Museum and Ruins in Córdoba
Medina Azahara or the Shining City are the ruins of a vast, fortified palace-city located on the western outskirts of Córdoba, Spain. The sumptuous palace-city was built by Abd-ar-Rahman III – The Victorious (912–961), the first Umayyad Caliph of Córdoba. It was located foot of the Sierra Morena mountains on the hillside of the mountain called the Chabdál al-Arus or Mount of the Bride. It has been included in the World Heritage List by UNESCO since 2018.
What did the Medina Azahara look like?
The city took advantage of being built on a slope and was built on three terraces. Each terrace was separated from the others by walls, which divided the city into three parts. The city was divided into a distinct Alcazar for the caliph and his court and a Medina for the rest of the city that housed up to 20,000 people. Its plan is rectangular and it spans over an area of more than 110 hectares (270 acres).
As the city was built to impress only the finest materials were used. Contemporary records spoke of Golden Saloon, a Throne Hall being decorated with arches of ebony and ivory, marble, gold, and jewels, and fountains of bronze griffins, lions and horses, portals of crystal and marble fountains.
The Upper Terrace
The upper terrace was occupied by the private function and residence of the royal family, as well as the governmental function.
The Palace of the Caliph would have had the rooms arranged around courtyards. To one side was the guardhouse, from where the soldiers could protect the Caliph and control access to the private rooms. Nearby was the residence of a high ranking official, the House of Ya’far. This is relatively well preserved and it can be seen that it was divided into private, service and official areas. To the left of the area shown in the foreground of the picture (the east, geographically) were the servants quarters and kitchen with a preserved oven.
The Middle Terrace
The middle platform was taken up with governmental buildings including the houses of the viziers, the guard-room, administrative offices and gardens.
On the middle terrace, only the mosque has been excavated. The souk was also at this level, together with many gardens with pools, fountains and cages housing wild animals and exotic birds.
The Lower Terrace
The lower terrace was devoted to infantry and cavalry housing.
The residential areas (still unexcavated) were set away to each side.
What to see in the Medina Azahara
The entrance to the Medina Azahara archaeological site is from the top giving visitors upon arrival a good overview of the original city that has been exposed thus far, which is only one tenth of the total.
Hall of Abd-ar-Rahman
In the highest part of the Fortress, the Reception Hall of Abd-ar-Rahman can be dated by inscriptions to between 953 and 957. This building is where both political receptions and the main annual religious festivals took place. During the receptions, the Caliph would sit in the central of the hall with dignitaries and officials placed due to a strict hierarchy. Its floor follows a basilical scheme, with a main center, integrated by two sets of horseshoe arches, separated from the three longitudinal naves. This hall was called Salon Rico or Rich Hall because of the spectacular nature of its decoration.
On the eastern side of the building, a series of rooms were built connected to the Salon Rico, which were paved with white marble, and leading to a small bathroom. The so-called “Courtyard of the Sink” was part of the rooms leading to the bathroom. In these rooms, the caliph spent a great deal of his daily life and leisure time.
House of Ja’far
The large “House of Ja’far” is built over three earlier houses, and the building known as the “Court of the Pillars” replaced two earlier ones in the mid-950s. The building is named after Ya’far ibn Abd al-Rahman, who was appointed prime minister or hayib in the year 961.
The layout of the building was constrained by the floorplan of the previous two building it replaced. In its structure, we can find three spaces, organized around their corresponding courtyards: a public one, a private one and one for the servants.
The Prince’s Garden
There were at least three gardens in the city. A small garden, referred to as The Prince’s Garden or High Garden, was located on the upper terrace. This garden was for the use of the nobility, the wealthy, and the powerful; those who frequented the palace itself. The garden extended towards the end of the Salon Rico was divided into four sunken gardens parts, with a summer house in the middle with a water channels along the connecting walkways,
The two lower terraces supported huge, formal Islamic gardens. The westernmost of these was the lowest terrace of the city. The easternmost of these two lower gardens, the middle terrace, led to the reception hall known as the Salon Rico. This eastern garden had a pavilion, surrounded by four rectangular pools, at its center.
The Museum Medina Azahara
The museum takes you through the history of Medina Azahara, with sections on its planning and construction, its inhabitants and its eventual downfall – all illustrated with beautifully displayed pieces from the site and interactive displays, and complemented by flawless English translations.
Short History of Medina Azahara
After he had proclaimed himself caliph in 928, Abderraman, III, decided to build a city on the outskirts of Córdoba, between 936 and 976 to display to his subject his power and to promote the image of the recently-created independent western Caliphate as a one of the strongest, most powerful kingdoms in Medieval Europe. It was to be the de facto capital of al-Andalus as the heart of the administration and government was within its walls. Chroniclers record that 10,000 labourers set 6000 stone blocks a day, with outer walls stretching 1518m east to west and 745m north to south.
It took Abd al-Rahman twenty-five years to build Madinat al-Zahra. The city existed for merely sixty-five years as the site was completely destroyed by the succession of Civil Wars which ravaged al-Andalus at the turn of the 11th century, and Madinat al-Zahra is now in ruins.
Best Guided Tours of Medina Azahara
There are a number of guided tours available. These are a selection of our recommended tours.
Where does Medina Azahara get its name?
The city was though to have been built in honor of Abderraman, III, favourite wife, Azahara. 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.
In the fifteenth century, Madinat al-Zahra came to be called ‘Cordoba la Vieja’ or Old Cordoba.
How to get to Medina Azahara
By Car: Drivers should leave Córdoba westward along Avenida de Medina Azahara. This feeds into the A431 road, with the turn-off to Medina Azahara signposted after 6km.
By Bus: A bus to Medina Azahara (adult/child €9/5 return including the shuttle from museum to site and back) leaves from a stop on n Córdoba, the bus departs from Paseo de la Victoria (Glorieta Hospital Cruz Roja) and Paseo de la Victoria (in front of the Mausoleo Romano) at 10.15am and 11am Tuesday to Sunday, plus 2.45pm Tuesday to Saturday from mid-September to mid-June. You may be able to get tickets on the bus, or in advance at tourist offices – buying in advance is sensible for weekends and public holidays. The bus starts back from Medina Azahara 3¼ hours after it leaves Córdoba. Traveling time is around 20 minutes,
Visiting Medina Azahara
Sunday — 9:00 to 15:00 (year round)
Tuesday to Saturday — 9:00 closing at 15:00 (July to mid-September), at 18:00 (mid-September to end March), and at 21:00 (April to June).
Entrance is free if you are a resident of the EU, otherwise there is a EUR 1.50 charge.