Eight kilometres west of Córdoba stands what's left of Madinat al-Zahra, the sumptuous palace-city built by Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III in the 10th century. The complex spills down a hillside with the caliph’s palace (the area you visit today) on the highest levels overlooking what were gardens and open fields. The residential areas (still unexcavated) were set away to each side. A fascinating modern museum has been installed below the site.
Legend has it that Abd ar-Rahman III built Madinat al-Zahra for his favourite wife, Az-Zahra. Dismayed by her homesickness and yearnings 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 Abd ar-Rahman’s rivalry with the Fatimid dynasty in North Africa that drove him to declare his caliphate in 929 and construct, as caliphs were wont to do, a new capital. Building started in 940 and chroniclers record some staggering construction statistics: 10,000 labourers set 6000 stone blocks a day, with outer walls stretching 1518m east to west and 745m north to south.
It is almost inconceivable to think that such a city, built over 35 years, was to last only a few more before the usurper Al-Mansur transferred government to a new palace complex of his own in 981. Then, between 1010 and 1013, Madinat al-Zahra was wrecked by Berber soldiers. During succeeding centuries its ruins were plundered repeatedly for building materials.
The visitors’ route takes you down through the city’s original northern gate. Highlights of the visitable area are the grand arched Edificio Basilical Superior, which housed the main state admin offices, and the Casa de Yafar, believed to have been residence of the caliph's prime minister. The crown jewel of the site, the royal reception hall known as the Salón de Abd ar-Rahman III, was closed for restoration at the time of writing. This hall has exquisitely carved stuccowork and is said to have been decorated with gold and silver tiles, arches of ivory and ebony, and walls of multicoloured marble.
The museum, 2km downhill by road from the site entrance, takes you through the history of Madinat al-Zahra, with sections on its origins, planning and construction, its inhabitants and its eventual downfall. The sections are illustrated with beautifully displayed pieces from the site and some excellent interactive displays, and complemented by flawless English translations.
Drivers should leave Córdoba westward along Avenida de Medina Azahara. This feeds into the A431 road, with the turn-off to Madinat al-Zahra signposted after 6km. You must park at the museum and get tickets there for the site and the shuttle bus (lanzadera; €2.10 return) which takes you 2km up to the site.
A bus to Madinat al-Zahra leaves from a stop near Córdoba's Puerta de Almodóvar at 10.15am and 11am daily, 4.15pm Tuesday to Saturday and 11.45am Sunday (€8.50 return including the shuttle from museum to site and back). Tickets for the bus must be bought in advance at the Centro de Visitantes or at the tourist offices at the train station or Plaza de las Tendillas.