The rest is history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2007, 12:00am

In AD875, Abbas Ibn Firnas, a Moorish Muslim of the city of Cordoba, in the emirate of Al-Andalus, flew from a hillside. So said a couple of witnesses whose accounts survive. That makes him the first documented human aviator. What gives the claim credence is this man's host of other achievements.

An astronomer, poet, scientist and inventor, this genius worked at an amazing variety of enterprises, practical and theoretical. He devised a way to make glass from sand and designed a water clock. He drew up astronomical tables and built a chain of rings that demonstrated the motions of the planets and stars: an early planetarium.

But his imagination soared even higher: Ibn Firnas wanted to fly. He built a wooden frame coated with feathers then, according to one account, 'He invited the people of Cordoba to come and witness his flight. People watched from a nearby mountain as he flew some distance, but then the glider plummeted to the ground causing him to injure his back.' You can't win them all, but you can get major marks for trying. In Baghdad, for example, they've put up a statue and named an airport after him.

Ibn Firnas is a graphic example of the innovative nature of early Islam and of the extraordinary Islamic civilisation of Spain. From the 8th to the 15th centuries there flourished one of the great civilisations of Europe, known as Al-Andalus in Arabic, the language of its Umayyad rulers, and as Moorish Spain in English, a name that alluded to the Moroccan source of much of its culture and of its elite.

For the first three centuries of Moorish rule, from AD716 to 1031, the civilisation's capital was Cordoba, once a rich Roman city that shipped olive oil, wine and wheat to Rome, but which declined after the Visigoth invasion. Hardy Berber tribesmen from North Africa led the conquest of the Iberian peninsula but it was an Umayyad from Damascus who initiated the powerful dynasty that was to make Cordoba influential, particularly in the 10th and 11th centuries. It started with two distinct advantages, a location beside the Great River - al-Wadi al-Kabir, which in Spanish became the Guadalquivir - and the enormous Roman bridge across it, which is still there.

Exploring Cordoba today the Moorish legacy is evident, eight centuries since the Catholic kings retook the city and made it part of a resurgent Christian Spain. It is a pleasure to stroll the streets of this pleasant, relaxed city, feeling the history that emanates from every corner and at the same time enjoying the vivacity and charm that characterises the regional culture of Andalusia, which has grown so beautifully out of the Al-Andalus heartland.

Now a provincial capital with about 300,000 inhabitants, the city has four faces: Moorish, medieval, mid-period and modern. The first Cordoba you encounter is a spacious modern city, dominated by wide boulevards, leafy parks and apartment blocks, which expanded considerably in the 1990s after the opening of the AVE high-speed train line from Madrid. Then there is an elegant earlier city, largely 19th and early 20th century, which is the commercial hub, full of busy shopping streets and cafe-lined squares.

And then there is the remaining ancient core of the city, clinging to the banks of the Guadalquivir, where narrow, winding streets of whitewashed houses cluster around the great monuments of the Mezquita and the Alcazar. This is the soul of the city, where the Moorish and the medieval mix, an easy-going, laidback place.

The highlight is the Great Mosque, a masterpiece of Moorish architecture. Known as the Mezquita in Spanish, its great prayer hall was progressively enlarged for four centuries until it became the largest mosque in the world in the 11th century. Though inspired by Syrian Abbasid and local Roman models, its grand concept was unique: a forest of marble pillars and double-horseshoe arches patterned in red brick and white stone, creating a mesmerising vision of exquisite endless repetition. The Great Mosque became a church with the re-conquest and, regrettably, in the 16th to 18th centuries a soaring cathedral was built in the middle, creating a bizarre hybrid. Even so, the views along the eternal avenues of arches are dazzling. They suggest to Muslims - and perhaps to all the faithful - a path to God.

To come upon the Alcazar in the cool of a summer evening, as the sun lowers and tall date palms place exquisite shadows on the golden stone of the old castle walls, is a wonderful experience. This is a Europe like no other, where Arabia seems to have come and cast a spell. The crenellated stronghold was developed by the Catholic kings, first as their base during the reconquest, then as a palace fortress with Moorish gardens, watered by fountains and pools, making what is today one of Cordoba's most attractive spots.

Water was excellently managed in the Moors' time and their aquatic heritage remains in several places. Down by the river languish the ruins of a large water mill, the Albolafia, including a great wheel, one of four erected in the Guadalquivir's course. Near the Alcazar stand the remains of the Banos Califales, the royal bath house, constructed in the style of the late 10th century.

Best of all, however, is the total immersion experience. At the Hammam Banos Arabes, a full recreation of a classic Moorish bath complex, complete with horseshoe-arched galleries and the lilt of traditional oud music, you can revel in pools of different temperatures, indulge in massages, lounge on cushions and sip tea. This is what it must have been like in the glory days of Al-Andalus.

Getting there: Thai Airways ( flies from Hong Kong via Bangkok to Madrid, from where AVE high-speed trains reach Cordoba in about 90 minutes. Rooms at the luxurious out-of-town Parador de Cordoba ( begin at Euro140/HK$1,500 a night for a double room. In the city, Hotel Mezquita, in a 16th-century mansion, charges Euro49 a night for a double.