Madinat Al-Zahra’: The Jewel Of Moorish Spain
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
“The city of al-Zahra’ was one of the most splendid, most renowned, and most magnificent structures ever raised by man”. So wrote the great Arab scholar Ibn Khallikan when describing this Moorish dream city built by a king for the woman he loved. In its days of glory men came from the four corners of the world to view its breath-taking splendour. This day I had travelled to explore the remains of the fairy-tale town which had awed medieval historians and travellers.
The Andalusian spring-day was sunny and cool as we drove from the edging city of Cordova along the foothills of the Sierra Morena, known to the Arabs as Jabal al-‘Arus (the mountain of the bride) to the ruins of Madinat al-Zahra’. My heart pounded. My dreams for many years that one day I would explore the remains of this city; once unmatched in its beauty and richness, was now to be fulfilled. With my family I had come to relive for a few hours the glorious Arab past amid the ruins of what was in its day the most majestic complex of palaces in the world.
My feeling for this long abandoned royal town was not unique. Historians and poets had rhapsodized about its beauty, charms and splendour – attributes that had dazzled the imaginations of both Arab and European medieval authors.
We parked our car in front of the entrance then with a feeling of anticipation, entered the dream city of history. The sight below us was breathtaking. In the distance Guadalquivir, from the Arabic wadi al-kabir (the large river), snaked its way through the lush-green countryside. All around us were the remains, partially restored here and there. “Look at it now! If only we could only have seen this city when it was the jewel of Islam”, one of my daughters remarked. No one answered, yet, I am sure we all had the same sentiment.
How and why this enchanted Moorish capital from the Thousand and One Nights came to be built is a fascinating story. The Arabs in Spain between the years 711-1492 A.D. produced a great number of brilliant scientists and many great leaders. ‘Abd al-Rahman III, nicknamed al-Nasir (the Victorious) because of his many victories in war, was one of the most renowned of these leaders.
Under his rule, 912 – 961 A.D., Arab Andalusia became the richest and strongest country in the world. His armies were victorious and his navy controlled the seas. As never before, throughout his realm, industry and learning flourished. He became so powerful that he had himself proclaimed the first caliph of Muslim Spain. No one, not even the Caliph in far-away Baghdad, could challenge his decision.
A story is told that at the pinnacle or his power one of his wealthy concubines died. On her deathbed she willed that all her wealth be spent on the redemption of Muslim captives in the Christian countries of the north. Envoys were sent to search the lands of the Franks for prisoners. However, al-Nasir’s armies had not lost a war for many years and, hence, no captives could be found. This pleased the Caliph and he thanked God that no believer was incarcerated in his enemies’ prisons.
His beautiful mistress, al-Zahra’ (the flower) whom he loved with a fierce passion heard him give his thanks. Turning to him she asked in a joyful fashion, “With this money, why not build a palace and name it after me?” Al-Nasir took her words seriously and resolved to build in her honor a palace-city more beautiful than the world had ever known. This town he would call Madinat al-Zahra’ (City of the Flower), thus enshrining his sweetheart’s name for eternity.
Having decided to build this magnificent monument to immortalize his beloved’s name, in 936 A.D., he ordered the construction to begin. At first al-Nasir only intended to build a spot for the recreation of his lady-love. However, as the building progressed he changed his mind and decided to construct a well laid-out city to house the administrative personnel of the state and where all royal activities would take place.
As the creation of his grand project began to take shape he became so involved that, at times, he supervised and at other times worked with his own hands in its construction. This building of a town in a planned fashion was not to be imitated until our times when cities like Brasilia in Brazil and Islamabad in Pakistan were built from well laid-out plans.
The Caliph wanted his city to be not only the most illustrious but the most leisurely and relaxing place in the world. To this end he ordered the building of an aqueduct by tunneling through the surrounding hills to bring abundant water to his dream town.
The water was distributed throughout the city and reservoirs were always filled. Latrines with running water were present even in the homes of the servants. A few years ago archaeologists excavating in the ruins found sewer pipes large enough for a man to pass through. It must be remembered that this was at a time when in non-Muslim Europe not one city had running water.
For years the construction of this place of wonder continued on a massive scale. Many of the craftsmen and much of the material were brought from Constantinople, Baghdad, Damascus, Carthage and other places in North Africa, Rome and other European cities. Historians have given various statistics as to the manpower, animals and materials used. Nevertheless, the majority agree with the figures stated by Jan Read in his book, The Moors in Spain and Portugal. Read quotes Henri Terrasse in his Islam d’Espagne who maintains that ten to twelve thousand workmen and fifteen thousand mules along with four thousand camels were required to transport materials to the site.
Without counting the bricks and gravel, every day the works called for six thousand pieces of dressed stone and eleven thousand loads of lime and sand. For forty years one third of the treasury of Moorish Spain, at that time, by far the richest country in Europe, was spent annually on the construction of this incredible residence of the Caliph and his court. Even in this 21st century, with our modern technology, there are not many building projects larger in size. In the world of that era, this construction project must have appeared unbelievable, especially to the Europeans of northern Europe.
