Medina Azahara: Excavation or Building Site?

Medina Azahara: Excavation or Building Site

Named after a beautiful concubine of Abd al-Rahman III, Medina Azahara is a Moorish palace on a lush mount overlooking the plains to the west of Cordoba. In 929 it was the capital of the Islamic state of Al-Andalus, 'the Versailles of the Middle Ages'. Now the roots of ancient trees wrap the palace’s tumbled stones in a skeletal embrace; sacked centuries ago, many of its rocks were carried off to Cordoba, five miles away, for the construction of churches and civic buildings.

When visiting Medina Azahara, it is tempting to indulge the kind of fantasies Washington Irving entertained in his Tales of the Alhambra; arriving as a foreign ambassador or merchant, being received in the cool marble of Abd al-Rahman III’s Salon Rico beneath the ochre stripes of the horseshoe arches, a scent of almizcle (musk) hanging in the air.

From the Caliph's turban would have fallen locks of dyed-black hair (dyed, as after generations of Galicians, Asturians, Castillans and Franks in their harems, the Omeyans’ Arabian features would have diluted - as they were proud of their racial heritage, to be dark like their ancestors was as desirable as it is to be bronze of skin in today’s Spain. It is said Abd al-Rahman III was naturally a red-head.) He would be richly ornamented and attired in an elegant almaleque (robe), and seated on a throne laden with quilten cushions. Standing guard in his palace would be Germanic slaves, many of them Franks. Rahman III was wary of his Arab subjects and preferred to trust mercenaries from outside his society.

Above the roof of his palace on the slopes of the Sierra Morena he ordered the planting of almond trees, their white blossom creating the impression of snow for his beloved Zahra, who was from Granada, it is claimed, and pined for the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

In 750, Abd al-Rahman's Omeya forbears had fled from their capital Damascus, defeated by the Abbasid Dynasty. In their exile, they crossed over the Mediterranean to the budding Islamic territories of Al-Andalus. Cordoba would be their base. Under Omeya leadership, it would become a rival to Damscus and Baghdad as a place of learning, culture and religious importance. Abd al-Rahman served from 929 to 961, a time when the Califate of Cordoba was in its heyday.

Medina Azahar was built as a monument to Omeyan power, to send a message to his rivals, the Fatimids of north Africa, and the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad, that he was the only authentic Caliph - 'the Prince of Believers'. Contemporary visitors describe a 'shining city', visible from kilometres away and unrivalled in terms of architecture, with unimaginable bling on display in every corner. As its name suggests, the Medina was not only a palace but a city with a court, mint, government, mosque, markets. As destiny would have it, 'the shining city's star would burn bright for only a few short decades until in 1010 it was sacked. Left in ruins, it would disappear under the ground, forgotten for a thousand years.

Now, a thousand years later Medina Azahara's archaeological treasures are again visible from miles around. However, what we witness when we visit the city is only 10% of what should be visible. The rest - 112 hectares - according to archaeologists, is buried underneath the ground, waiting to be excavated. A thrilling thought. What glories might yet be unearthed?

Yet, since 1985, thanks in part to a stagnation of activity and spending by the local council, little or no new excavations have been made on the site. Also, for a number of years, stories have abounded of construction companies putting up illegal houses on the very ground containing these unexcavated ruins. This means that, 100 years after the city's rediscovery, the greatest part of Medina Azahara's archaeological treasures are at risk. Might the unexplored swathes of Medina Azahar remain forever hidden underground?

Thankfully, archaeologists and interested observors are now hopeful things will change. The saving grace for archeaologists would be the naming of Medina Azahara as a UNESCO site, which could happen as early as 2018. This would attract more visitors, attract greater funding and and hopefully help to make preservation and further exploration possible, protecting it from encroaching residential developments. Then we might finally get to complete the picture of The Shining City.

Until that happens, the future of one of Moorish Spain's greatest legacies remains in doubt, thanks to a familar Spanish conundrum: Construction vs Conservation.

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