Visit Medina Azahara – the old Caliphate city

travellers admiring Medina Azahara

There’s already a queue when we arrive at the bus stop on a main thoroughfare in Cordoba. From here an official tourist transport starts twice a day to visit Medina Azahara, a UNESCO-listed Moorish palace town built in the 10th century.

After a 20 minutes’ drive the bus stops at the visitor centre of Medina Azahara in the green countryside outside of Cordoba. Storks are nesting in the trees and on electricity poles everywhere. The Caliph has chosen a beautiful spot for his town.

storks nesting near Medina Azahara in the Cordoba region

A glitzy new town for the Caliph

First, we have a look into the informative on-site museum to get a better understanding of the history of Medina Azahara. Judging from the reconstructions and the artefacts, Medina Azahara must have been a majestic sight in the few years of its existence. It was the first Muslim Caliph of Cordoba, Abd ar-Rahmann III, who built this new city just outside his capital of Cordoba. A descendant of the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus, he was the most powerful of the Moorish rulers in Andalusia. By the 10th century, the Arab conquerors of Andalusia had consolidated their rule on the Spanish peninsula. There they controlled a large and prosperous domain.

Moorish designs of the Andalusian Umayyads

At that time, Cordoba was one of the largest cities in Europe. Abd ar-Rahman III had declared himself Caliph – the rightful and only successor of the prophet Muhammad and leader of the Islamic world. To show off his newly heightened status, mainly towards contenders in Fatimid Egypt, he planned a glitzy new residential town. He called it Medinat Az-Zahra, Flower City, probably in honour of his favourite concubine. Only later the Spanish name became Medina Azahara, easier to pronounce for non-Arab speakers.

From 936, thousands of workers and artists were busy constructing palaces and gardens, mosques and administrative buildings, as well as living quarters for courtiers and lowly townspeople alike. Less than a century later, the Caliphate was overturned, and the town sacked and looted.

Moorish arches in Medina Azahara

Wonderful finds from Medina Azahara in the museum

So far, archaeologists excavated only a tiny part of Medina Azahara. Since the start of excavations in the early 20th century only about 12% of Abd ar-Rahman’s palace have come to light! And far less of all the other buildings.

In the museum at the Medina Azahara visitor centre, we see decorative materials such as marble panels, intricately carved stone slabs, and beautiful floral capitals. Many more of these capitals and artefacts, however, were looted and reused elsewhere after the destruction of Medina Azahara. Some capitals later turned up as far away as Rabat in Morocco! And a few days later we recognize the uniquely carved capitals of Medina Azahara in the Giralda tower in Sevilla.

Fatimid ceramics in the visitor centre

Also in the museum are finds from the excavations such as lustre ceramics. The technique came from Fatimid Egypt (the enemy), of all places! The archaeologists also found several sundials and astronomical instruments. These testify to the Andalusians’ efforts to determine the exact direction towards Mekka. The Great Mosque of Medina Azahara is therefore the first in Andalusia with the correct orientation towards Mekka.

Exploring the ruins of Medina Azahara

Virst overview during the visit of Medina Azahara

Another shuttle bus brings us to the actual excavation area of Medina Azahara. From the bus stop outside the northern and uppermost walls of the former town area we have a good view over the site. The settlement has a rectangular plan. The palace and administrative buildings are on the top terraces, the Mosque slightly below, and other town areas further down the slope. Visible ruins cover only the top quarter of the area, beyond that we see grazing cows and some farm buildings. Still a lot to do for the archaeologists.

Administrative buildings with moorish arches in Medina Azahara

A signposted visitor route leads along the defensive walls, through some stables and utility rooms, and to a large administrative area. The bureaucrat’s offices with large, coloured horseshoe arches and garden views are quite impressive. A bit further on, we pass a lavish house which the scientists think belonged to the Caliph’s vizier, Ğa’far.

Horseshoe arches in the house of the vizier

The famous mosque and the beautiful Salon Rico are off-limits

Along the signposted route we don’t get to see the Great Mosque or what is left of it after all. And the same goes for the famous reconstructed “Salon Rico” palace hall. Historians and archaeologists are not sure of the function of this room yet. But presumably it was used as a representative reception hall for ambassadors. Apparently, the Caliph had installed a shallow bowl of mercury in the room, with different light beams falling on its glittery surface. After all, mercury may be highly toxic as we learned in the Idriya Mines, but its fantastic fluid silver texture is absolutely captivating! The Caliph could signal a slave to rock the bowl a little at strategic points in the conversation. The surface ripples would then produce stroboscopic light effects and disconcert his unsuspecting visitors.

Unfortunately, the route only allows a glimpse from above on the roofs covering the excavations of the Salon Rico and the mosque.

Kitchens and toilets of the Medina Azahara palace town

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Eventually, we move up again through courtyards and various remnants of buildings. A round tandoor-style oven is still visible, and so are the simple latrines in some small corner chambers.

