Friday, February 27, 2015

A Personal Cartography of Cordoba

Surprises aside, this was a brilliant place to teach.
We got off the bus in Córdoba a week ago today just in time for lunch. The itinerary gave students an hour and a half before we would meet in the patio of the orange trees just  outside the Great Mosque where, the itinerary said, they would be required to take audio-guides as they walked through the cathedral. And so when my colleague asked me if I had given thought to what route I would take the students on through the cathedral, I answered her that I thought I would leave them to their audio guides and just make sure that I visible at several key points on the walk through to answer any questions they might have.

Turns out that the term "audio-guide" does not mean the same thing in Cordoba as it does in Madrid. This wasn't a false-friends situation in which I assumed a definition for a Spanish word on the basis of an English counterpart; the "audio-guías" at the Prado Museum and even at the Alhambra are exactly the same as you find anywhere else; the audio guides in the Great Mosque of Cordoba are just a speaker system so that a guide can address her group through a microphone and headphones without having to shout and disrupt the quiet and the sanctity of the space. "You are," my colleague said, "the audio-guide."

 Fortunately, even though I haven't been there in fully a decade it's a space I know quite well and whose history I know quite well. It's still the first time I've taken students there, though, and so my colleague drew me a map to show me how she walks students through and what she thinks is important to tell them and what seems like an excess for intro-level students.

This map, drawn for me alone, is the very best souvenir of Cordoba. It's going up in a small frame in my office when I get back.

It speaks, I think, to the very individual ways in which any of us relates to a monument. This is a description of the Great Mosque of Cordoba by a medievalist for another medievalist that reflects the intimacy with which we both know the space. It speaks to the Mosque as a site for teaching as much as it is for anything else for anyone else who might have been there on that day or any other day in the past.

Mostly we think of maps as being for people who are lost. This one says not how much I needed to be told how to make my way through the space, but how much I didn't need to be told; not how much I needed it, but how much I did not.

Even where you might be able to read this map as a way to walk through the space, unless you are its intended reader (me) or one of the few other people in this world with her intellectual and professional profile you can't see where it says "tell them about the flying buttresses" or where it says that al-Hakam II was vain caliph with no sense of political expediency or where it explains how much more advanced engineering was in the tenth century than in the ninth, or the eighth, or in Rome. You might or might not know how many times this space has been consecrated and reconsecrated in the name of competing visions of the same God; I see it written here in ink. Personalized, this is a map through history and ideology as much as it is through space.

Titus Burkhardt described the Great Mosque of Cordoba as a forest of mathematics and history. This isn't the map that could have saved any Little Red Riding Hood walking through it, but it did save me.

The paradox of this map is its explanation of its own innecessity. And the one who can understand it will understand.

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