova, it brought about a massive loss of influence, which was not recovered until the Christian King Ferdinand III conquered the city in 1236, which was followed by a policy of tolerance by Alfonso X the Wise.
Until the Attack on the Jewish Quarter, in 1391, when both Jews and converts were dispersed all over the city, the limits of the Cordova aljama were clearly defined: it ran from the Almodóvar Gateway to the Mosque, which later became the Cathedral. Separated from the rest of the town by its own wall, there were two entrances to the Hebrew quarter: the Judería Gateway, near the Mosque, and the Malburguete Gateway, of which there only remains documentary evidence.
This did not prevent many Cordovan Jews from living in other parts of the city, alongside the houses of Christians. Unlike other areas, the Jewish Quarter still preserves its original layout, typical of Muslim town planning, with its maze of narrow, twisting streets, and its houses looking more inwards than outwards.
We cannot speak of Cordova without mentioning Mosea ben Maimon (1135-1138) known the world over as Maimonides (or Rambam, to Jewish people). He was the leading figure in the cultural apogee of the Caliphate, and a forerunner of the 12th-century European Humanist Renaissance, which was brought about by means of communication amongst different cultures. A physician, exegete, philosopher and mathematician, Maimonides wrote books in Arabic that were immediately translated into Hebrew and Latin and, at the age of 30 he left Cordova on a pilgrimage throughout Andalusia, North Africa and, finally, to Egypt where he died. Along with his Muslim contemporary Averroes, and his Roman predecessor, Seneca, he is the best representative of the great city of universal culture that is Cordova.
The synagogue of Cordova, in Calle Judíos, is the most treasured piece of architecture in the neighbourhood. Declared a National Monument in 1885, it was built in the 15th century. Comprising a courtyard, vestibule and a large prayer room, it is exquisitely decorated in the Mudejar style and was built, as was the custom, by Muslim master builders, or alarifes. The Hebrew inscriptions on the balconies of the azara, the gallery where women attended services, or the magnificent blind ogee arch, delicately worked with arabesque motifs, and which must have once held the bimah, or the pulpit for reading of the Torah, are some highlights of the temple, which, according to an inscription, was the “provisional sanctuary and home of the Testimony, finished by Isaq Moheb, son of Ephraim Waddawa”.