10th century splendour unearthed in Spain
It's been under the excavator's trowel for almost a hundred years and shortlisted for the 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. But it has always been eclipsed by its famous neighbour, the magnificent cathedral of Cordoba. A few kilometres to the west, is the Madinat al Zahra or "shining city" built in the 10th century as the exquisite political stage for the Caliph Abd Al Rahman III. He had conquered most of north Africa and the Iberian peninsula in battle and wanted his might reflected in the innovative grandeur of his new capital Madinat al Zahra, at the time revolutionising architecture and design. Sylvia Smith visited archaeologists working on the Madinat al Zahra site in Spain.
Al Madinah al-Zahra (Arabic: المدينهُ الزهراء Madinah al-Zahra) was an Arab Muslim medieval town located about 5 kilometers from Córdoba, Spain. Its ruins were excavated starting from the 1910s. Only about 10 percent of the 112 sites have been excavated and restored.
HistoryThe city, which flourished for approximately 80 years, had been built by caliph Abd ar-Rahman III of Córdoba starting between 936 and 940. After he had proclaimed himself caliph in 928, establishing the independent Umayyad Caliphate in the west, he decided to show his subjects and the world his power by building a palace-city 5 km from Córdoba. The largest known city built from scratch in Western Europe, would be described by travelers from northern Europe and from the East as a dazzling series of palaces full of treasures never seen before. Around 1010, Madinat al-Zahra was sacked during the civil war that led to the dissolution of the Caliphate of Cordoba. The raid effectively wiped the city off the map for a millennium.
Popular legend holds that the Caliph named al-Zahra, or Azahara, after his favorite concubine, and that a statue of a woman stood over the entrance. Others, imagining his demanding lover, say that he built this new city just to please her. The truth, however, has probably more to do with politics than love. Abd ar-Rahman III ordered the construction of this city at a time when he had just finished consolidating his political power in the Iberian Peninsula and was entering into conflict with the Fatimid dynasty for the control of North Africa. Zahara means 'shining, radiant or blossoming' in Arabic: the name communicates aspirations of power and status, not romantic love. Al-Zahra is the most common title for the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad's, Fatimah al-Zahra. Fatima is the female progenitor of all Shia Imams after the first, Ali, to whom she was married. As such, the Fatimid Shia dynasty of North Africa, adorned many buildings and even towns with her name. A female scholar in her own right, her title al-Zahra (the brilliant) was given to the oldest functioning university in the world, the al-Az'har/al-Azhar university in Cairo in AD 968, built by the Fatimids. The Umayyads' ambitions in North Africa could well explain the usage of the name for the new city to rival the Fatimids' influence there through Islamic/Shia religious iconography.
In 929 Abd al-Rahman III declared himself utterly independent, 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. He brought about a series of political, economic and ideological measures to impress upon the world his legitimacy. A new capital city, fitting of his status, was one of those measures. He decided to build the city in 936 and the construction time was about forty years. The Mosque at the site was consecrated in 941 and in 947 the government was transferred from Córdoba.
In 2005 it was described by the American newspaper The New York Times as follows:
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..."What is visible of the ruins of Madinat al-Zahra today is only 10% of its extension. The 112 hectare-urb was no mere pleasure palace for weekend excursions, but the effective capital of al-Andalus, the territory controlled by the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula from the beginning of the 8th century to the middle of the 11th. The magnificent white city, built in steps into the hillside at the base of the Sierra Morena with the Caliph's palace at the highest point, was designed to be seen by his subjects and foreign ambassadors for kilometers. Abd ar-Rahman III moved his entire court to Medina Azahara in 947-48.
With time the entire city was buried, not to be unearthed until 1911. Excavation and restoration continues, depending upon funding by the Spanish government. The unexcavated portion, however, is threatened by the illegal construction of housing. According to the New York Times, "The local government in Córdoba, he said, has failed to enforce a law passed 10 years ago that expanded protections for the site against development... Construction companies are putting up houses on the site of the city, 90 percent of which remains unexcavated." 
Artistically, the Medina Azahara played a great role in formulating a distinct Andalusian Islamic architecture. Many of its features, such as basilical royal reception halls (as contrasted with domed ones in the eastern part of the Islamic world) are here conceived for the first time. Other features, such as the arranging of the suites of rooms around a central courtyard or garden, are echoed throughout western Islamic architecture, for example as late as in the Alhambra. The Mosque of Medina Azahara bears close resemblance to the Great Mosque of Córdoba; it has been called its "little sister"
- ^ O'Callaghan, Joseph F., A History of Medieval Spain, Cornell University Press, 1975, Cornell Paperback 1983, p. 132
- ^ Barrucand, Marianne & Bednorz, Achim, Moorish Architecture in Andalusia, Taschen, 2002, p. 61
- ^ a b McLean, Renwick (2005-08-16). "Growth in Spain Threatens a Jewel of Medieval Islam". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/16/international/europe/16spain.html?_r=1&oref=slogin. Retrieved 2010-05-12.
- ^ Barrucand, Marianne; Achim Bednorz (2002). Moorish Architecture in Andalusia. Taschen. p. 64.
- Barrucand, Marianne; Achim Bednorz (2002). Moorish Architecture in Andalusia. Taschen.