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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World Cup 2018: A Muslim-friendly travel guide

Updated 13 June 2018

World Cup 2018: A Muslim-friendly travel guide


Both Tunisia and Iran are based in the vibrant 800-year-old Russian capital, renowned for its golden domes and stunning orthodox architecture. It is home to the famous Russian ballet and a wealth of art, culture and iconic scenery, including the breathtaking Red Square. A truly multicultural capital, Moscow is home to a sizeable Muslim community, which first began to settle here around the time of the Golden Horde. If you want to explore some of the capital’s Islamic heritage, visit the historic Muslim area, Zamoskvorechie, and head for the ‘Historical Mosque,’ built in 1823 by Muslim tatars. Reopened in 1993 after a lengthy closure under communism, the mosque has recently undergone a major refurbishment. Along with the 10k-capacity Moscow Cathedral Mosque (pictured), it is the capital’s most significant Muslim building.
Halal Food: You’ll find plenty on offer, from highly rated restaurants including Mr. Livanets (Lebanese), Dyushes (Azerbaijani), and Gandhara (Asian) to halal food carts.
Mosque: The Moscow Cathedral Mosque on Pereulok Vypolzov.
Qibla: South.

Saint Petersburg

Saudi Arabia’s national team will be based in this bastion of Russian imperialism, known as the Russian ‘Venice’ for its stunning network of canals, neo-Renaissance architecture and its plethora of culture, arts and all things splendid. Visitors can enjoy a wealth of museums, galleries, open promenades and the finest dining in the northern hemisphere — talking of which, sun lovers will be delighted to know that during the World Cup the sun will barely dip below the horizon. Muslim visitors should not miss the St. Petersburg Mosque’s sumptuous Central Asian architecture and mesmeric blue tiles (pictured) — a design inspired by Tamerlane’s tomb in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Halal Food: Limited, in comparison to Moscow, but both Eastern European restaurant Navruz and Oh! Mumbai (Indian) have received generally positive online reviews.
Mosque: St. Petersburg Mosque on Kronverkskiy Prospekt.
Qibla: South-east.


Egypt’s ‘Pharaohs’ should feel right at home in the Chechen capital, which is home to a huge Muslim population (its coat of arms features a mosque), making it one of the most halal-friendly destinations on our list. The mosque in question is the city’s flagship monument and main tourist attraction, the Ottoman-style Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque. Modelled on Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Mosque and sited in a serene location on the west bank of the Sunzha River, it is part of an ‘Islamic’ complex also housing the Russian Islamic University, Kunta Hajji, and is the spiritual headquarters for the Muslims of the Chechen Republic. Much of Grozny is still being rebuilt after being virtually destroyed in two wars with Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, much of it through investment from the UAE.
Halal Food: Chechnya is majority-Muslim, so you’ll be spoiled for choice, from fast-food chain Ilis to high-end restaurants in five-star hotels.
Mosque: Akhmad Kadyrov on Prospekt Putina.
Qibla: South-west.


Morocco are based in quiet (at least until the tournament starts), picturesque Voronezh. The city is littered with lush green spaces and stunning churches. It’s home to a large orthodox Christian community, as well as small Jewish and still-smaller Muslim ones. The city’s beautiful 114-year-old synagogue on Ulitsa Svobody is a popular tourist attraction. Those looking for more ‘familiar’ heritage should head to the Kramskoy Museum of Fine Arts on Revolyutsii Avenue, home to an impressive collection of ancient Egyptian works of art on stone and sarcophagi.
Halal Food: Very sparse. The Asian restaurant Bahor bills itself as offering the “only halal food in Voronezh,” and there are reportedly a couple of grocery stores selling halal meat, one in the city’s central market.
Mosque: While no official mosque has yet been built in Voronezh, Muslims do gather to pray. According to, there is an informal mosque on Ulitsa Gvardeyskaya.
Qibla: South.


Essentuki, which will host Nigeria in its Pontos Plaza Hotel (pictured), is famous for its health spas and mineral water, so the 'Super Eagles' should at least be able to relax after their games. Muslim visitors may want to drop by Kurortny Park, where the drinking gallery was inspired by Islamic Moorish design.
Halal Food: Hard to find. There is a kebab house that may be able to provide halal options. Otherwise, head to the area around the mosque in nearby Pyatigorsk.
Mosque: The nearest mosque is 25 minutes drive west in Pyatigorsk, on Skvoznoy Pereulok.
Qibla: Southwest.


It’s all about space exploration in the city where Senegal will be based. Space travel pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky taught in Kaluga in his early years. The town’s main attraction — unsurprisingly — is the Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics, reportedly the world’s first space museum. Second billing goes to the rocket scientist’s quaint old wooden family home.
Halal Food: Very hard to find. Asian restaurant Chaikhana and Russian eatery Solyanka (pictured) appear to cater to alternative dietary requirements, and may be worth a call.
Mosque: The town’s main mosque is a converted building off Ulitsa Annenki.
Qibla: South.