By 929, when Abd al-Rahman 111 proclaimed himself caliph, the Spanish Umayyads had reached the zenith of their power. The caliph demonstrated his new status by building - only 13 kilometres (8 miles) Northwest of Cordoba the palace city of Medina al-Zahra (in existence 936~1010), making it his empire's administrative and governmental headquarters. The construction work in Medina al-Zahra proceeded apace, especially since Abd al-Rahman 111 invested a third of all state revenues in it. Thus, he pursued the largest and most ambitious building project of his epoch, which remained unsurpassed by the foundation of other cities in succeeding centuries.
Medina al-Zahra exploits its position on a terrace-like slope below the Sierra Morena. According to al-Idrisi, a cultivated traveller and historian who visited the ruins of the palace-city in the 12th century, the complex divided into three terraces. At the highest point stood the caliph's palace, distinguished from other buildings by its isolated position. It strikingly symbolised the power of the caliph, who, from this vantage point, could see far across city and countryside. Presumably, this palace was one of the first buildings to be finished in Medina al-Zahra.
On the middle terrace stood the government buildings and palaces, as well as the reception halls and accommodation for important individuals. Between the middle and lower terraces, on an artificially created mound, stood the mosque, which connected the court-related area on the middle terrace with more simple dwellings. In 941 the first solemn Friday prayers were held in this mosque - apparently built by 1,000 craftsmen in just 48 days! The first grand reception took place in the palace-city in 945. A short time later, the caliph must have moved his family household and mint there. Later, but while the caliph was still alive, his son and successor al-Hakam 11 was asked to supervise the building works.
Middle terrace arcades in Medina al-Zahra, 936-1010. A massive arcade of horseshoe arches block off the middle terrace administrative area in Medina al-Zahra. Above the central, somewhat larger horseshoe arch, there was originally a small, pavilion-like superstructure, from which the caliph - or other high dignitaries - could watch military parades taking place immediately in front of the arcade, on "Weapon's Square".
Historical sources report that the construction work in Medina al-Zahra took 40 years - 25 years under Abd al-Rahman Ill's rule (from the founding of the palace city in 936 or 937 to his death in 961), and 15 years under al-Hakam 11 - from 961 to 976. As well as the extension of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which al-Hakam 11 undertook 962-966, he must have strongly influenced some palace buildings in Medina al-Zahra. The reception halls, gardens, bath houses, and fountains, in particular, show his personal involvement. With the death of al-Hakam 11, in 976, construction work on official buildings in Medina al~Zahra probably stopped, though work on the lower terrace buildings not immediately linked to the palace area - may have continued. That is where the city proper lay - with its simple houses, garrisons, gardens, and markets. Historical sources mention state factories and even a subterranean prison.
The importance of Medina al-Zahra as a palace-city and the caliph's headquarters decreased when al-Mansur, the first minister and regent for Caliph Hisham 11 - who was still a minor - founded the similarly named residence of Medina al-Zahira near Cordoba in 978-980. However, Medina al-Zahra was not destroyed until 1010, when rebellious Berber groups ransacked this erstwhile symbol of the caliphate of Cordoba. Even so, the palace city ruins were still inhabited up to the 12th century.
The fortified area of Medina al-Zahra comprises a rectangle that is about 1.52 kilometres (one mile) long and 745 meters (815 yards) wide, of which to date about 10 percent has been excavated: as yet, only the upper and middle terraces, that is, the palace area proper. Buildings on the lower terrace - the plain - have not yet been excavated, though the position of other buildings has been pinpointed by infrared photography. Eventually, as excavations increase, these in particular should reveal more details of everyday life in the palace-city.
At Medina al-Zahra's highest point stands Caliph Abd al-Rahman Ill's palace, called Dar al-Mulk (in Arabic) or Casa Real (in Spanish). The palace is striking for its decoration, including parts of ornamented wall spaces and mosaic-like floor covering. Conservation measures in this area have so far made the palace inaccessible to visitors.
Medina al-Zahra, 936-1010 Side: The ruins of Medina al~Zahra were discovered in the late 19th century, and have since been exposed in various excavations. By now, some 10 percent of the fortified area of Medina al-Zahra has been excavated - mainly the public buildings on the upper and middle terraces. Extensive halls with projecting porticoes adorned with magnificent horseshoe arches are characteristic features of palace architecture in Medina al-Zahra.
