CORDOBA Airport is a non-descript local hub primarily used by small planes.
Due to it’s diminutive scale, Malaga and Sevilla airports host most of the international flight routes in the region.
So there is not much about Cordoba to suggest any significant connection to aviation. Yet this city played host to what many – especially in the Muslim world – consider one of the most significant chapters in man’s quest for flight.
In 875 AD, the Moorish daredevil, Ibn Firnas, dressed in eagle feathers and a wing-like cloak, jumped off the Mezquita Tower in Cordoba. Whether he was attempting to hang-glide or parachute is not clear, but according to Moroccan historian Ahmed al Maqquari, Ibn Firnas flew ‘faster than a phoenix’.
Years later, more than 65-years old, Ibn Firnas made another attempt. This time he fashioned wing-like struts stretched over a cloth sheath and jumped off a Cordoba hillside in front of cheering spectators.
He flew a ‘considerable distance’ but his landing was bad. He later said he failed to consider fashioning a tail similar to what birds use to land. As humorous and colorful as this tale may be, Maqquari’s account is believed to be the first written documentation of a ‘heavier than air’ man in flight.
The universal desire to fly is found throughout human history, in myth, legend, art, literature and religion. Folklore is replete with soaring gods, magic carpets and flying heroes who – unlike mere mortals – can navigate the ‘infinite highway of the air’.
The Italian Leonardo de Vinci (1452-1519) was perhaps the first to approach the subject from a standpoint of sophisticated engineering.
De Vinci left more than 500 pages of flight-focused notes, including blueprints for a helicopter, wing-flapping devices and various hang-glider models, all inspired by his study of birds.
The French believe that the ‘first untethered manned flight’ was made by a hot air balloon in Paris around 1783 and Americans like to think of the Wright brothers as owing the title of ‘the first successful mechanized flight’.
What is interesting about Ibn Firnas’ achievement is how it was received in the Muslim world. Baghdad’s newest airport is known as Ibn Firnas International and a large sculpture of the flying daredevil greets all visiting the airport.
In 2005, Libya issued a popular commemorative stamp in his honor (Spain has since done the same). In the field of astronomy, the largest dark side of the moon crater carries the name Ibn Firnas Crater. British ultra-luxury car manufacturer Rolls Royce have even produced a limited edition model known as the “Ibn Firnas Ghost”, available only in Qatar and Dubai.
It is important to remember the era in which Ibn Firnas lived. The 8th century Muslim city of Cordoba was greatly prosperous. It was the capital of the Islamic Caliphate and rivaled Baghdad in size and splendor.
Cordoba was home was to exceptional libraries, medical schools and universities and was considered the intellectual centre of Europe. The Mezquita or Great Mosque of Cordoba, the Roman bridge and the Jewish quarter are all reminders of the city’s illustrious past.
So while there may not be much in Cordoba to specifically suggest a legacy of aviation, the legacy of Ibn Firnas and his memorable flight the city hosted, is alive and well around the globe.