The city of Madinat-al-Zahra was founded by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al Rahkman III, and later completed in 936 during the time of his son Hakam II, after nearly 40 years of construction. Situated 5 km from Cordoba, it was an extravagant and grand city, built by over 10,000 workers at a time when art, philosophy and culture were flourishing in Islamic culture. It is easy to understand why it was later to become know as the Radiant City1 , as it contained beautiful gardens , rich treasures and extravagant decorations. The cost of building such a grand city was of course high, estimated in some quarters to be almost a third of Cordoba’s total revenue. It was however, until its eventual destruction, unmatched in beauty and splendour2.
It was created as a new capital, as a seat of government and state functions, but it had a short albeit glorious life. The decline of Madinat-al-Zahra essentially began during the reign of the young caliph Hisham II. At that time, the prime minister al-Mansor, (who was known for his dictatorial style of governing, and his continued successful attacks on the Christian North3,) moved the administrative government to a new urban area that he constructed in east Cordoba 4.
After the government was moved to Madinat-al-Zahira, Madinat-al-Zahra was effectively abandoned. It had lasted only seventy years before it was burnt, sacked and pillaged in 1010 and progressively looted in the civil war after caliphal succession was unclear. Little of the riches or architecture that made it so splendid remained. The ruins of the city were eventually buried by mud from the mountains that came during winter, remaining in this state until the excavations centuries later.
The site chosen for the new city was carefully chosen, to exalt the image of the caliphate. The old palace was situated in central Cordoba near to the market and the mosque, in one of the busiest areas of the city. The new site was therefore more peaceful, (as well as being in a respectable, high class area where the rich had traditionally built country houses, so it was already associated in some way with class and wealth.) The palace was placed on the highest point of the upper terrace, and would be seen first by anyone approaching, which symbolised importance. The elite position of the caliph surveying his empire, dressed in luxurious clothes and surrounded by servants would have been obvious.
After completion, Madinat-al-Zahra was the largest city in the Mediterranean basin, with sides measuring 1518 metres long by 745 metres wide, and contained a total land area of 112 hectares5. The grand scale of the city was to ensure that the caliph’s necessary centre of government and their entourage could be comfortably accommodated, as more than 20,000 people were to live there. This included nearly 4,000 pages and slaves, 12,000 guards and eunuchs, and a harem of up to 6,000 women, for whom 300 baths were available6.
The space in the city was approximately divided into three parts – a third of the site was for the palace, a third to other dependencies, and a third for the pleasure gardens, and zoological areas which contained many varieties of exotic animals and birds. It is said that 1,200 loaves of bread per day were needed just to feed the fish in the ornamental ponds – the individual costs of the different aspects of the city, help illustrate exactly why the city took so much money to build and maintain.
The beauty of the grounds was not merely for the pleasure of the Caliph and his family, but also representative of his power and importance. With threats such as the Fatimid caliphate from the south which was attempting to expand its control., such a demonstration of wealth would also serve as warning to enemies.
Another method of impressing the visiting dignitaries was as follows: Within the gate (on the path that must be taken to meet the Calipj) the ground was covered with brocades. At intervals servants would be places in richly dressed clothes and jewels, whom would be mistaken for kings, before informing the dignitary they were servants. This leads to the impression that if even the servants, or lesser important people were dressed as such, then the Caliph must be incredibly powerful. When they saw him, he would be seated on the ground wearing simple clothes, holding a Koran. This unexpected sight showed a pious, spiritual side to him.7
In the centre of al Rahmans palace was the ‘Room of the Caliphs’ described as having
walls of marble, floors of transparent alabaster covered with rich carpets; 8 ebony doors on each side of the hall inlaid with gold and precious stones and a golden swan, holding in its beak a pearl the size of a dove’s eggas just a snippet of the total splendour8.
Elsewhere, striking bronze statues poured perfumed mountain spring water into large marble fountains, huge and lush gardens were surrounded by wonderful pillars, ornaments and glorious statues. Finally, carefully directed sunlight reflected against a central fountain filled with mercury, dazzling royal visitors as when the pool was disturbed, the whole room shimmered with reflected light.
Many of the columns and statues used in the city were brought from other countries for example 4324marble columns that were imported from Tunisia, marble basins imported from Byzantium and Syria, for the Caliph’s bedroom twelve golden sculptures inlaid with pearls, were also imported from Syria9. This helps show that the Caliph wanted the best, and if what he wanted could not be carved in Cordoba then he was prepared to import it.
One of the stories of the origin of Madinat-al Zahra is that a concubine, al-Zahr, was a major influence on the construction of the city, asking Abd al Rahkman to build a city in her honour, and place a statue of her by the entrance.
A further possibility is that Abd al-Rahman was simply driven by nostalgia for the lost glories of Damascus and the middle-eastern heartland of Islam and, in short, wished to recreate this splendour through his own work10! It is thought that this nostalgia is part of the reason for his extensive patronage of the arts.
However, the historian Hayaan argues that the idea that, fuelled by earlier losses and upset with certain aspects of government, al-Rahman distracted his preoccupations and worries in rule, by indulging in his great love of building, dedicating himself in an absorbed manner to the construction of al-Zahra to take his mind off other problems.If this is true then it is one of the most spectacular successes at a task simply designed to be a distraction11.
Whichever story of the reasons behind the creation of the city is true, it is certain that this city was extremely important to the caliph in terms of receiving diplomatic visits.12 The decoration was extremely elaborate, a symbol of the glory that surrounded this spiritual leader and speaker of god, and simply could not fail to have impressed visiting dignitaries of the day. Found in its ruins was the well-known bronze Cordoba Stag – probably made as a fountain-head and a lasting testament to the intricate Islamic craftwork that was showcased in Madinat-al-Zahra, but this was merely a taster of the full splendour that the palace-city displayed.
Many historians have been sceptical about whether the extent to which descriptions of the city were factual, as the rulers would have wanted the scribes to glorify it as much as possible. It was in 1910 that excavation truly began, and the limited treasures that survived the looting from the past, led historians to believe that the tales of the opulence of the city was a myth perpetuated by the rulers to exaggerate the power of the city. This theory has now largely been discredited however, as further research and excavation showed evidence that the descriptions of the lavish and luxurious city are largely based on fact.
In conclusion, the function of the Madinat-al-Zahra was to serve as a royal residence, a seat for the government and a popular dwelling area for the Emir.
The magnificence of decoration was designed to create the impression of, and offer a perfect setting to portray a divinely ordered hierarchy and prove to all that the caliph was supreme ruler over his people and gods true emissary.
Other reasons surely played a part in the construction of Madinat al-Zahra; vanity, excitement in creating vast new citadels, the expression of love to one of his concubines and as something to take the caliphs mind from previous failures, but I believe that pure symbolic expression provided the main reason for the construction of this wonderful city.
Although one could, and many have, describe the caliph’s efforts as an ill conceived, devastation of resources, as a shrine of power and home for ceremonial and deeply important displays of absolute authority, Madinat al-Zahra was brilliantly constructed.
From authoritative dominance over guests, enemies and potential allies to imposing a great ethos of subordination in the divine surroundings on the military to the state and all individuals to him,
Ceremonial acts, vivid imagery and total grandeur were the vital instruments used by the caliph to establish his position clearly to other people.
Madinat al-Zahra was a perfect symbol, and instrument, of power.