Near the palace there is a row of buildings mainly notable for their large, almost square inner courtyards. These are administration and government buildings. Not far from the palace there is a group of buildings with a trapezoid-shaped courtyard, around which partly ruined suites of rooms are grouped. This accommodation complex lies about 2 meters (7 feet) below the caliph's palace, the only upper terrace building that survives; though it projects about 7 meters (23 feet) beyond the other middle terrace buildings, so the division between terraces is not nearly as definite as historical sources suggest. The building situated in the north-western corner of the middle terrace was presumably reserved for servants, or possibly the caliph's bodyguards.
There is also another complex of houses, with two very similar courtyards, separated by a ramp. Because the courtyards are almost identical, this complex, lying about 8 meters (26 feet) lower than the caliph's palace, is called the 'twin esplanade'. The left - namely, western - esplanade has a large, rectangular courtyard, whose north-south axis is about 20 meters (66 feet) long, while its east-west axis is about 14 meters (46 feet) long. It is surrounded by suites of rooms on three sides, of which the northern, front-facing suite is best preserved. The central-room in the northern suite measures 3.5 x 9.82 meters (11.5 x 32.2 feet), and is the building's main hall. The adjoining rooms are somewhat smaller, with a uniform depth of about 3.5 meters (11. 5 feet). The western esplanade of this twin layout contained the complex's imposing living quarters, while the eastern esplanade was devoted to financial matters.
Immediately beneath the twin esplanade - about 7 meters (23 feet) lower lies a trapezoid-shaped courtyard, 27.4 meters (90 feet) long and, at the centre, about 8 meters (26 feet) wide. Several of the palace city's paths intersect here, which is why this area was very carefully guarded - explaining why it is often called the 'guard complex'. This area not only gave access to the twin esplanade above, but also offered access to buildings further south in the palace-city. Here, presumably, were the houses of important people, including members of the caliph's family, as well as his ministers, viziers, and high-ranking officials.
In the south, the guard complex leads on to further city-palaces. One complex deserves special mention, the one that a building inscription calls the House of Prime Minister Yafar al-Mushafi. In 961 Caliph al~Hakam 11 appointed Yafar Prime Minister, which made him a highly influential figure at court. His house is divided into three sections: a public area for official receptions, the minister's living quarters, and the staff rooms. The public area is notable for a three-aisle, Basilican hall with a projecting portico, through which one enters a large, square courtyard. Behind the Basilican hall is Yafar's private apartment, with numerous rooms leading into one another, and the servants' quarters leading off them.
The house's large courtyard led to a small private bath, which was referred to as the House with Basins, which could also be entered from an adjoining palace building. This complex of buildings comprises two almost identical structures, whose once ornately decorated porticoes give access to the courtyard's narrow side. Archaeological finds and stylistic indications from the remaining fragmentary decoration enable us to date this palace to the early phase of Medina al-Zahra. Abd al-Rahman 111 presumably built it for his son and successor al-Hakam Il. The slightly higher Pillar Courtyard, so called because its central courtyard is surrounded by pillars, adjoins the palace on the north side. Fragments of a Roman sarcophagus that had clearly been reused as a basin for a fountain were found in this nearly square courtyard, with an area totalling 440 square meters (4700 square feet).
Looking across the High Garden to the reception hall, Medina al-Zahra, 936-1010. The reception hall lies directly on the main axis of the palace-city, a position that emphasises its importance as the main ceremonial hall. In front of this there used to lie a large pool, in whose surface reflected the building's façade with its distinctive red and white arches.
Strictly speaking, it is possible to identify a building only if architectural inscriptions or historical sources have survived to provide information about its function. In Medina al-Zahra, however, it is striking that we have two types of building. One has large inner courtyards with surrounding suites of rooms - a pattern that has come down to us from ancient times and is widespread throughout the Mediterranean. The other type has Basilican halls that fulfil a public function. The mosque and reception halls in Medina al-Zahra fall into this second category.
The Medina al-Zahra Mosque was built in 941 in the eastern palace-city. Those of its foundations that have been excavated reveal a five-aisle hall, with aisles extending vertically to the qibla wall. As also in the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the two outermost aisles were extended beyond the building front and then continued as a semicircular ambulatory around the projecting mosque courtyard. Very probably, the Great Mosque of Cordoba was the inspiration behind the palace mosque. Today, only the foundation walls of the Medina al-Zahra Mosque survive. This was certainly not the only mosque in the palace-city, however, but merely one whose immediate proximity to the palace area makes it particularly prominent. Directly outside the mosque is a house that was used for ritual washing - so we assume from the numerous well shafts in this complex of buildings.