Just in time, we reach the shuttle bus bringing us back to the visitor centre. Joining our fellow travellers again, we take the bus back to Cordoba. After all, our total time allowance for Medina Azahara including the visitor centre was just three hours.

Should you visit Medina Azahara?

Despite some of the top excavations being inaccessible, we found our visit to Medina Azahara quite impressive. Although much of its splendour was destroyed or looted thousand years ago, what is left is still stunning. Compared to the sparse Umayyad remains in the Middle East, such as Anjar in Lebanon, Medina Azahara is quite impressive. The beautiful carvings in the museum were unique and surprisingly distinct. We recognized them later in different other sites around Andalusia. And to think that the Andalusian Caliphs built all this from scratch in a few decades leaves us speechless.

In the house of the vizier

How to visit Medina Azahara

The entrance to Medina Azahara – both the excavations and the visitor centre – is free for European citizens. There is a parking space at the visitor centre, and you can walk or take the shuttle bus (for a fee) to the excavations. However, if you are not travelling by car, the site is only accessible walking 2 km from the nearest train station. Therefore, Cordoba tourism offers a daily bus service specifically for visitors to the archaeological site with fixed departure and arrival times. This gives you around 3 hours to visit Medina Azahara. The return ticket was 9 € (including the shuttle bus) when we visited in January 2022. We found the time we had to explore Medina Azahara slightly too short.

NB: We were not sponsored for this travel blog article. We paid all expenses related to our Medina Azahara visit ourselves.

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    1. Dear Donnamarie, Medina Azahara is not really remote. It is just oustside the city of Cordoba. I guess it always pays to look a little further than the obvious must-sees in any destination.

  1. I adore people like The Caliph who had visions in building a town, from choosing a location and where to build this and that. From the ruins, Medina Azahara looks so impressive. I can’t imagine how Medina looks like when the excavation works reveals more of the city.

    1. Dear Umiko, yes, the excavated parts are already very impressive. But I think the archeologists started the excavation at the site of the palace, the official quarters and the residences of high ranking persons.

  2. Wow what an incredible structure to see, and though in ruins, its Moorish past is visible. It’s cool that it’s free for European citizens (yay!). I really thought this was Morocco at first sight, it’s very Arabic influenced!

    1. Dear Lisa, as written in the post the people who built it came from the Middle East and were Muslims. So the Arabic influence is not surprising! If you have the chance to visit – I am sure you will enjoy it!

  3. What fabulous ruins, the architecture is such a great mix of Moorish/Arabic, it looks like a hidden gem but not too far from the bustling city of Cordoba. A great side trip away from the landmarks in the city.

  4. Such an informative read! It makes me think how leaders back then were so strategic and how forward they were with their thinking. Museums and histories are two of my favorite things. I admire how distinctive the structures are, despite the fact that they’ve been abandoned.

  5. I love visiting outdoor museums such as this one. A window into the past to learn how life would have once been. Seeing the former kitchens and bathrooms would be interesting. Great place for photography too.

  6. That’s quite a site. I could imagine the Caliph in Europe, quite a contrast actually. But the excavation sure brought out some amazing facts. I will certainly keep this on my wish list now. The pillars resemble the pillars of Delhi’s famous shopping area Connaught Place.

    1. Medina Azhara is a remarkable Caliphate site with prolific remains of it’s rich Islamic architecture. The intricately carved stone slabs and floral capitals speak volumes about the once prominent Moorish culture.It was interesting to read about the shallow bowl of mercury releasing stroboscopic light effects.

  7. When we visited Cordoba we found so much to see and do that we were busy for our whole stay. But if we get back, we would definitely plan to visit the Medina Azahara. I find it fascinating to see the set of Moorish arches still standing. And it will be interesting to see all that is discovered as it is excavated more. Good tip about taking the daily tourism bus.

  8. Looks like a really cool museum to visit for history buffs. I am intrigued to read that the palace loots were found as far away as Morocco in later days.

  9. This is so fascinating! I am headed to Spain for a conference in June, and hope to make it up to Cordoba. If so, I would love to see these ruins with my own eyes. I love the detailed artwork on the buildings. It’s sad that this magnificent structure was destroyed so soon after it was created! I especially like the story of the bowl of mercury placed in the palace hall – I can just imagine the light beams ricocheting around the space!

    1. Dear Jackie, the top highlight in Cordoba is of course the Mezquita. For the city of Cordoba you will need one day, but if you have a few hours more, Medina Azahara is really worth the trip!

  10. What a lovely discovery. I did not know of this unusual destination and I wonder why. There are so many interesting facets to it. Like the whole bit about mercury bowls. The carvings are very Islamic indeed – we see similar ones in the Mughal architecture in India like the Agra Fort.

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