Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Mosque of Córdoba ~ A Glimpse into Moorish Spain

August 1st, 2013 6 comments

Cordoba Forest of Columns

Ever since I studied Art History in university, it has been a lifelong mission of mine to visit the Islamic sites of Spain—so gorgeous and captivating. At last, I was able to accomplish this goal; just before Ramadan, I took a trip to Andalucía.

Where in the World?

Andalucía is Spain’s most southern region, which borders the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, nearly kissing Morocco.

Map of Andalucia, Spain

Today Andalucía features the typical symbols of Spain: flamenco, Spanish guitar, tapas, paella, and bullfighting. Meanwhile, the region has a long and varied history and was conquered by many groups. However, on my visit I was only interested in one period of history.

Cordoba Mosque, Exterior detailIslamic Andalucía

In 711, Muslims from North Africa (mostly Berbers) landed at Gibraltar and surged into the Iberian Peninsula, which set Spain’s destiny apart from the rest of Europe. Within a few years virtually the whole peninsula was conquered by Muslims, known as the Moors, who became the dominant force for the next four centuries.

In Andalucía (Al-Andalus in Arabic) Muslim Rule lasted even longer—until 1492. Muslim political power and cultural development initially centered on the city of Córdoba, then Seville and finally Granada. During this period, these cities were prosperous, boasting beautiful mosques, palaces, gardens, universities, bustling markets, and expanding agriculture.  

Cordoba Mosque, Courtyard Archway

What I find fascinating is this: while the rest of Europe was wallowing in the Dark Ages, these Muslim cities of Al-Andalus were flourishing in every way.

I try to imagine life in Córdoba and Granada during this time: the clothing, the luxury, the courtyards, the men and women…

Am I clinging to the past? Maybe.

The Muslim World at that Time

At first, Al-Andalus was part of the Caliphate of Damascus, which governed the Muslim world at the time. In 750 the Omayyad dynasty in Damascus was overthrown by the rival Abbasids. In an unexpected plot twist, one Omayyad survivor got away.

History Stranger than Fiction  

This young member of the ruling Omayyad family, Abd ar-Rahman, escaped the massacre of his cousins in Damascus. After numerous adventures, Abd ar-Rahman arrived in Spain and persuaded the ruling Muslims to accept him as the emir of Al-Andalus, based in Córdoba.

It was Abd ar-Rahman who began constructing Córdobas Mezquita, the Mosque of Córdoba, one of the world’s greatest monuments. Abd ar-Rahman and his descendants built the mosque over two centuries with four phases of expansion.

Cordoba Mosque, Red Arches

Moorish Style

Abd ar-Rahman’s dynasty in Córdoba brought architects instilled with tastes and ideas from Damascus. These ideas were put to use in the construction of the Córdoba Mosque. This Moorish style, which echoed across Islamic Spain, introduced horseshoe-shaped arches, scalloped arches, exquisite tiles decorated in calligraphy and floral motifs, complex stuccowork, and peaceful inner courtyards.

Cordoba Mosque,  Intricate Arches

The craftsmen and artisans who built the Córdoba Mosque included Muslims, Jews and Christians, which is documented by their own signatures they etched into the mosque.

Cordoba Mosque, Craftsmen signatures

Those Famous Arches

Even though I had seen many photos of the arches, it didn’t compare to stepping inside the arcaded hall and seeing them for myself. My children—normally disdainful of any historical tourist site—grew subdued when they entered, even a little awe-stuck.  

Cordoba Mosque, Red Arches

At the time the mosque was built, the double arches were a new introduction to architecture and permitted higher ceilings. Originally the Córdoba Mosque had 1293 columns; today 856 columns remain. The building was architecturally revolutionary. The roof over the heads of the worshippers was supported by a forest of columns, suggestive of a palm grove.

The rows of red-and-white striped arches disappear into infinity, emitting a mesmerizing effect.

Cordoba Mosque, Arches

Meanwhile, the famous alternating red and white voussoirs of the arches were inspired by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Dome of the Rock, Mosque in Jerusalem

The Prayer Niche

The mihrab portal (the prayer niche) remains intact today. The richly gilded niche was the caliphate’s artistic high point and features shimmering golden mosaics, the gold cubes of which were a gift from the Christian emperor of Byzantium. As a result, the mihrab gives off an aura similar to a Byzantine church. It’s one of the few places in the mosque where the Quranic inscriptions remain.

Cordoba Mosque, Mihrab, Prayer Niche

The Exterior

While I have seen many photos of the interior of the Córdoba Mosque, I had no clue what the outside looked like. I found the façade of horseshoe arches and arabesque motifs quite beautiful and mysterious.

