The Medina Azahara, or as it is sometimes stylised, the Madinat al-Zahra, is an unsung wonder of an archeological site but it really is so much more than that.
This site was once the powerful capital of al-Andalus with a marvellous vantage point for keeping a watch across Córdoba and continues to be shrouded in mystery and romance today, from its brief but colourful 80 year existence.
The History of the Medina Azahara
The first Umayyad Caliph of Córdoba, Abd-ar-Rahman III, ordered the construction of Medina Azahara in the year 936 which took 35 years to complete with 10,000 workers shifting up to 6000 bricks per day. It is nestled in the Sierra Morena, just 5km away from the city centre.
Legends paint a picture of a man enamoured with a beautiful woman named Azahara however the more likely political reason was that he wanted to create a bold statement of his power to his rivals in North Africa and the Middle East.
“In the re-imagined images of how it would have looked, it’s not hard to see what a sensuous and evocative land it would have been to fall in love…”
This city overlooking a city was fully functioning with exotic gardens, animal menagerie, libraries and money mint, a mosque and precious materials such as ivory, marble and amber in abundance. The Caliph’s several wives plus concubines lived there along with other highly ranked members of the Caliph’s men and servants.
It is said that it was something of an Utopia for those eight decades, living harmoniously and in excellent conditions for the time until it was quickly deserted after the death of the next ruler, Abd-ar-Rahman II’s son, Al-Hakam II in 976. Eventually it was torn down in the early 1000s when Berber soldiers arrived and demolished it, taking many of the resources for building their own new cities.
The Medina Azahara lay undiscovered for 900 years until excavation work began in 1910; today only 10% of the original site has been uncovered (ongoing depending on funds from the Spanish government).
How much does it cost and how can I get there?
If you are an EU citizen (I’ll hold off on the typical Brexit jokes..) it is free to enter. If not, it costs just 1 euro 50, which is amazing when you think how much some other, less impressive sites can charge up to. You can easily spend a couple of hours here so it’s a great excursion from Córdoba if you are on a budget.
Be careful with the heat though. I visited in mid November and was dressed in a long sleeved top, dungarees and thick black tights and ankle boots. This was absolutely fine in the street but when I got up to the Medina, the sun was beating down strongly despite the time of year, exacerbated by its high up and wide open positioning.
Options for getting there:
By car: You can drive up as far as the reception where you will park. Cars are not permitted to drive right up to the archeological site. Once there, a shuttle bus comes every 20 minutes to take you for the remainder of the journey.
By bus: There is a public bus which runs between Tuesdays and Sundays at 10am, 11am and 16:30pm in the summer. It costs 9 euros for the return trip and gives you 2 and a half hours to see the site before coming back to collect you.
What is there to see once you’re up there?
I keep meaning to show my Dad the Medina Azahara but he always visits me in the peak heat of July which would be scorching. If you are a fan of archeology, history, culture or even art then you will be in your element here. If you aren’t, well I am very sure that anybody would be in awe not only at just seeing this site but understanding what it actually once was.
I had seen pictures online and thought it looked sort of interesting, something to do on a Sunday with no other plans… then I visited and got way more than I had bargained for.
Firstly, you are lead into a cinema room which looks very much like a university lecture theatre. An explanatory video is played with Spanish audio and English subtitles and I recommend 100% that you go to see this before exploring the Medina as it illuminates so much of the key information that I doubt you could truly get much out of the visit without knowing these details first.
The fact which shocked me the most was that after all the effort and expense, it was only used for 80 years. All that, for not even a century! This is just how extravagant, fickle and wasteful humans can be when you think about it.
When I was in Marrakech, I visited Le Jardin Marjorelle and purchased a little poetry book in the gift store called ‘Andalus- Moorish Songs of Love and Wine’ selected and translated by T. J Gordon and I just had to have it.
In this little treasure, there is a poem written by Ibn Zaidun for the Princess Wallada which expresses his intense love for the Caliph’s daughter and the ruins of the jasmine and orange tree laced gardens of the Medina Azahara made for their secret meet ups.
An extract from T.J Gordon’s translation from Arabic into English of the poem he has entitled ‘Ode in the Letter Nun’ is as follows:
‘How I remembered you in the gardens of Zahra-
The horizon was clear and the face of the Earth did glow.
The breeze died down towards evening, as though it
Pitied me, and languished from compassion
While the garden was smiling with its silvery water
As though you had loosened necklaces from above your breast’
[Copyright of this translation belongs to T.J Gordon © and Eland Books- His website can be viewed here]
At the time of my wandering around the former gardens and palace rooms at the Medina Azahara, I had not yet read any of the al-Andalus poetry but could still sense the history of love and war at every turn. In the re-imagined images of how it would have looked, it’s not hard to see what a sensuous and evocative land it would have been to fall in love.
Visitas Nocturnas (Night visits)
As of April 2018, visits to the Medina Azahara have also been ran of a nighttime to allow for cooler temperatures and for those who don’t have time during the day. This year, these visits will run until October.
I have not yet visited during the night time but will make sure I do one day soon as I can imagine that the views over Córdoba from high up would be astounding with twinkling house lights in the near distance. I also imagine it would be really atmospheric.
Tourists who are only passing through Córdoba briefly- this is also a great way for you to fit in more sights while you are here as you can see this of a night and the other things you’d like to see in the usual daytime. Return to Córdoba city centre after your Medina Azahara night trip and find yourself a nice restaurant to chat about all you’ve just seen and learned over a lovely rioja and you’ve got the best of all worlds!
UNESCO World Heritage Site Status
In 2018, another exciting update for the Medina Azahara is that its committee has been successful in acquiring UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Córdoba has been recognised by UNESCO since 1984 under its Historic Centre.
They are recognised as a collective World Heritage Site rather than separately.
To ensure its historical significance is maintained at the core, this accolade will be awarded under the name Ciudad Califal de Madinat al-Zahra. ‘Zahra’ means to shine in Arabic so the city’s name’s original meaning is ‘the city that shines’.
While one can try their best to imagine how the excavated remains once appeared, it must have been way more impressive than we can visualise.
If you are able to read Spanish, visit their website here:
You can also find out more in English by visiting the following links:
So, with the Medina Azahara’s rich and intriguing history and its new place in society being recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a visit here should now be much higher up your Spanish travel list than ever!
Tell me below what your favourite sites in Córdoba are or if you have visited the Medina Azahara yourself, tell me what you thought of it!
What posts about Andalucía would you like to see next?
Let me know below! 😉