Córdoba has become a political concept, and as such it has become impossible to say precisely what this city's symbolism is. It is a city in southern Spain with a Roman history, which was subsequently conquered by the Visigoths, a people who make us Europeans reach for the label "barbarian", even though they converted to Christianity and became Romanized. Then, in 711, just seventy-nine years after the death of Muhammed, an invading army of Arabs and Berbers swept across southern Iberia and established Muslim rule in the area. Córdoba was an important city during the period of Muslim rule and became the capital of its own caliphate ruling most of Iberia from 929 to 1031.

Some would have us see Córdoba as the symbol of Islamic imperialism in Europe, whereas others point to its long history of coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians, and its importance as a cultural centre. Córdoba's history allows ample evidence for both interpretations, which hardly seems to occur to anyone in this debate, which is a sure sign it has become politicized beyond reason; real life and history are never so simple as symbolism demands that they be if it is to achieve its purposes. Córdoba can be both a symbol of Islamic imperialism or of a form of coexistence and erudition that, for its time, was advanced.

We should deal first with the conquest. It is undoubtedly a textbook case of imperialism to sail across the sea and disembark in a foreign land, and then conquer that land through force of arms. Imperialism was a central feature of pre-modern Arab history, just as it was a central feaure of Roman history and Spanish history. Historically speaking, it is not unusual, and I will leave it to others to condescend to the dead. Córdoba as a positive symbol of brute conquest resonates today with various types of Islamic fundamentalists, particularly those who look back to the time period immediately after the birth of the Prophet as their model for action today. Groups like al-Qaeda are inspired by the early successes of Islam in conquering neighbouring peoples in the Middle East and beyond, and they want to repeat that success; you will even sometimes read statements by such groups in which they lament La Reconquista, the termination of Muslim rule in Spain.

But what you won't ever see is Osama bin Laden shedding even a crocodile tear over the demise of the actual ruling regime in Córdoba, even if the general concept of declining Islamic power is enough to stab his poor sensitive heart. Because, it is also a fact that Córdoba's regime was, for its time, tolerant of various faith groups, and a distinguished centre of learning in which Jews, Muslims and Christians could study at Europe's largest library. These are not activities that Osama bin Laden or his fellow fundamentalists envisage as holding an important place in their future imagined utopia.

We should not exaggerate Córdoba's uniqueness, as sycophants are prone to do (again, the problem is polarization); the Visigoths initially subscribed to a form of animism when they ruled in Córdoba, yet they were tolerant of their Catholic subjects and of the Jews, and they eventually even converted to Christianity. The period of Muslim rule in Iberia was bloody as well as tolerant, with many of the conflicts being part of power struggles within the Muslim world as well as between it and the Christian states to the north ("Islam has bloody borders", Samuel Huntingdon once wrote; this is true, but I'm not sure it bears this distinction alone, and nor was he). In fact, most of Córdoba's history was determined by such inter-Islamic battles.

The Islamic conquest of Spain was not a unified, disciplined affair; this was not a well-managed Blitzkrieg which quickly subjected the conquered territory to a central will. It was scrappy and marked by severe infighting among the various clans and chieftans who had led the original conquest and now sought their own glory, often in rebellion against the distant power-centres to which they technically owed allegiance. This is precisely the sort of infighting and focusing on worldly concerns (power, glory, money, women) that annoys Islamic fundamentalists today. In the very first sentence of bin Laden's 1998 declaration of war against the U.S. he praises Allah, who, he says, "defeats factionalism". The fundamentalist seeks unity, although of course he wants to dictate the terms on which unity is achieved.

So this is another reason that the actual political reality in Córdoba was anathema to today's fundamentalists. It's out of this inter-Muslim infighting that another controversial aspect of Córdoba's symbolism emerges, namely that one Muslim ruler of Córdoba built a great whopping mosque - appropriately named the Great Mosque of Córdoba, now named the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción - on the site of a Visigothic church which was some 150 years old and had itself been built on the site of a pagan Roman temple.

The mosque was begun in 784 by Abd ar-Rahman, who was celebrating his victory not over the Christians of Córdoba, but the motley bunch of other Muslims who had challenged his rule in Iberia. Rahman came from the Umayyad family, who had once ruled over the largest empire the world had ever seen, but who were ousted from their capital in Damascus by their rivals, the Abbasids. Abd ar-Rahman fled into exile and made Córdoba his capital, from which he repulsed various attempts by the Abbasids to take Iberia for themselves. He ordered the Great Mosque built to celebrate this, not to celebrate the original conquest of Iberia, which he'd had nothing to do with - and this is probably why the mosque's mihrab (which determines the direction of prayer) wasn't oriented towards Mecca like in most mosques, but oriented as if it were actually situated in Damascus, Rahman's old stomping ground.

Most Islamic fundamentalists take an incredibly dim view of the Umayyads, and nor is it in their DNA to look kindly upon giant, grand mosques designed to serve as political symbols for a factional ruler either. It is hard to overstate the puritanism of Islamic fundamentalism as a movement, and its abhorrence of pomp and display (similar, of course, to the stance of some Protestants): hence the injunction against pictorial representations of the Prophet, which can be seen not only as blasphemous but also as an invitation to worship false idols. When the fundamentalist Wahhabis originally burst forth from the Arabian desert in 1806, they levelled a number of historic mosques associated with the earliest days of Islam and made a great show of destroying the Prophet's tombstone to stop fellow Muslims from "worshipping" it. This action is much more indicative of fundamentalist Islam's agenda than the construction of the Grand Mosque of Córdoba.

Córdoba will remain a controversial symbol for anyone who benefits from stripping away the intricacies of its history and presenting it in only one light, whether it be fundamentalists who are drunk on stories of early Arab conquests but who ignore the messy compromises and realities that real politics entails, or western sycophants who seek to assuage post-colonial guilt by pretending that the Arab past was a utopia. Whatever else one might achieve by shining a spotlight on the history and symbolism of Córdoba, greater mutual and self-understanding - for better and worse - might just be one result.