This is the story of a city, a story that could have been written for ‘The Arabian Nights’, a city that was built in 40 years, flourished for 40 years and then perished in flames and was forgotten for one thousand years. It was a city, legend has it, built for a woman – Azahara, the favourite concubine of the Caliph. It was a city built from scratch, the largest in Western Europe and was described by travellers from all over the known world as ‘a dazzling series of palaces full of treasures never seen before’.
The city is Madinat al-Zahra and it is situated just 8 kilometres from another shining example of Arabic splendour, Cordoba.
In 929 AD Abd ar-Rahman III declared himself ‘utterly independent’, the true Caliph (Prince of Believers – effectively ruler of the Islamic world) and direct descendant of the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyad dynasty had almost disappeared the previous century due to the predations of a rival dynasty, the Abbasids. Abd ar-Rahman’s declaration finally consolidated his power in the Iberian peninsula after seventeen years of conflict with rebels within the Moorish held lands and he thereafter turned his attention to wresting control of North Africa from the Fatimid dynasty.
It was time to make a statement to impress his legitimacy on the world and he did that by making a series of political, economic and ideological measures and building a city.
Building started between 936 and 940 on a 115 hectare site in the foothills of the Sierra Morena overlooking the Guadalquivir river just downstream of the city of Cordoba, then the centre of government. The mosque, which bore a close resemblance to the Great Mosque of Cordoba was consecrated in 941 and in 947 the government was transferred from Cordoba.
The Palace area was completed by 945, in which year the Caliph took up residence. On the highest level of the city, overlooking the rest, it must have been a magnificent sight, finished with the finest materials and rich in carvings, shining white under the Al Andalus sun. The remaining part of the city was built and rebuilt a number of times and finished about 980.
The Shining City was designed to function as the administrative centre of a country, think of the Houses of Parliament in the UK and the buildings associated and close to it, the Foreign Office, Treasury, Ministry of Defence and residences for the leaders in Downing Street. The city also housed a considerable number of troops and all the support staff required by a large working population, secretaries, cooks and servants. For relaxation there were bath houses and at least three large gardens. The whole was surrounded by a fortified wall. Some of the features of the city, such as the arranging of suites around a central courtyard or garden and the basilically roofed halls (as opposed to domes) were conceived for the first time and subsequently became established features of western Islamic architecture.
Abd ar-Rahman III died in 961 and was succeeded by his son Al-Hakam II who reigned until 976. During this period the palace complex was extended but soon after his death the city was inexplicably abandoned. In 1010, following a civil revolt, the citizens of Cordoba looted the abandoned city of all its treasures and burnt it to the ground. Much of the fine stonework was removed over the succeeding centuries and re-used locally in farm buildings and walls. Nature took over and the city was buried until its re-discovery in 1910.
Today only about 10% of the city is excavated and open to the public. There is a very good museum in the valley below the site adjacent to the large car park from where you have to catch a bus to the site itself.
As if one ‘lost city’ were not enough there is rumour and veiled references to a second, as yet undiscovered, second city, possibly in the vicinity of Madinat al-Zahra.
When Al-Hakam II died in 976 an Arab of noble birth, Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Aamir, was instrumental in making sure the twelve year old Hisham II was named as Caliph. He is also said to have destroyed Al-Hakam’s collection or library of ‘ancient science’ books. Two years later Hisham’s mother who was regent, appointed Abi Aamir to the position of Hajib, equivalent to a Vizier or Chancellor. To consolidate his power Abi Aamir is said to have built a palace between 978 and 981 to rival that of Madinat al-Zahra. Confusingly he is said to have called it Madinat al-Zahira. Its location is not known. Some say it was opposite Madinat al-Zahra to the west of Cordoba, some that it was on the eastern side of Cordoba. Ancient texts claim that Abi Aamir kept the young Hisham a virtual prisoner in his gilded palace effectively ruling Al Andalus in his place. This undiscovered city is supposed to have been razed at the same time as Madinat al-Zahra.
I first saw a reference to this second city Madinat al-Zahira in the archaeological museum at Cordoba and was surprised that no reference was made to it at the museum at Madinat al-Zahra. On returning to the Cordoba museum I asked staff there if they could expand on the single mention of the name. The consensus seemed to be that a spelling mistake hundreds of years ago sparked off a rumour that grew into a myth that developed into a fact. A minority seemed to be of the opinion that the second city was built and that it then became the seat of government thus explaining the sudden abandonment of Madinat al-Zahra around 980.
Subsequently I have found a few references in history books written much later after the event but they could equally have been describing Madinat al-Zahra or slavishly repeating previous mentions. The confusion between the two names continues. Even Wikipedia cross references both spellings and other travel writers and historians have felt free to use either one, adding to the confusion and mystery.