Madinat al-Zahra was declared a UNESCO world heratige site on 1st July 2018
We are in the year 400 of the Hegira, 1010 AD of our era. On the southern slopes of Jebel al-Arus, the Bride's Mountain, the marble, jasper and precious metals of the city of Madinat al-Zahra gleam in the morning sun among silver-leafed olive groves.
Bronze griffins, lions and horses pour mountain water into thousands of marble fountains. In the shade of cypresses and palm trees and around huge reception halls, dream gardens form multi-coloured carpets, mixing myrtle and rosemary, oleanders and tuberoses, lilies and roses. From the caliph's palace, located on the highest of the three terraces, the view extends over the whole Wadi al-Kabir valley and, in the far distance, five kilometres to the east, the large city of Cordoba can be seen.
But today the scene lacks the usual movement of thousands of civil servants who, until recently, controlled the whole of the administration of Muslim Spain. Succession in the caliphate is not clear and al-Zahra is deeply involved in the violence of a civil war. The city is occupied by rebellious troops of Berber mercenaries. Soldiers camp out in the plush reception halls. Their horses drink from the marble fountains. But they are not going to enjoy the luxuries of palace life for very long. A mob has come from nearby Cordoba and bellows at the gates of the forbidden city claiming their share of the booty. It is not long before the troops react. The first spark ignites. What the fire did not burn at the time was systematically plundered during the course of the following centuries by the Muslims themselves and then by the Christians. In the fifteenth century, Madinat al-Zahra lost even the memory of its name when it came to be called 'Cordoba la Vieja' (the Old Cordoba). Little by little, the ruins became buried under the mud which winter rains dragged from the mountainside. The more time passed, the more scholars developed serious doubts about the texts which spoke of its splendour, deeming them to be mere products of the imagination of their authors. When the first excavations began in 1910, only a few visible stones were left. In 936 of the Christian era, a few years after Abd al-Rahman III had proclaimed himself caliph, he decided to establish a prudent distance between the court and the turbulent population of the Cordobese capital. In the region west of the city where traditionally the mighty had established their country houses since Roman times, he founded a town which would eventually represent the very centre of power.
It took Abd al-Rahman twenty-five years to build Madinat al-Zahra. The city existed for merely sixty-five years. For nine centuries it slept, forgotten beneath a hard dirt cover. Following eighty years of restoration work, about one tenth of the medina has been excavated, representing one third of the upper terrace: the noble part which houses the alcazar with the caliph's palace and the most important dignitaries' houses, together with the government bodies and military buildings. On the middle terrace, only the mosque has been excavated. The souk was also at this level, together with many gardens with pools, fountains and cages housing wild animals and exotic birds. The lower terrace was devoted to infantry and cavalry housing.
VISIT Madinat al-Zahra today
To visit Madinat al-Zahra today does not mean entering an archaeological site where imagination has to make up for lack of volume. In al-Zahra, the huge amount of fragments found over many years of excavation made the experts seriously consider the question of how to present them. A museum would have meant metres and metres of display cabinets. Finally, it was decided to assemble the pieces of each palace over huge models at a scale of 1:1. This enable today's visitors to perfectly visualise the setting for the tales of chroniclers and poets of the caliphate's time.
Entering through the northern gate, at the highest level of the site, we immediately start to go down towards the Dar al-Yund, the Army house, also called the Viziers' house and one of the large reception halls of the city. Following the recommended direction, we keep going down towards a huge portico where our first meeting with history is going to take place. Ibn Hayyan, one of Cordoba's chancellors in the eleventh century, tells us how Leon's Christian King Ordono IV, was received here in 962. He arrived with his retinue at the gate of the upper terrace situated near the large portico. There the official route started. The Muslim guard, with their superb parade uniforms, lined up on the stone benches which still border the walls of the sloping streets. The king went up to the Viziers' House where he climbed down from his horse and rested for a time before continuing on foot up to another hall where the caliph waited for him. When he came back to the Viziers' House, he found a marvellous Arab thoroughbred with a splendidly worked harness instead of a horse.
We also know that the patio which lies in front of this hall which is today planted as a garden, was really a very large terrace completely paved over with marble. This had been polished until its surface resembled a large stretch of water in the manner of many Oriental palaces, in memory of the legend of the first visit of the Queen of Saba to King Solomon. Crossing a large esplanade where the ground was so polished that it seemed wet, the queen had lifted her skirt slightly. It was then discovered that, far from being cloven footed, as rumour had it, she had very pretty little feet. Once the spell was broken, the romance related by the 'Song of Songs' flourished.
But the most impressive part of Madinat al-Zahra is certainly Abd al-Rahman III's Hall where we enter next, after passing through a terrace which dominates the ruins of the mosque. The decoration of this hall is of such ornamental richness that one of the names given to it by archaeologists in the Rich Hall. Its restoration began in 1949 and involved almost total reconstruction using the materials which where found in situ. It was the setting for the rare occasions on which the caliph presented himself to the main civil servants and politicians of the caliphate. As secular witnesses of great Cordoba of the caliphate, destroyed three centuries before the Alhambra in Granada started to be built, the whole of Madinat al-Zahra, together with Abd al-Rahman's Hall fill visitors with wonder. If you like touching the essence of myths with your finger, go and see them. You will not be disappointed.
This article was first published in the Andalucia Magazine.
Tuesday - Saturday: 10:00 - 20:30
Sunday: 10:00 - 14:00
Entrance is free if you are a resident of the EU, otherwise there is a EUR 1.50 charge.
CAR PARKING AND VISITORS CENTRE
There is ample car parking. The visitors centre is located at the bottom of the hill and frequent shuttle but transports you up the hill to the site entrance.
Madinat al-Zahra is difficult to get to by public transport. If you are not part of a guided tour and dont have you own car, there is a twice daily (Tue to Sun) dedicated bus (yellow with big red letters on side) service from the city centre to the site is available and costs 8.50 € or 4.25 € children (5-12 years) or a pensioner for the return journey to and from the Madinat al-Zahra and a guidebook of the monument. The duration of the journey is around 25 minutes and it departs from only two bus stops on the Paseo de la Victoria (opposite the Roman Mausoleum and also at the Red Cross Hospital Roundabout). Bus tickets must be purchased in advance online or as part of a guided tour.
The summer bus times (departing from Cordoba city centre) are as follows:
Tuesday – Sunday: 10:15 hrs returning at 13:30 hrs and at 11:00 hrs returning at 14.15 hrs
On Saturdays and in Summer there is an additional service in the afternoon)
This information is correct as of March 2015