The city was laid-out on an area of 113 ha (280 ac), one mile long and half mile wide. It was built on three descending terraces each above the next, hence, allowing for a clear view of the countryside and river below. Turret-studded walls, giving it a false appearance of a separate fortress, surrounded each of these terraces.
The upper terrace contained the caliph’s extensive palace-complex with its reception halls, living quarters and harem section. Being the most important part of the city, it occupied a commanding view of the town below and beyond, the rich countryside. Located beneath the upper terrace, the second encompassed gardens overflowing with exotic shrubs and trees and a game-park filled with animals and birds gathered from all over the world. The third and lowest terrace was the real town. It had a large mosque and contained the offices of state, a mint, arms workshops, markets, bathhouses, imposing residences of important officials, including army officers and the humble homes of soldiers and servants.
In its prime Madinat al-Zahra’ had a population of 30,000. Although the Caliph and many of the high officials resided within its walls, Cordova with its 1,000,000 inhabitants was the real capital. In truth, al-Zahra’ was only a playground of kings – an enchanted town that spellbound the visitors from other lands.
When talking about this fabulous palace-complex, Enrique Sordo in Moorish Spain writes:
“With its marble-paved terrace overlooking the fine gardens, the magnificent decoration of the golden hall and the circular pavilion, its artificial lake and its reservoir always filled with clear water, Madinat al-Zahra’ must have been a dream palace indeed.”
Even the surrounding countryside was changed to suit the whims of al-Zahra’. A story is told that when the white-washed houses, gleaming in the sunlight, began to fill the city, al-Nasir’s beloved noted how they contrasted with the dismal appearance of the wild shrubs and trees covering the nearby lands. Standing beside her Caliph she appeared sad as she surveyed the charming buildings in the midst of the dull landscape.
Al-Nasir noticed her sadness and when he discovered the reason he decided to remove the surrounding mountain. However, his officers convinced him of the impossibility of this project. Hence he ordered the shrubs and trees be removed and in their place fig and almond trees planted. This much improved the scenery, especially in spring when these trees were in full bloom.
In the world of romance there are not many more charming love stories. In order to please his cherished woman, al-Nasir wanted to remove a mountain. When he found that it could not be accomplished he changed the scenery for her pleasure. His passion for his ladylove carried him even further. It is said that he was so infatuated with his beloved mistress that he had her statue carved in relief over one of the city gates for all to see – something rarely done in the history of Islam.
In 941 A.D., long before it was finished, al-Nasir with his court moved into his dream city but he continued to lavish fortunes on its enhancement until the day he died. His son
al-Ḥakam II continued with the embellishments until Madinat al-Zahra’ became one of the most magnificent cities ever built. According to historians, over 4,300 marble columns and as many as 15,000 doors of brass and iron, along with a number made of pure gold inlaid with precious stones, adorned the palaces and villas of this delightful royal town.
A good number of Arab travellers and historians wrote in glowing terms about this architectural wonder. Al-Maqqari in his History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain writes that one of the wonders of Madinat al-Zahra’ was the magnificent hall called Qasr al-Khulafa’ (the hall of the caliphs), the roof of which was made of gold and solid but transparent blocks of marble of various colours.
Continuing his description, al-Maqqari writes that in the centre of this hall there was a large basin filled with quicksilver and that on each side there were eight doors fixed on arches of ivory and ebony, ornamented with gold and precious stones, resting upon pillars of variegated marble and transparent crystal. When al-Nasir wished to impress his guests he ordered the quicksilver be set in motion. The reflection of the sun made it appear that the whole room was in movement. Some of the guests thinking, the room was rotating would begin to tremble.
Another building described by al-Maqqari is the mosque. He states that it was matchless in design and faultless in proportion and that it was a stupendous structure most beautifully
finished in all its parts. The open court, with a fountain in its centre pouring out limpid water, was paved with marble flags of a reddish hue, resembling the colour of wine. The maqsurah (ruler’s box) was of wonderful construction and magnificently ornamented and the minbar (pulpit) was of extraordinary beauty and design.
In this royal city that came to be known as the pleasure ground of kings, the caliph held his court. This fabled haunt of royalty dazzled ambassadors from other Islamic lands and European countries as far away as Constantinople. Al-Nasir’s representatives in both the Muslim and Christian lands talked about their fabulous capital where their sovereign lived. The stories they told multiplied the legends people would relate about this earthly paradise. These tales attracted visitors from many countries. Muslims, Christians and Jews, all came to see with their own eyes this town of legends.
