As its name suggests, the construction of this royal palace was ordered by the Catholic King Alfonso XI of Castile in 1328 but – as is so often the case in Andalusia – it was built amongst the ruins of a vast Moorish fort. In the late 10th century, when the Islamic Kingdom was at the height of its powers, Córdoba was the kingdom’s – and indeed one of the world’s – great intellectual cities. Not only was the Alcazar the palace from which the wealthy and powerful Caliphate of Córdoba was governed, it was also home to the largest library in the West.
When Alfonso XI decided to build his own royal palace on the same site in the early 14th century, he used only a small part of the original remains. Yet, in a tribute to the aesthetic refinement of his Moorish forebears, he chose a Mudéjar style for the building and the gardens, the latter of which are a scaled-down version of those you also see in Granada’s great Alhambra fortress. It is also thought that the baths date from this period; consisting of three rooms in which different temperatures were maintained – cold, warm, and hot – and ventilated by star-shaped holes carved into the clay ceilings, they are also clearly inspired by Moorish principles of design.
Beautiful as the Alcazar is, it has been the site of many dark deeds since the 14th century. In the 15th century, it was the scene of some of the fiercest battles of the Civil War, during which Henry IV of Castile reinforced its defences to withstand soldiers led by his half-brother Alfonso. Towards the close of the 15th century, it was designated the official headquarters of the gruesome Inquisition, led by Henry’s successor Isabella I and her husband Ferdinand. The proselytising monarchs, you imagine, made full use of what is now called the ‘Inquisition Tower’, which was built during the Civil War to strengthen the Alcazar’s defences. They also converted the once-peaceful baths into prisons and torture chambers.
At the same time, the Alcazar was the base from which Ferdinand and Isabella plotted to take the last remaining Moorish stronghold in Andalusia – the Nasrid-ruled Caliphate of Granada. The last of the kingdom’s rulers, Muhammad XII – also known as Boabdil in Spain – was imprisoned here in 1483. Seven years later, he was still refusing to give up Granada, so Ferdinand and Isabella launched an attack on the city in 1489. In 1492, they finally took Granada from the Nasrids. The Alcazar was also the setting, that same year, for talks between the dual monarchs and Christopher Columbus, as he planned the trip that would result in the discovery of the Americas.
You can contemplate all the history that has played out within the walls of this elegant, understated palace as you wander around. Nowadays there is also a Mosiacs Hall in what used to be a chapel, featuring a stunning display of Roman art dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. The works were discovered in the late 1950s under one of Cordoba’s main squares, just a few hundred metres away from the city’s Roman temple – also discovered in the same decade.