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Madinat al-Zahra - The Shining City

Madinat al-Zahra, a dazzling series of palaces full of treasures never seen before, lost for over 1000 years.

By Nick Nutter | Last Updated 9 May 2022 | Córdoba | Places To Go
Madinat al-Zahra

Madinat al-Zahra

Built for a Concubine

This is the story of a city, a story that could have been written for ‘The Arabian Nights’, a city that was built in 40 years, flourished for 40 years and then perished in flames and was forgotten for one thousand years. It was a city, legend has it, built for a woman – Azahara, the favourite concubine of the Caliph. It was a city built from scratch, the largest in Western Europe and was described by travelers from all over the known world as ‘a dazzling series of palaces full of treasures never seen before’.

The city is Madinat al-Zahra and it is situated just 8 kilometres from another shining example of Arabic splendour, Córdoba.

Abd ar-Rahman III

Madinat al-Zahra

Madinat al-Zahra

In 929 AD Abd ar-Rahman III declared himself ‘utterly independent’, the true Caliph (Prince of Believers – effectively ruler of the Islamic world) and direct descendant of the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyad dynasty had almost disappeared the previous century due to the predations of a rival dynasty, the Abbasids. Abd ar-Rahman’s declaration finally consolidated his power in the Iberian peninsula after seventeen years of conflict with rebels within the Moorish held lands and he thereafter turned his attention to wresting control of North Africa from the Fatimid dynasty.

A Statement Piece

Madinat al-Zahra

Madinat al-Zahra

It was time to make a statement to impress his legitimacy on the world and he did that by making a series of political, economic and ideological measures and by building a city.

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The Mosque

Madinat al-Zahra

Madinat al-Zahra

Building started between 936 and 940 on a 115 hectare site in the foothills of the Sierra Morena overlooking the Guadalquivir river just downstream of the city of Córdoba, then the centre of government. The mosque, which bore a close resemblance to the Great Mosque of Cordoba was consecrated in 941 and in 947 the government was transferred from Córdoba.

The Palace

Madinat al-Zahra

Madinat al-Zahra

The Palace area was completed by 945, in which year the Caliph took up residence. On the highest level of the city, overlooking the rest, it must have been a magnificent sight, finished with the finest materials and rich in carvings, shining white under the al-Andalus sun. The remaining part of the city was built and rebuilt a number of times and finished about 980.

The Shining City - Madinat al-Zahra

The Shining City was designed to function as the administrative centre of a country, think of the Houses of Parliament in the UK and the buildings associated and close to it, the Foreign Office, Treasury, Ministry of Defence and residences for the leaders in Downing Street. The city also housed a considerable number of troops and all the support staff required by a large working population, secretaries, cooks and servants. For relaxation there were bath houses and at least three large gardens. The whole was surrounded by a fortified wall. Some of the features of the city, such as the arranging of suites around a central courtyard or garden and the basilically roofed halls (as opposed to domes) were conceived for the first time and subsequently became established features of western Islamic architecture.

Death of Abd ar-Rahman and his Shining City

Abd ar-Rahman III died in 961 and was succeeded by his son Al-Hakam II who reigned until 976. During this period the palace complex was extended but soon after his death the city was inexplicably abandoned. In 1010, following a civil revolt, the citizens of Córdoba looted the abandoned city of all its treasures and burnt it to the ground. Much of the fine stonework was removed over the succeeding centuries and re-used locally in farm buildings and walls. Nature took over and the city was buried until its re-discovery in 1910. Interestingly, some of the artifacts from the ruined city ended up in the Alhambra in Granada, including a richly decorated watering trough that can now be seen in the Alhambra Museum.

Area open to Public

Today only about 10% of the city is excavated and open to the public. There is a very good museum in the valley below the site adjacent to the large car park from where you have to catch a bus to the site itself.

An Undiscovered City

As if one ‘lost city’ were not enough there is rumour and veiled references to a second, as yet undiscovered, second city, possibly in the vicinity of Madinat al-Zahra.

