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Tourists flock to what was once the Versailles of the Middle Ages


by Rose Maramba

The Caliphate City of Medina Azahara has just made it to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, placing Spain the third out of a total of 167 counties around the world with the highest number of inscribed sites, next only to China and Italy. The Caliphate City is Spain’s  46th site. According to the archeologist Alberto Montejo, Director of the Medina Azahara complex, said inscription will help maintain the site for generations.

After prospering for several years, the Caliphate  City was laid to waste by civil war

For its part, UNESCO notes: “There are two planning instruments which have been developed and implemented to different degrees (the programmes of the Special Protection Plan and the Master Plan), which provide a solid basis for strategic guidelines to guarantee that Medina Azahara continues to be protected and appreciated.

“The expected long-term results for management are to consolidate and increase human and budgetary resources for management, consolidating the public institution with its technical expertise as the main instrument for managing the site, providing it with greater functional autonomy and encouraging greater participation and coordination with other agencies and interested parties.”

The amazing archaeological site of Medina Azahara’s official name is “Caliphate City of Medina Azahara”. Its brief description is as follows: “The Caliphate city of Medina Azahara is an archaeological site of a city built in the mid-10th century CE by the Umayyad dynasty as the seat of the Caliphate of Cordoba. After prospering for several years, it was laid to waste during the civil war that put an end to the Caliphate in 1009-1010.” (UNESCO’s broader description here .)

Madinat al-Zahra, better known as Medina Azahara, is in Cordoba. Since July this year, it keeps company with the other World Heritage Sites in the place: the Great Mosque, the Historic Centre, and the Patios, inscribed on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Cordoba is the Spanish city with the highest number of Heritage Sites.

The Shining City

Panoramic view of the Medina Azahara complex.

Medina Azahara, literally “the shining city,” was once a vast, fortified Moorish medieval palace-city built by Abd-ar-Rahman III (912–961), the first Umayyad Caliph of Cordoba. It’s in the foothills of the Sierra Morena 4 miles (6.4 km) west of Cordoba, Spain.  Abd-ar-Rahman had chosen the spot with the view to hierarchical construction that allowed the buildings to visually and physically dominate the panorama.

Construction began in 936 AD using cutting-edge technology. Though it took some four decades to complete, the initial construction was quick. By 945 the Caliph was in residence and in 947-948 he had moved his government and entire court to the shining seat of his caliphate.

The city flourished for some 80 years. At the height of its splendor, its population reached 25,000. Then it was pillaged in 1010 and burned down during the civil war which saw the Caliphate broken into various kingdoms (taifas). The war effectively wiped the city off the map for a millennium, with many of its elements re-used in constructions elsewhere.

However, some of the extant rooms testify to the extravagance and luxury of this mythical city known as the Versailles of the Middle Ages, a dazzling series of palaces full of treasures never seen before, as awed travelers from northern Europe and from the East would gush about. It was the largest known city in Western Europe built practically in one go, the most beautiful Islamic monument in Al-Andalus, the territory controlled by the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th to the 11th century.

Renwick McLean of The New York Times pointed out in August 2005 that “to hear historians tell”, the Medina Azahara was  “teeming with treasures that dazzled the most jaded traveler or world-weary aristocrat…Pools of mercury could be shaken to spray beams of reflected sunlight across marble walls and ceilings of gold… Doors carved of ivory and ebony led to sprawling gardens full of exotic animals and sculptures made of amber and pearls…”

The city boasted ceremonial reception halls, mosques, administrative and government offices, gardens, a mint, workshops, barracks, residences and baths. Water was supplied through aqueducts.

Rediscovered in the early twentieth century, it is the largest archaeological complex in Spain, covering 113 hectares (0.43 sq mi). The excavation of its ruins started in the 1910s. But after all this time, only about 10 percent of its area has been excavated and restored.  Luckily, this is the central area and includes “two caliphal residences, with associated bath complexes, two aristocratic residences, and service quarters … spaces associated with the palace guard; some large administrative buildings … the extraordinary court complex presided over by the reception hall … the great garden spaces and, just outside this area, the congregational mosque,” per the office of the Medina Azahara Archeological Complex.

Myth & Reality

Depiction of the court of Abd al-Rahman III by Spanish painter Dionisio Baixeras Verdaguer (1862-1943)

Legend has it that Abd-ar-Rahman built his Shining City as a tribute to his favorite concubine, Al Zahra. But more likely, what drove the Caliph to build so magnificently was politics. In 929, Abd ar-Rahman declared himself the true Caliph (Prince of Believers) and descendant of the Umayyad dynasty which had nearly been completely exterminated by the Abbasids in the 9th century. The dignity of the Caliph made it imperative to create a new city to symbolize his power and demonstrate his superiority over his formidable rivals, the Fatimids in Northern Africa and the Abbasids in Baghdad. Significantly, Abd-ar-Rahman ordered the construction of the city upon consolidating his political power in Al-Andalus and conflict between him and the Fatimid dynasty for the control of North Africa had erupted.

Renwick McLean observed: Abd al-Rahman III “envisioned it as a showcase of the virtues of Al Andalus and as an affirmation of his claim that he was the true caliph of the Muslim world. As the ruler of what was then one of the world’s wealthiest civilizations, Rahman not only stocked the city’s main palace with luxuries but also turned it into a bustling emporium of musicians, astronomers, poets, doctors, botanists and mathematicians, historians say.”

Pillaged by greed

Medina Azahara. More photos.

The excavation and restoration of Medina Azahara continue, subject to funding by the Spanish government. It is quite lamentable, though, that the unexcavated portion is threatened by the illegal housing construction. Between 1995 and 2003 alone, the national daily El País reported that the Department of Culture of Cordoba (Delegación de la Consejería de Cultura en Córdoba) referred 347 complaints of illegal construction to the City Hall.

A tourist Mecca

Together with the Great Mosque, Medina Azahara is Cordoba’s major tourist attraction, both being eloquent evidence of the magnificence of the Islamic legacy in Al-Andalus. 1.3 million visitors flock there every year.

Tickets: Accredited EU citizens: free; others: €1.50








Featured image/Tom via Flickr, CC By2.0
“Caliphate  City laid to waste”/JvL via Flickr CC BY2.0
Aerial view of the Medina Azahara/Jorge Cancela, CC BY2.0, Flickr
Painting of Abd al-Rahman’s court, PD
Medina Azahara horseshoe arches/Jocelyn Erkine Kelly via Flickr, CC BY2.0