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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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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