Lonely Planet review
West of Córdoba stand the remains of Madinat al-Zahra, the sumptuous palace-city built by Caliph Abd al-Rahman III in the 10th century. Located at the foot of the Sierra Morena, the complex spills down over three terraces with the caliph’s palace on the highest terrace overlooking what would have been the court and town. A fascinating new museum has been installed at the base of the site.
Legend has it that Abd al-Rahman III built Madinat al-Zahra for his favourite wife, Az-Zahra. Dismayed by her homesickness and yearning for the snowy mountains of Syria, he surrounded his new city with almond and cherry trees, replacing snowflakes with fluffy white blossoms. More realistically, it was probably the case that Abd al-Rahman’s rivalry with the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad drove him to build an opulent royal complex outside Córdoba. Building started in AD 936 and chroniclers record some staggering construction statistics: 10,000 labourers set 6000 stone blocks a day, with outer walls extending 1518m west to east and 745m north to south.
It is almost inconceivable to think that such a city, built over 40 years, was only to last a mere 30 more before the usurper Al-Mansur transferred the seat of government to a new palace complex of his own in AD 981. Then, between 1010 and 1013, it was wrecked by Berber soldiers. During succeeding centuries its ruins were plundered repeatedly for building materials. Only around one-tenth of the site has been excavated to date.
The visitors’ route takes you down through the city’s original northern gate to the palatial residence, arranged around several square courtyards, to the administrative sector, presided over by the grand arched Edificio Basilical Superior, and then to the centrepiece of the site, the Salón de Abd al-Rahman III. Inside, the royal reception hall (closed at time of research) has been much restored, and the exquisitely carved stuccowork, a riot of vegetal designs, has been painstakingly repaired to cover most of the wall’s surface. It gives just a glimpse of the lavishness of the court, which was said to be decorated with gold and silver tiles, and arches of ivory and ebony that contrasted with walls of multicoloured marble. For special effect, a bowl at the centre of the hall was filled with mercury so that when it was rocked the reflected light flashed and bounced off the gleaming decoration.
The new museum, on the foundation of one of the excavated buildings, blends seamlessly with its surroundings. It takes you through the history of the city, with sections on the origins of its development, its actual planning and construction, the inhabitants and its eventual downfall, illustrated with beautifully displayed pieces taken from the site and some amazing interactive displays, and complemented by flawless English translations.
There are two buses (€7 round-trip, 30 minutes) each morning at 9.30am and 10.15am, Tuesday to Sunday, from downtown Córdoba to Madinat Al-Zahra, each returning 3½ hours later. In Córdoba it stops on Paseo de la Victoria by the Cruz Roja Hospital and Roman Mausoleum. The bus stops at the parking lot outside the museum at the Midinat al-Zahra. Another bus (€2.10 round trip) takes you up the hill to the site.