European travellers who visited Madinat al-Zahra’ describe how the streets were paved and how its lighted avenues made night and day indistinguishable. It would be hundreds of years later before these amenities would reach northern Europe. To make a journey to Arab Spain in that era was as if a person today travels from Chad or Guinea to North America or western Europe.
To guard his royal abode, Al-Nasir had at least 12,000 men with weapons and dressed in uniforms decorated in silver and gold. Whenever he rode out of his palace-city either for pleasure or war, a troop of these bodyguards rode by his side. Their colour and glitter always made an impression on visitors from other lands. They added much to the pageantry and grandeur of the Caliph’s court.
Jan Read quotes a passage from the 12th century mystic Mu’yi al-Din Ibn al-‘Arabi who describes the pomp and ritual of Al-Nasir’s capital:
“An embassy from the Christians of the north of Spain arrived for negotiations with the caliph, who wished to overawe them with the magnificence of his court. He therefore had mats unrolled from the gates of Cordova to the entrance of Madinat al-Zahra’, a distance of a parasang (or upwards of three miles), and stationed a double rank of soldiers along the route, their naked swords, both broad and long, meeting at the tips like the rafters of a roof. On the caliph’s orders the ambassadors progressed between the ranks as under a roofed passage. The fear that this inspired was indescribable. And thus, they reached the gate of Madinat al-Zahra’. From here to the place where they were to be received, the caliph had the ground covered with brocades. At regular intervals he placed dignitaries whom they took for kings, for they were seated on splendid chairs and arrayed in brocades and silk. Each time the ambassadors saw one of these dignitaries they prostrated themselves before him, imagining him to be the caliph, whereupon they were told, ‘Raise your heads! This is but a slave of his slaves!’ At last they entered a courtyard strewn with sand. At the centre was the caliph. His clothes were coarse and short: what he was wearing was worth no more than four dirhams. He was seated on the ground, his head bent; in front of him was a Koran, a sword and fire. ‘Behold the ruler’, the ambassadors were told…”
The splendour of the city’s daytime activities were matched by the evenings filled with merriment in the palaces of the caliph and nobles. Zambras (evenings of merrymaking) were common for the pleasure of the caliph, emirs and their guests. Poets, both men and women, were always in demand and the best musicians and singers in the lands of Islam were welcomed with open arms. In that era, the richness of life in this city, which was the epitome of Muslim affluence and architecture in Spain, was the talk of the civilized world.
However, there were dark clouds moving in on the horizon. This ‘Jewel of Islam’ was not destined to last for long. The Berbers in the Iberian Peninsula rose in revolt in the year 1010 and destroyed the city, barely 74 years after its cornerstone was laid. Only two Caliphs, al-Nasir and his son al-Hakam II, had enjoyed its pleasures before the vultures had their day. After its destruction, the builders in the neighbouring towns and cities robbed the ruins of what remained of the rich ornaments and finely cut stone to beautify their palaces and mansions. A.R. Nykl in his Hispano-Arabic Poetry cites the ruler of Cordova, Ibn Jahwar, who while contemplating the ruins of al-Zahra’ a few years after it disappeared, sadly lamented:
“I said to the dwellings of those who had perished:
Where are your inhabitants whom you loved so well?
They replied: ‘Here they lived for a short while,
Then they went away; Where to? I do not know!”
It was long thought that Arab historians had exaggerated in describing the magnificence of this dazzling city, but recent excavations have fully confirmed their accounts. In spite of time and history, the remains still contain a never-ending source of archaeological wealth. The work of reconstruction in the last few decades has revealed a treasure of marble columns, capitals, sculptured stonework and pavements of geometrical design. These relics of parts of the palaces in that historic town indicate how picturesque and sumptuous must this abode of kings have been when it was the most majestic city in the whole dominion of Islam.
Standing that spring day on the spot where al-Nasir used to survey his fairy-tale city, I felt an inner sadness for this abode of lovers that has disappeared. Yet, it seemed to be rising from its ashes. As I walked around, I noted that here and there some restoration had taken place, the most notable being the Royal or Vizir Hall. The once majestic mosque now can only be pictured from the words of travellers. After its destruction only the ground plans remained. However, in recent times, work has begun on its reconstruction.
Resting awhile in the Vizir Hall, I dreamt about the Madinat al-Zahra’ of a thousand years ago whose tales rival those of A Thousand and One Nights. I remembered the words of al-Maqqari who wrote:
“Travellers from distant lands, men of all ranks and professions in life, following various religions, princes, ambassadors, merchants, pilgrims, theologians, and poets, who were conversant with edifices of this kind and had surveyed all this, all agreed that they have never seen in the course of their travels anything that could-be compared to it. ..it was in their time the chief wonder which travellers to Al-Andalus in those ages desired to behold.”
Today, this fascinating palace-city that had dazzled medieval Muslims and Christians alike, is no more. Only in the writings of historians and the fantasy of lovers is Madinat al-Zahra’, the jewel of Moorish Spain – a vision that remains real.