Cordoba Mosque, Exterior

Cordoba Mosque, Exterior Detail

  Cordoba Mosque, Moorish Window Detail

 Meanwhile, surrounding this medieval mosque is a labyrinth of narrow streets and a lively neighborhood of shops. I could sort of—almost—imagine the place in the tenth century.

Cordoba Mosque, Exterior Steps

Significance of the Mosque & Córdoba

For three centuries the Mosque of Córdoba held a place of great importance for the Islamic community of Andalucía, serving as the Friday Mosque, as well as a place of teaching and for the faithful to conduct their five daily prayers.

Cordoba Mosque, Famous Red Arches

The Moors ruled from Córdoba from 756 to 1031. During the last century of rule Al-Andalus reached its peak of power and luster. At this time Córdoba was the biggest and most dazzling city in Western Europe with stunning libraries, observatories, aqueducts, as well as highly skilled artisans. Astronomy, medicine, mathematics and botany flourished, and one of the great Muslim libraries was established in the city.

The Fall

Alas, nothing lasts forever. In the 10th Century the fearsome general Al-Mansour took power and wreaked havoc. Soon the Córdoba caliphate collapsed into civil war, finally breaking up the caliphate into smaller Islamic kingdoms, with Seville and Granada among the most powerful.

In 1492, the Christian Reconquista (Re-conquest) defeated the last remaining Muslim states of Spain. Soon Fernando and Isabel famously expelled the Muslims (and Jews) from Spain. Ultimately, Islam was outlawed.

The Cathedral of Córdoba

While this building served as a mosque for 500 years, today it functions as a Catholic church. Its official name is “The Cathedral of Córdoba.” In the 16th century, a cathedral was plonked right into the center of the building, which destroyed a section of the mosque.

The Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain

The various stages of the cathedral were built in gothic, renaissance and baroque style, which are surrounded on all sides by the arcaded hall of the medieval mosque. Our tour guide kept referring to this an “amazing contrast” and “amazing juxtaposition.”

For me, I found this juxtaposition to be jarring—even disturbing. I understand the victorious powers routinely “destroy and conquer.” But I agree with Carlos I (Holy Roman Emperor from 1519) who exclaimed to the church authorities: “You have destroyed something that was unique to this world.”

The Cathedral Mosque of Cordoba, Spain

Another change is that the doors of the mosque that opened into the courtyard are now closed. At one time, theses open doors filled the mosque with light, and also opened the mosque to the ablution courtyard and to the community.  

Cordoba Mosuqe, Courtyard

Another obvious change—missing from the vast colonnaded space are the rows and rows of Muslim worshippers. Currently, over 1 million Muslims reside in Modern Spain, and to this day, Spanish Muslims are lobbying the Roman Catholic Church to allow them to pray in the complex. At present, the Spanish Catholic authorities and the Vatican oppose this move.

At least Muslims are able to visit this beautiful mosque…. And here am I, fulfilling one of my travel goals.

Finally Holly sees those arches

In my next post, I will discuss another Moorish gem of Andalucía: the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.  

Question: What are your impressions of the Córdoba Mosque?

Al Bustan Palace ~ Muscat, Oman

February 6th, 2013 7 comments

Al Bustan Palace Hotel

In my last post I wrote about our trip to Muscat, Oman. What I didn’t mention was where we stayed—Al Bustan Palace.

We had stayed in this hotel once before, exactly nine years ago. Since then, the hotel was closed for several years for renovation and refurbishment. Now managed by the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel was sure to be classy. I looked forward to seeing the changes, as well as experiencing a bit of extravagance and amenity.

Al Bustan Palace was originally built as a venue for the GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council) to hold their 1985 summit. More palace than hotel, Al Bustan has won its share of awards as the best hotel in the Middle East. Also, the fort-like hotel exemplifies Muscat’s architectural requirements of Arabesque patterns, arches, and domes.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

If you visit Muscat, it’s worth staying at Al Bustan Palace—or at least coming for dinner to view the grand and stunning domed lobby, seven stories high.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Lobby

When we stayed here before, the interior design was pretty, but its Arabian theme was overly colorful and ornate by today’s standards. Now the room design is subdued with neutral colors and understated patterns.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Room

It’s also worth strolling the grounds—all newly updated and improved, along with the infinity pool and beach area.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Garden

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

The hotel is located on a private cove with a wide open beach offering snorkeling and dolphin-watching boat rides. Yes, dolphins.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

This Omani coffee man offered me dates and Arabic coffee every day (as was his job). Each time I had coffee with him, he asked me more about myself.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

The coffee man asked me where I was from, where my husband was from, how many children we had, etc. When he found out I lived in Dubai, he asked which was better—Dubai or Muscat. I gave a vague answer about each city being unique. He insisted I choose the best city. Finally, I told him Muscat was better because of its traditional and natural beauty. At last, he was satisfied.

