Medina Azahara

Caliphate City of Medina Azahara
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Salon Rico 1.jpg
Reception hall of Abd ar-Rahman III
LocationCórdoba, Andalusia
Inscription2018 (42nd Session)
Coordinates37°53′17″N 4°52′01″W / 37°53′17″N 4°52′01″W / 37.888; -4.867
Medina Azahara is located in Spain
Medina Azahara
Location of Medina Azahara in Spain
House of Ya'far
Pórtico de Medina Azahara

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

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.[1]

The main reason for its construction was politico-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.[2] 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".[3] A new museum on the edge of the site has been built low, with much of the space underground, to minimize disruption to the views of the landscape from the ruins, which are also beginning to be affected by modern housing.[4]

On July 1, 2018, the site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site with the inscription name "Caliphate City of Medina Azahara".[5]


Located 4 miles (6.4 km) west of Córdoba in the foothills of the Sierra Morena, oriented north-to-south on the slopes of Jabal al-Arus (meaning Bride Hill), and facing the valley of the Guadalquivir river, is Madinat az-Zahra, billed as the Versailles of the Middle Ages. It was chosen for its outstanding landscape values, allowing a hierarchical construction program so the city and the plains beyond its feet were physically and visually dominated by the buildings of the fortress.

There was also a quarry of limestone, used for the primary construction, though other stones from an area 50 km around were also used.[6] The city's construction led to a road, water and supply infrastructure partly preserved until today in the form of remains of roads, quarries, aqueducts and bridges.

The topography played a decisive role in shaping the city. Taking full advantage of the uneven terrain, the palace city of Madinat az-Zahra was distributed in three terraces. Unlike the labyrinthine and chaotic character typical of Muslim urbanism, the site of the city adopted a rectangular shape comprising an area of 112 hectares. It extended 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) per side from east to west and about 750 metres (2,460 ft) from north to south, just warped on the north side by the need to adapt to the difficult topography of the terrain.

Its location in the foothills of Sierra Morena made it possible to design an urban program in which the location and physical relationships between the various constructions were expressive of the role of each in the setting. The palace was located at a higher level, and staggered its buildings along the side of the mountain in an expression of clear preeminence over the urban hamlets and the Aljama Mosque spread across the plains below. Following the terraces, the first corresponds to the residential area of the caliph, next comes the official area including the houses of the viziers, the guard-room, administrative offices and gardens. Next is the city proper, with housing, crafts, and the great mosque of the two lower terraces separated by another wall in order to isolate the upper palace complex. Archaeological research[citation needed] has revealed an urban morphology characterized by the existence of large areas of undeveloped land, which serves to empty the entire southern front of the fortress, ensuring privacy and maintaining an open, idyllic country landscape. The only spaces built on the lowest level are two broad bands: the western, with an urban management orthogon, and the eastern, with less rigid planning.

There were two complexes outside but close by the city, one a large villa at the centre of a large agricultural estate, later given to the state treasurer. The other, Turruñuelos, was a huge rectangular building, perhaps a barracks.[7]