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Here's Why You Really Need to Check out Córdoba's Medina Azahara

Picture of Mark Nayler
Updated: 19 June 2017
Southern Spain has many great monuments from its Moorish past, but no other speaks of the sophistication of its former rulers like the Medina Azahara, or ‘Shining City’. As one of the Islamic Kingdom’s most important strongholds, today it is Spain’s largest archaeological site, and a must-visit if you’re heading to Cordóba.

Background

The fortified complex of Medina Azahara was once the adminstrative capital of Al-Andalus, as Moorish-ruled Spain was then known. Situated some 8km (5 miles) outside the city of Córdoba in stunning countryside, it was started in 936 on the order of the Umayyad Caliph of Córdoba, Abd-ar-Rahman III al-Nasir. According to legend, Rahman III built the city as a gift for his favourite concubine, Azahara – although historians say this is unlikely to have been the real reason for the city’s construction.

The Medina Azahara was once the most important city in Andalusia I
The Medina Azahara was once the most important city in Andalusia I | © -JvL-/Flickr

Function

Not only did Rahman III want to build a complex of governmental palaces and residential quarters – the Azahara was also intended to assert his might over other great Moorish dynasties in northern Africa and Baghdad. Construction proceeded apace and by 941, when the Caliph took up residence in the Azahara, the mosque and main palace were already completed. Additions and alterations continued for decades, but in 1010 Azahara was looted and thereafter stood deserted for centuries. Its remains were not discovered until the beginning of the 20th century.

Around 10% of the original city remains I
Around 10% of the original city remains I | © -JvL-/Flickr

Visiting the city today

Covering a total of 112 hectares (over a million square metres), this is the largest archaeological site in Spain, meaning it is definitely worth a visit if you’re in Córdoba. Though only about 10% of the city remains, you can imagine the teeming life that unfolded here during its 70-year lifespan: indeed, Azahara boasted baths, residential buildings and offices, royal palaces, gardens and barracks. Among the remains are royal residences; the sites where the lush gardens once flourished; the foundations of the mosque, and various governmental buildings. The site was chosen carefully as it made possible a tiered structure in which the royal palace sat at the top of the city, commanding views over the rest of Azahara and the landscape beyond.

The layout

Indeed, this unusual design is another compelling reason for visiting what was once one of the Islamic Kingdom’s most important cities. Anyone who has visited the former Arabic quarters of Córdoba, Granada or Seville, for example, will be familiar with the most characteristic feature of Moorish town-planning in the 10th century: maze-like networks of narrow streets and squares lined with whitewashed houses. Azahara was more expansive, occupying a rectangular site split over three terraces: at the top was the royal palace, in the middle were the governmental buildings, gardens and at the bottom were the mosque and the inhabitants’ housing. The split-level structure is still very much in evidence today, on the site of one of Spain’s most important historical monuments.

Ctra. Palma del Río, km 5.5, Córdoba, Spain,+34 957 10 36 37

The Medina Azahara has a terraced layout unusual in Moorish design I
The Medina Azahara has a terraced layout unusual in Moorish design I | © Tom/Flickr