The two, now extensively reconstructed, great reception halls in the palace-city follow a pattern of space division similar to that adopted in the Medina al-Zahra Mosque. Both these reception halls date back to Caliph al-Hakam 11 - they were thus built a good ten years after the mosque. A striking feature of the middle terrace is a large, five-aisle hall with a portico, outside which there is a colossal square courtyard, with an area of 2,500 square meters (26,900 square feet). This palace lies in the eastern sector of Medina al-Zahra's palace area, and up to now has been called Dar al-Jund ('House of the Army'). Because Basilican halls have had various different functions one cannot be sure how exactly to identify this building. Nevertheless, it is likely that it fulfilled public tasks, which is why older research books often called its major rooms reception halls. Since meetings were also held in these great halls, this building is now increasingly associated with Medina al-Zahra's administrative apparatus. We now call this the 'House of the Viziers' (Dar al-Wuzara), and assume that viziers held conferences here - issuing orders, signing purchase and tenancy contracts, completing documents, and clarifying legal questions.
The reception hall - its name comes from its ornate decoration - has a ground plan like that of the 'House of the Viziers'. Lying in the very centre of the city, it comprises five aisles with a longitudinally projecting portico, and flanking corner bays. Its exterior dimensions are about 38 x 28 meters (125 x 92 feet). A large garden called the 'High Garden' lies in front of the palace. From this garden, through the reception hall's access arcade, one could enter the portico, in which a building inscription dates the structure to between 953/954 and 956/957. Access to the centre aisle is through a three-arch opening, flanked on either side by a two-arch opening at the same height as the two adjacent side aisles.
Interior view of the reception hall, Medina al-Zahra, 936-1010. Visitors enter the five-aisle reception hall through a projecting portico. Both sides of the centre aisle are bordered by horseshoe arches, supported by columns of alternating colours. On the far wall we can see a blind horseshoe arch, before which the caliph presumably sat for formal audiences.
The three central aisles form the structural core of the reception hall, which is flanked by two outer aisles, running parallel and divided into two chambers, separated from the main room by a massive wall. Large portals, with horseshoe arches, connect the outer aisles with the three-aisle core building and the southern corner bays that flank the portico. The main room is divided by two longitudinal arcades of six, large horseshoe arches. On the wall at the end of the central aisle there is a large, blind horseshoe arch, before which the caliph would sit during receptions or other court ceremonies.
The reception hall is striking, mainly for its architectural decoration. On the lower walls of the three-aisle core building, for instance, there are large relief plaques with plant motifs. The plants are 'Trees of Life' whose composition is based on a central trunk, from which a thick-stemmed creeper splits off, then twists and winds upwards to a large, circular crown of leaves and blossoms. The leaf crowns of these Tree of Life motifs distantly recall 6th-century Sassanian palmette crowns; having first featured in 8th-century eastern Umayyad art, these found new forms in Medina al-Zahra - a good two centuries later. These wall panels' individual leaf and blossom designs suggest that Abbasid art in 9th-century Samarra has also found new life here. Apparently, the craftsmen working in Medina al-Zahra knew these models from the east and adapted them to local taste - a process that led ultimately to the final forms we now consider typical of caliphate art in Cordoba and Medina al~Zahra.
Dionisio Baixeras, Reception with Caliph Abd al-Rahman III in Medina ai-Zahra, late 19thcentury. This painting depicts the historically documented reception held for the monk Johannes von Gorze, who visited Caliph Abd al-Rahman III as ambassador of Emperor Otto I (962-973).
Outside the reception hall runs a broad path, giving access to the High Garden and the palace buildings further west. Directly outside the hall is a large pool, in which the surface once reflected the building's façade, accentuating its importance. Moreover, in the centre of the High Garden, on the central axis leading to the hall, stands a garden pavilion designed as a three-aisle hall - which reflects the reception hall in miniature. All that has survived of this pavilion are the foundation walls, the flanking pool, and the pillar foundations.
The reception hall occupies a central position in the palace-city's overall plan and also forms the focal point of the middle terrace. The central axis of the 'High Garden' positioned outside the hall, and the centrally placed garden pavilion, only emphasise its importance. The 'High Garden' measures about 65 x 77 meters (213 x 253 feet) - over 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) in total area. It is enclosed by a massive wall, which raises the ensemble comprising the reception hall and 'High Garden' like a podium above the buildings on the lower terrace - sometimes called the plain - overcoming a 12 meter (40 foot) difference in height. This also explains the name 'High Garden'. West of this, on the lower terrace, lies another garden in similar style, called the Low Garden. Seeing the palace buildings must have deeply impressed visitors originally approaching Medina al-Zahra from the plain. This would have gratified the caliph, who wanted Medina al-Zahra to give everyone visible proof of his power.