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Islam in Spain 2

Islamic Influence in Andalucía: Part 2

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Part II - Madinat Al-Zahra - The "Shining City".

Also see Islamic Influence in Andalucia: Part 1

by John Dunworth

Abd ar-Rhaman III surveyed the rich, fertile land of the Guadalquivir valley. He had just left the Great Mosque founded by his ancestor, Abd ar-Rahman I, having given thanks to God for blessing him and his subjects with this land and what they had achieved here. Here, they had founded the Mosque, which he was even now extending further, they had established the University - a seat of great learning - and built beautiful houses and palaces with shady patios against the summer heat.

Even so, he was not satisfied. This is a great city, he thought, and it suited my ancestors well as Emirs of al-Andalus but now I have made myself Caliph of all Islam I need something finer still. As he gazed across the valley, his eyes strayed to the hills opposite. There would be the place, in the foothills, protected from the north by the hills and giving fine views over the river and valley back towards Córdoba, which would give an early warning of any enemy attack.

The sky shines above the remains of the shining city.
Image by FR Antunes

The founding of Madinat al-Zahra.

So it was, in 936, that construction started in the foothills of the Sierra Morena, from which the stone was also extracted. Roads were built to carry the stone from the quarries and to connect the new city to Cordoba. Aquaducts to supply fresh water from springs in the hills and bridges to cross the rivers were constructed. With a recorded 10,000 labourers working on the project, the Caliph and his retinue were able to move there in 946, although construction continued for a further fifteen years until the death of Abd ar-Rahman III.

Madinat al-Zahra was a magnificent city. In addition to the local stone, marble was brought in from Almeria, as well as ivory, ebony and metals, including iron, gold and silver. The best architects were brought from Bagdad and Constantinople. The columns and red and white striped arches echoed the Grand Mosque of Cordoba. There were gardens and fish ponds, areas to hold court and accommodation for guards, court officials and ministers, as well as the Caliph's palace.

Use was made of the natural slope of the foothills, which was terraced into three levels so that the Alcazar, containing the Royal suite, was built at the highest level, then the areas for holding court and government, at the middle level, the gardens and fish ponds, which can be seen towards the top right of the picture, taken from the upper level. The lowest level held the Mosque. This extensive excavation is one of the most important mediaeval archaeological sites in Europe and one of the largest although only about ten per cent of the total site has so far been uncovered.

The Upper Area - The Alcázar.

Islam in Spain.

Here was the Palace of the Caliph, with the rooms arranged around courtyards. To one side was the guardhouse, from where the soldiers could protect the Caliph and control access to the private rooms. Nearby was the residence of a high ranking official, the "House of Ya'far". This is relatively well preserved and it can be seen that it was divided into private, service and official areas. To the left of the area shown in the foreground of the picture (the east, geographically) were the servants quarters and kitchen with a preserved oven.

Further east, was the entrance to the Alcázar, a row of arches which gave onto the parade ground. From a balcony, the Caliph could watch his troops parade below or carry out formal ceremonies.

The Central level - the Salón Califal and Gardens.

Throne room

The Salón de Abd ar-Rahman III is one of the most impressive buildings on the site, albeit much restored. This was the Throne Room of the Caliph, and where he would have carried out the affairs of state. The decorations here were lavish to impress the visitors. Only the finest materials were used in its construction and here again were the marble pillars, the characteristic horseshoe shaped arches, the walls covered with stone carved with Islamic designs. (When the other materials were robbed from the site, the thieves obviously had no use for this decoration, for tons of these facing blocks can be find all round the site, as well as in the site Museum.) In the centre of the hall stood a huge bowl of mercury, which, when rocked by a slave, would send reflections flashing around the walls and arches (obviously no H&S officials there then!) This magnificent hall opened up onto the gardens, arranged in the form of a cross. In the centre was another building, described as a pavilion, and around this were the four ponds.

The Lower Level - The Mezquita Aljama.

This was located on the lowest level and was outside the city walls. The Caliph had his own private, covered passageway to access it from within the walls. Its design echoed that of the Great Mosque of Córdoba, complete with red and white striped arches, although unlike its "big sister" it faced Mecca. Sadly, all that remains are the foundations and the lower part of the outer walls, the rest having been stolen to construct other buildings, including the nearby monastery.

Construction on the cheap!

This was the fate of all of Madinat al-Zahra. Its glory was short-lived. The destruction started in 1010 when the berber troops of Sulayman al-Mustain attacked and burnt the city. From then on, it was a ready source of building materials for anyone and everyone and the columns and ashlars were spread far and wide, used in the construction of churches and palaces. This sorry state of affairs was finally put to an end in 1911 when excavation of the site was begun. This still carries on now and there is a vast amount still to do.

Visits to the site

A visit is very much recommended if you are in the area. There are buses to the site from the centre of Córdoba which you book at the tourist information. The visitor centre is excellent and equipped with a cinema and museum. The cinema shows a half hour film in which virtual reality is used to show how the city would have looked. You see the site as it is today and then the walls are extended upwards to show how the building would have looked, even populated with soldiers and other people.

In the excellent museum are some of the better examples of the bas relief decoration and in here is the connection to Doha. A bronze deer is exhibited here - and its twin is in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.

I remembered seeing this in Doha and asked the curator how that had come about. He was very interested to hear I had seen it in Doha but could not tell me how it had come to be there.

Incidentally the visitor centre won the Aga Khan prize for architecture and was opened by the King and Queen of Spain. It is half buried and so does not intrude on the site.

The "Shining City" may not be gleaming any more, but you can still get an idea of how magnificent it once was and some idea of the artistry of the Islamic craftsmen.

The Islamic Museum in Doha
John found a surprising connection with another Islamic building - the Museum Islamic Arts in Qatar. Image by Ammar.


Cordoba attractions map

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