Once upon a time there was a major in Córdoba that changed the face of the city forever and he did that in just 15 months. Domingo Badía y Leblich (Barcelona, 1st of April of 1767 – Damascus, 1818) was a true adventurer; fearless like no other he lived a thrilling life. He was a spy, a soldier, an Arabist but above all a Spanish adventurer; he was then known by Alí Bey or Alí Bey el-Abbassi.
The first rendezvous this daring man had with Andalucía took place in 1778 on account of his father’s official appointment as war accountant and treasurer of the judicial district of Vera in Almería. It was there that his voracious interest in the Islamic world begun. In 1791 he married and moved to Córdoba to work as a property administrator for the tobacco fortunes. While in Córdoba he studied Arab and developed an interest in aerostats. This cost him a bankruptcy, thus in 1793 he decided to move with his family to the royal court in Madrid.
Around 1803 he begun spying for the King Charles IV: he initiated a long tour through Muslim kingdoms, and he did that portraying a Syrian Muslim prince descendant of the Abbasid dynasty but educated in Europe by the name of Alí Bey el-Abbassi. His travels took him to Morocco, Algeria, Libya and other parts of the Ottoman Empire (Egypt, Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Greece), regions where no European had ever dared to set a foot before. It is during these travels where his life shines brightest but I have decided to focus instead on the shorter time where he acted as major of this city. Plus you can read all about his other more meaningful adventures and travels in his book Travel of Ali-Bey.
For a XXIst century citizen like me, very much used to long and clumsy terms in office that rarely result in meaningful changes, where most simple projects get stuck in bureaucracy, to read about this wonder man from two centuries ago makes me doubt whether we would have been better off as a part of some other country.
He was appointed Major of Córdoba the 5th of April of 1810 and up until the 14th of July of 1811. He introduced cotton, beet and potato as crops among the province. He carried out some modern policies for the city such as the construction of three new cemeteries (Salud cemetery, cemetery of Saint Rafael and cemetery of Saint Cayetano). At the same time he prohibited all church burials in order to prevent health issues. The Agricultural Gardens were inaugurated the 1st of March of 1811. He planted London planes or Platanus x hispánica a tree that has given us comfortable shade for centuries now in avenues like Ronda de Tejares, Gran Capitán or the very same Agricultural Gardens. Also the first plan of the city is sketched, a plan made by the Karwinsky Baron and that would go by the name of the “French city plan” on account of it being done during French occupation.
Since the French troops had sacked most of the churches of the city, Badía took advantage of the situation and decided to start a slow confiscation, seizure and sale of properties of the Church and other big landowners that resulted far more efficient than that of the one carried out by Mendizabal. Furthermore, he freed the inhabitants of the city from having to host the French troops in their homes, using to that end emptied convents.
As far as public hygiene goes he implemented a plan to clean the streets of the city. The norm back then was to find streets dirty with excrement and other wastes profitable for animals and other creatures in the city. He established a permanent municipal plan in order to rid the city from all the garbage in the streets. Some measures of this plan stated that neighbors had to sweep and water the sidewalk adjacent to their homes twice a day or else pay for it to be done; also dead animals had to be buried beyond the city limits and at a certain depth. All in all, the plan initiated then included many of the tasks that the current Municipal Sanitation Company of Córdoba carries out these days. In a few months work he managed to turn the city into one of the cleanest in Europe.
Also he implemented an ambitious security program in the city with measures like the implementation of public street lighting, the building of armed brigades, also called civic militias, in order to keep public order in line (in not so many words: Municipal Police).
He implemented plenty of other measures and initiatives, for instance, he demolished an old bullfighting arena following the general prohibition by José Bonaparte (Pepe Botella, Napoleón’s brother). He was also the first one to successfully tax the Church, needless to say that took effort. Perhaps a future article will be published on the matter.
In 1818, Badía travels as a spy to Damascus. He initiated the journey in Paris under the name Alí-Othman but he was soon caught by the British secret services who poisoned him in Damascus: invited by a Bajá close with the Brits he had his last cup of coffee.
He died a legend and changed the face of a city in less than 15 months.
The known as “French city plan” was the first full comprehensive map of the city. It was ordered by Domingo Badía and its precision is impressive. We can appreciate in detail the beginnings of the Agricultural Gardens. Also the newly planted shade trees are noted in ronda de Tejares and paseo de la Victoria. It can also be noted that the Salud cemetery is not yet built.
As a fun fact, the map shows an inverted disposition so South is placed in the upper part of the map, that is why we see the Guadalquivir river where the mountains ought to be.