The next day, I tried to pick up our conversation where we left off. Instead, he started from the beginning: where I was from and which I like better, Dubai or Muscat… I wondered, perhaps all us Western women look the same to him?

At any rate, the coffee and dates were fitting, and the hotel was lovely, a perfect anniversary getaway.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Question: Have you been to Al Bustan Palace?

Trip to Muscat, Oman

January 1st, 2013 18 comments

I traveled to Oman nine years ago—a family trip that has become a blur to me. It was now time to go again. So, last week my husband and I traveled there, childfree and with fresh eyes. Four days and three nights. Just the two of us.  

Welcome to Muscat

The city of Muscat, capital of Oman, is so different from Dubai that it’s almost a shock to the system. First of all, it’s all stretched out along the coast of the Gulf of Oman—miles and miles of undeveloped beaches.  

And not a skyscraper in sight. Instead, you find a city of mostly white low buildings nestled between the sea and rugged mountains. Relaxing and pleasing to the eye, it feels like a kind of urban retreat.

Also, the city is not overrun with expatriate workers (like another city I know). Most of the people you meet in Oman—hotel clerks, shopkeepers, baristas, waiters—are actual Omani people.

Mutrah ~ The Port of Muscat

This is my favorite part of Muscat. Mutrah is the capital’s main port area, yet it feels more like a fishing village with its fish market, souk, sidewalk cafés and a corniche. In short, this picturesque area is an ideal place to stroll.


Old merchant homes line the waterfront. 

The Souk

Tucked behind the sidewalk cafés along the corniche is the Mutrah Souk. Authentic and lively, the souk is a traditional Middle Eastern market.

This shop sells bags of frankincense, alongside other “beauty items.” 

It addition to the usual Arabian and Indian bric-a-brac, you can also find some interesting artifacts, as well as Omani hats, chests and jewelry.


Beaches, Beaches Everywhere

I was amazed by the wide-open beaches, such as this one in Qurm.

This beach is a long strip with only a small shopping area and a few stand-alone cafés, like this Starbucks. If this were in another city I know, the area would be overdeveloped with steel skyscrapers, luxury hotels and a mall. 

I try to seek out a Starbucks in every country I visit. I realize this may be weird or even offensive to some, but for me, it’s a little piece of Seattle. I like to see if they carry the Pike Place Blend. (They did.) This particular Starbucks was especially nice. The outside seating provided a perfectly unobstructed view of the beach across the street.


Due to the aesthetic requirements of the city, structures are whitewashed or sand-colored and a limited number of floors high. Also, it seems every structure has some arabesque element—arches or domes or lattice. This gives the city a unique character, as well as a whimsical and unified look. Even though Muscat has a population of one million, it feels more like a small town in places. 

These contemporary-styled white villas have beach views and seem to be typical high-end homes.  

Oman is known for its forts. Much of the architecture is fort-like with thick walls and huge arches. All over Muscat are moutains like these. 

Muscat, Tidy and Charming

The city is surprisingly tidy and clean (almost spotless) with colorful flowers all over.  This roundabout features a replica of a dhow that traveled from Oman to China in the 8th century—and not a single nail used to build it.  

All around the city are sculptures of fish, a tribute to the Omani fishing heritage.

Oman 101

If you are thinking of traveling to Oman, take note that Oman is a peaceful and stable country with low crime. An Arab and Muslim country, Oman is predominately Arabic-speaking with English as a second language. In my short visit, I found the Omani people to be gracious and friendly.

The ruler of Oman is Sultan Qaboos. The leader since 1970, Sultan Qaboos is known for easing the country into modernity by investing heavily in education and by developing a well-trained local work force. 

Getting There

Our flight was through Emirates Airline, Dubai to Muscat, exactly one hour at 2:00 in the afternoon—what a civilized time to fly!

Turns out we misread. Our flight was actually at 2:00 in the morning, and we missed it.

So we drove.

Everyone says it takes five hours to get to Muscat. However, it took us seven hours each way. We had to stop for lunch and coffee (Starbucks, naturally). Also, there was a lot of construction on the road; it appears Oman is converting their roundabouts into flyover bridges, which will  eventually improve things.

But for now, it was slow going. Coming back from Muscat seemed especially long. When we neared the city and I saw the Dubai skyline—the row of steel and glass skyscrapers, punctuated with the Burj Khalifa, I breathed a sigh of relief. Back to civilization.

Next post: Where we stayed: Al Bustan Palace

Question: What are your impressions of Oman?