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When Al-Hakam II died in 976 an Arab of noble birth, Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir, was instrumental in making sure the twelve year old Hisham II was named as Caliph. He is also said to have destroyed Al-Hakam’s collection or library of ‘ancient science’ books. Two years later Hisham’s mother who was regent, appointed Abi Aamir to the position of Hajib, equivalent to a Vizier or Chancellor. To consolidate his power Abi Aamir is said to have built a palace between 978 and 981 to rival that of Madinat al-Zahra. Confusingly he is said to have called it Madinat al-Zahira. Its location is not known. Some say it was opposite Madinat al-Zahra to the west of Córdoba, some that it was on the eastern side of Córdoba. Ancient texts claim that Abi Aamir kept the young Hisham a virtual prisoner in his gilded palace effectively ruling al-Andalus in his place. This undiscovered city is supposed to have been razed at the same time as Madinat al-Zahra.

There is a reference to this second city, Madinat al-Zahira, in the archaeological museum at Córdoba but no mention of it at the museum at Madina al-Zahra. The staff at the Córdoba museum were asked if they could expand on the single mention of the name. The consensus seemed to be that a spelling mistake hundreds of years ago sparked off a rumour that grew into a myth that developed into a fact. A minority seemed to think that the second city was built and that it then became the seat of government, thus explaining the sudden abandonment of Madina al-Zahra around 980.

There are a few references in history books written much later after the event, but they could equally have been describing Madina al-Zahra or slavishly repeating previous mentions. The confusion between the two names continues. Even Wikipedia cross-references both spellings, and other travel writers and historians have felt free to use either one, adding to the confusion and mystery.

What UNESCO say about the Caliphate City of Medina Azahara

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. The remains of the city were forgotten for almost 1,000 years until their rediscovery in the early 20th century. This complete urban ensemble features infrastructure such as roads, bridges, water systems, buildings, decorative elements and everyday objects. It provides in-depth knowledge of the now vanished Western Islamic civilization of Al-Andalus, at the height of its splendour.

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Comments

  • DOMINIC Reimbold - 30 Jan 2021
    Gerat of you tho highlight this. So it seems that Al Mansur , according to texts ( Ibn Hayyan or Ibn Idarí) built Madinat Al-Zahira, ("Resplendent City" , 979-989 AD) in the east of the City, remains of which has yet to be located, and was said to surpass Madinat Al-Zahara (مدينة الزهراء) in the west. Following the slaughter of thousands of its occupants in the internecine warfare that laid it bare this was looted and its treasures carried away by the Cordoban inhabitants as were the remains of the Madinat Al-Zahira after another rebellion. so we are told....Since you are on the ground in Spain are you able to achse this one up more?
    • Nick Nutter - 31 Jan 2021
      Hi Dominic, thanks for the comment. I first went to Madinat Al Zahara in 2005 and followed that up with a visit to the museum in Cordoba. I noticed that some artefacts in the museum had an exhibit label stating the artefact was from Madinat Al-Zahira. I pointed this out to the curator and asked about this apparent discrepancy. We came to the conclusion that, Madinat Al Zahira is only mentioned in one Arabic text written at the time, by Ibn Hayyan, the original now lost. It turns out that the mention is actually in a translated copy of the original text and a simple translation error could have started the rumour. Mediaeval and Renaissance scribes were known to 'correct' copied text if they thought it was necessary to clarify a point or for political expediency. Over time and translations, the original message is lost. The oriiginal author of the exhibit labels made the same spelling error, compounding the rumour of a 'lost city'. A second explanation is that Ibn Hayyan was writing perhaps 20 years after the abandonment of Madinat Al Zahara. His political leanings were towards the Umayyads and he was no follower of Al Mansur. The section referring to Madinat Al Zahira could have been a hidden snub against the new regime, by then under Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar and Abd al-Rahman Sanchuelo, portraying the extravagant city as a grand folly that inevitably fell, in other words using allegory to forecast the eventual downfall of the Caliphate of Cordoba. Any direct criticism of either of those two would have seen Ibn Hayyan meeting an untimely end. On the ground as you put it. The area between Cordoba and Ballen to the east is thinly populated and rural. It is beautiful countryside, I could just imagine another 'Shining City' waiting to be discovered but I think it unlikely.
  • Brian Neale - 23 Jul 2019
    Very interesting article. As I am very interested in the Islamic history of Andalucia
    • Nick Nutter - 24 Jul 2019
      Thanks for the comment Brian. You should look at our articles on Granada and Cordoba as well.
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