Cultural icons complement ancient Spain’s focus on open borders, free trade

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Plaza de Tiberiades.
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Madinat Al-Zahra, Cordoba, was built by 10,000 laborers over 40 years.
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Torre da la Calahorra is Cordoba’s oldest defense tower.
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Cordoba Mosque with its stunning arches.
Updated 21 April 2017

Cultural icons complement ancient Spain’s focus on open borders, free trade

“Many of the traits on which modern Europe prides itself came to it from Muslim Spain. Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques of academic research, of anthropology, etiquette, fashion, various types of medicine, hospitals, all came from this great city of cities (Cordoba)…” — Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne
As Britain wrangles over the post-Brexit status of Gibraltar, few of those caught up in the tussle will be aware that the small “British” rock off the coast of southern Spain got its name following a historic moment in late April of 711.
That was the year a Muslim general called Tariq bin Ziyad, at the bequest of the Umayyad Caliph Al Walid I, landed on the rock that would thereafter be known as his rock, “Jebel Al Tariq,” from which is derived the modern name Gibraltar. Half a century later, alone and in flight came a “Syrian refugee.” Abd Al-Rahman I arrived having witnessed everyone dear to him murdered at the hands of the Baghdadi Abbasids in a bloody massacre in Damascus. The sole male survivor of Islam’s first family dynasty decided to start afresh, and set up his new capital in Cordoba, in modern day southern Spain.
Abd Al-Rahman I’s empire would be known as Al-Andalus and as the heir to the British throne testifies, it would go on to change the face of Europe forever, reaching its zenith in 929 when Abd Al-Rahman III declared himself the rightful Caliph of the entire Muslim world.
To fully appreciate what was Europe’s one and only Caliphate would probably take a lifetime — the Muslim presence in Iberia lasted more than 700 years — so here is the traveler’s shortcut to five key places in the former Caliphate capital that evoke the “spirit” of Al-Andalus.

The Caliphate capital’s most iconic remnant still stands. Once the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the importance and majestic beauty of this monument is impossible to overstate. Deemed one of the finest examples of Islam’s first artistic movement — the Umayyad style — the mosque’s design is both a nod to the great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, and the longings of a man in exile. Opened in 785, this remarkable building’s interior was designed to create the illusion of a “forest of palms,” using the iconic Umayyad red and beige horseshoe arches, mounted one upon another. In its heyday, the mosque’s walls were flung wide open and worshippers sat beneath skylights in a space flooded with light and air, as if in a desert oasis, like the ones Abd Al-Rahman I had been forced to leave behind. Though this illusion is no more, following the introduction of the 16th century chapel now in the center, the building still boasts several exquisite features, with the highlight being the mehrab of Al-Hakim II. Deemed a pinnacle in Umayyad artistry, the mehrab merges Byzantine inspiration with the Umayyad styles. Today, the building is Cordoba’s main cathedral but is open to tourists.

Torre de la Calahorra
Across the Guadalquivir — from the Arabic “Wadi Al-Kabir” to mean “Great River” — is Cordoba’s oldest defense tower. These days it is home to an excellent series of rooms dedicated to the golden age of Al-Andalus. In one room, you can hear two of its great philosophers in conversation, Bin Rushd and Bin Arabi. Then there is the men of science like Albucasis. Together, their work would change the intellectual landscape of Europe. Another pays homage to the music of Al-Andalus, a forerunner to western musical revolutions such as the one instigated by the troubadours. Here, forgotten masters like Ziryab enlighten you about the grandfather of the modern guitar among other instruments. Then there is the room that describes courtly life and one that details the agricultural techniques fostered in this region and later transported across the continent. Finally, rooms are dedicated to the reimagining of the Caliphate Mosque and Granada’s Alhambra during their cultural heights. An hour in the Torre de la Calahorra will leave you wondering only one thing, “Why don’t I already know all of this?”

When Abd Al-Rahman III declared himself Caliph, one of his most trusted aides was the Jewish scholar, Hasdai bin Shaprut. During much of Muslim rule in Iberia, European Jews flourished as a community, before being permanently expelled under Christian rule. Wander through the beautiful whitewashed narrow streets where they once lived in search of highlights such as the bronze statue of Maimonides, a great medieval scholar who was born in Cordoba, and the stunning little Sinagoga, where it will become truly apparent just how much early Sephardic Jews interacted with local Muslim culture.

