Medina Azahara, the unknown treasure of Cordoba




Medina Azahara (In Arabic spoken as Madīnat az-Zahrā: literal meaning “the shining city”) is the ruins of a vast, fortified Moorish medieval palace-city built by Abd-ar-Rahman III (912–961), the first Umayyad Caliph of Córdoba, and located on the western outskirts of Cordoba. It was a medieval Moorish town and, de facto, capital of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, as the heart of the administration and government was within its walls.


This unique Historical Heritage has just become part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites this year 2018.

Built beginning in 936-940, the city included ceremonial reception halls, mosques, administrative and government offices, gardens, a mint, workshops, barracks, residences and baths. Water was supplied through aqueducts.


The main reason for its construction was political and ideological: the dignity of the Caliph required the establishment of a new city, a symbol of his power, imitating other Eastern Caliphates. It was built in Córdoba because it had been the capital of the region (Betis) in Roman times; this made it easier for the Emirate and Caliphate of Cordoba to rule, while they existed, over al-Andalus. Above all, it demonstrated his superiority over his great rivals, the Fatimids of Ifriqiya in Northern Africa, as well as the Abbasids in Baghdad. Legend also says it was built as a tribute for the Caliph’s favorite wife: Azahara.



The complex was extended during the reign of Abd ar-Rahman III’s son Al-Hakam II (r. 961-976), but after his death soon ceased to be the main residence of the Caliphs. In 1010 it was sacked in a civil war, and thereafter abandoned, with many elements re-used elsewhere. Its ruins were excavated starting from the 1910s. Only about 10 percent of the 112 hectares (0.43 sq mi) have been excavated and restored, but this area includes the central area, with “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”.


The Caliph Abd al-Rahman III was a great promoter of culture and a skillful politician who transformed his dominions into the most prosperous lands in the West at the time, comparable only with Baghdad and Byzantium. The city of Medina Azahara has a practically rectangular floor plan. It was built on raked terraces which made use of the slope of the mountainside. Each terrace was separated from the others by walls, which divided the city into three parts. The Alcázar Real palace is located on the highest and intermediate levels, while the lower part stood outside the walls and was used for dwellings and the mosque. There are still remnants of tiled borders, paintings and columns in the composite and Corinthian styles. Visitors should not miss a visit to the two recently restored rooms. It was declared a National Monument in 1923.


To conclude the visit, the archaeological site also has a visitor center which serves as a starting point for the tour. The center is located underground in the style of an archaeological site, and features a collection of exhibits from the most important periods in the history of Medina Azahara. The tour of the visitor center lasts about one hour and includes audiovisual shows, and continues with a visit to the archaeological site (which can be reached by bus from the same building).



The abandoned Caliphate City of Medina Azahara, being a new city planned and built as a state initiative, attests in an exceptional way to the Umayyad cultural and architectural civilization, and more generally to the development of the western Islamic civilization. The Caliphate City of Medina Azahara is an outstanding example of urban planning combining architectural and landscape approaches, the technology of urban infrastructure, architecture, decoration and landscape adaptation, illustrating the significant period of the 10th century CE when the Umayyad caliphate of Cordoba was proclaimed in the Islamic West.


The site includes the entire Caliphate city, and its buffer zone preserves the context of the city in its natural environment, as well as the remains of the main infrastructure of roads and canals that radiated from it. The quarries where the building material for the city was extracted and the major country villas (munya) have also survived in the buffer zone. Because the city remained hidden from the time of its destruction in the early 11th century CE to its rediscovery in the early 20th century CE, and since the area was used for grazing livestock, the remains are very well preserved. Only 10% of the site has been excavated and the remainder offers an exceptional opportunity for future research. As for the excavated part of the Qasr or fortified palace, continued excavation and conservation work has brought to light a set of well conserved buildings whose original walls reach a height of several meters.


The site meets the conditions of authenticity in relation to materials, design and location. As regards the authenticity of the materials, as noted most of the site has remained unchanged and hidden below ground. As for the excavated areas, the work of consolidation, made necessary by the fragility of the materials, has been progressing under the philosophy of minimal intervention, in order to ensure the stability of structures, protect them against the elements and conserve the information produced during the excavation process.


This policy of minimal intervention has ensured that any new additions clearly differ from, but also blend in with, the original. Identifying the original position of the different materials used in building the city has made this work possible. The authenticity of the site is also guaranteed by the conservation of its natural environment, where little has changed since the destruction of the city, except for a few small recent alterations. In addition, the descriptions of the buildings in a wide range of historical sources, the epigraphic evidence and the quality of research work carried out for over a century reinforce the authenticity of the site.


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