The City of Al-Zahra
Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland
The most magnificent monument of Islamic Spain was probably not the well-known Alhambra (See page 28) which still stands in all its splendor in Granada, but another remarkable palace complex which once stood in the foothills five miles west of Cordoba : Madinat al-Zahra. City of the Flower, or Blooming City. Begun in 936 by Caliph Abd al-Rahman III as a country home for his court favorite, al-Zahra, it grew in concept and was not completed until 40 years later by al-Hakam II. In 1010, during a Berber revolt, Madinat al-Zahra was destroyed. Its stones were quarried for other buildings over the centuries until, covered by earth and vines, its site was nearly forgotten. Only in recent times did the Spanish Government painstakingly begin to restore some of the palace, piece by tiny broken piece.
During the few brief decades of its glory Madinat al-Zahra elicited an abundance of superlatives from contemporary writers. Ten thousand men and 2,500 mules labored to build the palace, which contained some 4,300 marble columns, many imported from North Africa and Italy, and 140 columns sent by the Emperor Constantine VII of Byzantium. Walls were inlaid with ivory, ebony and jasper. An exquisite green marble fountain was imported from Syria and surrounding it were 12 red-gold statues encrusted with pearls and gems. The statues were made in Cordoba and represented a cockerel, a kite, a vulture, a lion, a stag, a crocodile, an eagle, a dragon, a dove, a falcon, a duck and a hen.
Nearly 14,000 people lived in the palace-city when it was finished: servants, soldiers, women and children. The complex included some 400 buildings with inns, schools, workshops and even a zoo. Evidently 1,200 loaves of bread a day were required just to feed the fish in the ornamental ponds.
To dazzle visitors there was a pool of quicksilver in the reception hall which set off a kaleidoscope of flashing light when struck by sunlight. The mystic Muhyi 'I-din ibn al-'Arabi wrote an account of one visit to the palace - by an embassy of Christians from the north of Spain whom the caliph particularly wished to awe with the magnificence of his court. Along their route from Cordoba to Madinat al-Zahra he had stationed a double rank of soldiers, "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."
Within the gate the caliph had ordered 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 center was the caliph. His clothes were coarse and short. What he was wearing was worth not 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."
This article appeared on page 17 of the September/October 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.