Al Andalus en el corazón

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Sunday 6 Jan 2013

UNESCO has added Cordova's Fiesta of the Patios, for centuries the capital of Muslim Spain, to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

cordoban patios

Among the criteria mentioned for the inclusion of the Fiesta of the Patios on the UNESCO List of Cultural Heritage, the committee highlighted the fact that, celebrating social spaces that promote human contact and cultural exchange, the Fiesta of the Patios is a communal festive event that provides a sense of identity and continuity to the residents of Cordova, who recognize this expression as a significant component of their intangible cultural heritage.”

It is during May each year that the famed patios or courtyards of Cordova’s houses open their doors to host the fiesta. Located at the historical city centre, they become the scene of vivid and cheerful gatherings where people enjoy traditional dance, live music and tapas. They admire tasteful and elaborate arrangement of plants, vases and flowerpots around the patios and on their walls. However, beyond the Flamenco tunes and folk costumes, the Fiesta of the Patios carries interesting cultural baggage that is centuries-old with the unmistakable aroma of Al Andalus.

Once upon a time in the West

“To Cordoba belong all the beauty and ornaments that delight the eye or dazzle the sight. Her long line of kings form her crown of glory; her necklace is strung with the pearls which her poets have gathered from the ocean of language; her dress is of the banners of learning, well-knit together by her men of science; and the masters of every art and industry are the hem of her garments.” – Stanley Lane-Poole (The Moors in Spain)

Cordova, once the capital of the Roman Province of Bética, passed into Arab hands in the early eighth century, eventually becoming the capital of the Umayyad Emirate founded by Abd al-Rahman I in AD 756. The city, situated on the River Guadalquivir (from the Arabic, al-Wadi al-Kabir) would quickly flourish, its Great Mosque (La Mezquita) later becoming the jewel of the Umayyad art; its houses would feature the typical central patio with a fountain and an abundance of plants. Both the hamams (public baths) and the patios that feature heavily in the Andalusi medina (city) are of Roman influence, and it comes as no surprise given the capacity of the Islamic Empire to integrate elements from other cultures into its fabric.

One only has to enter any of Cordova’s patios to immediately sense an Arab (specifically Maghrebi) presence. It was in patios like these in the same place that virtuoso musicians like the Iraqi master Ziryab would play their oud and exceptional poets like Ibn Zaydun would recite their poems. In patios like these, the Cordovan Princess Wallada Bint al-Mustakfi and others would host poets, musicians and dancers in their cultural salons… Nor is that all.

As Abd al-Rahman III proclaimed himself Caliph in 929 AD, the status of the city changed dramatically; it became the seat of a Caliphate. It rivaled Baghdad in knowledge and splendour, and later competed against Cairo in art and culture. The city boasted the world’s largest library in the tenth century, with over one million volumes, and the patios of Cordova became meeting places for book discussions and poetry recitals, a medieval predecessor of the modern tertulia tradition.

A feast for the senses

More than just beauty to marvel at, a Cordovan patio is the guarantee of an aesthetic experience in which all the senses engage: the smell of jasmines, the colours of the foliage and the mesmerising sound of the water. Add to this the complete transformation of these patios during the fiesta and you have the perfect recipe for a unique social and cultural phenomenon specific to Cordova.

The Flamenco performed during the fiesta reflect the Maghrebi spirit: the songs and odes bear a resemblance to the muwashahat of Al Andalus, and the guitar itself first appeared – according to some historians -- as a development of the oud introduced to Al Andalus by the Arabs, and which originally had four strings before Ziryab added the fifth.

Apart from its historical value, the fiesta attracts scores of tourists who come to enjoy the festivities and visit the patios. Pedro Rubio is one bar owner in Cordova who sums it up nicely: “May means spring; it is when the flowers blossom and the city shows its many charms. People come, they like what they see, and no pleasant day in Andalusia is complete without a good wine and some quality tapas!”

It is worth mentioning that Spain has the second largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites after Italy, Cordova’s Historic Centre being one of 44. When it comes to intangible heritage, and in addition to the Fiesta of the Patios of Cordova, other famous Spanish items on the List include Flamenco, the Human Towers (of Catalonia), and the Mediterranean Diet (shared with Greece, Italy and Morocco).

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