Madinat Al-Zahra
A short bus ride from Cordoba city, Madinat Al-Zahra has been reduced to what looks like little more than a mass sprawl of uninspiring rocks under the odd half arch. This makes it difficult to envision the “city,” which took 10,000 laborers 40 years to complete. Madinat Al-Zahra was intended to announce to the world the wealth, glory and power of the newly declared Caliph Abd Al-Rahman III, but in reality it signified the beginning of the end, as the opulent mini palace city lasted a mere 30 years before being sacked by the intolerant Almohads. Scholars see its demise as the start of Al-Andalus’ decline. The impressive and tactfully submerged museum now compensates for what your imagination can’t do using interesting artifacts and an auditorium that plays short films showing what the Umayyad court looked like as well as just how much it achieved. It also has a brilliant bookshop.

Hammam Al-Andalus, Cordoba
“... Europe was dirty, Cordoba built a thousand baths …,” wrote the 20th century author and physician Victor Robinson. This venue is less about history as it is about imagination and relaxing. Baths like these were found all over Cordoba in its glory days, and this modern incarnation works hard to evoke that classical experience in a historic building reimagined in the traditional artistic style of Al-Andalus, complete with horseshoe arches. Swim in the warm waters, relax in the saunas, maybe even indulge in a little massage, as you again contemplate the impact Al-Andalus and its great citizens had on modern European culture.

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Tour operators and hotel groups sign up to Saudi tourism growth project

Saudi Arabia plans to create 1.2 million jobs in the tourism sector by 2030. (AN photo/Mo Gannon)
Updated 23 April 2018

Tour operators and hotel groups sign up to Saudi tourism growth project

  • Vision 2030 has a goal to create 1.2 million new jobs in the industry
  • We are participating here to show people that Saudi Arabia has really changed: tour operator

DUBAI: From diving in the Red Sea to sand-skating in the desert, from Jazan’s Fifa Mountains to the archaeological wonders of Al-Ula, it has been impossible not to be wowed by all that Saudi Arabia has to offer on the opening day of this year’s Arabian Travel Market in Dubai. Travel posters of its varied regions blanketed almost every pillar in the concourse, through which thousands of visitors passed on their way into the Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Center, part of a colorful Saudi tourism campaign. 

And if you somehow missed that on your way into the exhibition halls, then you couldn’t have missed the Saudi pavilion, featuring 60 travel-related agencies under the umbrella of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage.

“We are participating here to show people that Saudi Arabia has really changed,” said Abeer Al-Rashed, project co-ordinator for Al Sarh Travel and Tourism, which organizes tours and helps with visa arrangements. “It’s not just a desert in Saudi Arabia. We have a lot of activities.”

The expanded role of tourism under Vision 2030, which has a goal to create 1.2 million new jobs in the industry, is top of mind for those with a foothold already in the region.

“We are thrilled at this accelerated pace of growth in Saudi Arabia and want to make sure that we’re aligned with that,” said Simon Casson, president of hotel operations for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Its Riyadh hotel, Four Seasons’ first in the Gulf when it opened in 2002, is now offering a tour of the Tuwaiq escarpment, otherwise known as the Edge of the World. 

Four Seasons’ plans for a hotel in Makkah, announced in the fall, are in the design phase, with construction expected to begin next year. “The site of the hotel is really the last remaining piece of land that’s ringside, if you like, and has a direct view facing onto the Kaaba, so that will partner very well with our Riyadh hotel,” Casson said.

As for more hotels? “I would say stay-tuned because we’re actively working on other opportunities within Saudi Arabia — not things we can announce at this time but we see a tremendous amount of opportunity as we look forward.”

Omer Kaddouri, Rotana’s president and CEO, also sees tremendous potential. It’s operating four hotels in the Kingdom right now and will have three more by the end of the year. 

“They’re building more reasons to travel there,” Kaddouri said, speaking of the recent changes. “I’d like to say that by the time they’ve reached their 2030 vision, Rotana will have no less than 20 operating hotels in the Kingdom, with more in the pipeline.”

As for the long-awaited Nobu Hotel in Riyadh, Khaled Al-Ashqar, director of sales and marketing, said it’s “very close” to opening. The boutique hotel, with a restaurant by chef Nobu Matsuhisa, will also have a tea lounge and a live cooking station in the Royal Suite. “I’m 100 percent sure it will be the spot of the city,” Al-Ashqar said.