This is episode 41 called Caliphal Córdoba and Medina Azahara and in this episode you will learn:
- An introduction to Caliphal Córdoba
- How Córdoba evolved over time, from being a Roman foundation to the Caliphal era
- Key elements of Córdoba and areas of expansion
- Why the Andalusi capital grew to become a great metropolitan city during the 10th century
- What did the Emirs and Caliphs of Córdoba build to expand Córdoba and improve the living conditions of its inhabitants
- The construction of the palace-city of Medina Azahara, when did works begin and how much it costed
- The legendary story of why Medina Azahara was built and its meaning, and a description of its magnificence
- Court ceremonies and protocol during the Caliphate of Córdoba
- The caliph’s private residence and the family of Abd al-Rahman III
- The second and third terrace of Medina Azahara, and the messages that the complex intended to send
- A reflection about the destruction, preservation and restoration of heritage
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 41 called Caliphal Córdoba and Medina Azahara. In this episode you will learn about the growth of Caliphal Córdoba and the construction of the palace-city of Medina Azahara. Don’t miss an episode, subscribe to the podcast!
“The largest city of al-Andalus is Cordoba, with no other equivalent in the Maghreb, except for Upper Mesopotamia, Syria or Egypt, with reference to its population, the area it occupies, the space dedicated to the markets, cleanliness, the architecture of the mosques and the great number of baths and grain storage cooperatives. […] It is a considerable and large city with an elegant plan. There are large fortunes and luxury spreads out in many ways: in the beautiful fabrics and dresses made of smooth linen, wild or refined silk, as well as in its agile horse-men and the different kinds of food and beverages.” These are the impressions that the geographer and traveler Ibn Hawqal had when he visited Córdoba in 948. Caliphal Córdoba surpassed in scale all the other contemporary European cities and most of the Islamic ones too, constituting a metropole only comparable to Baghdad. When we talk about Caliphal Córdoba, we are talking about a conurbation of between 3,500 and 5,000 ha, and to give you a reference that’s about more than a third of the hectares currently occupied by Barcelona, excluding the metropolitan area. 10th century Córdoba didn’t form an urban continuum though, since there were many groups of houses separated by open spaces too, and as I said in episode 40 ‘Economy of al-Andalus’ Caliphal Córdoba had anywhere between 100k and 300k inhabitants. But how did Córdoba reach that level of development?
Back in 1929, the veterinarian and historian Rafael Castejón tried to create a city model of Caliphal Córdoba to commemorate the millenary anniversary of the proclamation of the Caliphate, but he recognized with pessimism the limitations of our knowledge about the Córdoba of the 10th century. Ever since then, there have been archeological findings that have helped improve our understanding, but there are still many things that we don’t know, just like there are many gaps in history that will probably remain unfilled. However, I will try to draw the image of Caliphal Córdoba considering the latest archeological findings, but let’s briefly see how Córdoba evolved over time. As you probably know, Córdoba was a Roman foundation, and when the Muslims arrived they found a city in decay. This wasn’t something unique of Córdoba, because the same phenomenon of decreasing urbanization was happening across the Latin world since the 3rd century. The Umayyad caliphs of Damascus chose Córdoba as the capital of al-Andalus because of its geostrategic value and because it had been conquered by force, thus the city could be distributed among the conquerors. The Muslims settled inside the city walls, while the majority of the Christian Hispano-Gothic population moved outside to the suburbs.
However, during the period of dependent governors there wasn’t a clear urban planning to develop Córdoba, and it wasn’t until the arrival of Abd al-Rahman I that the urban landscape of Córdoba started to change completely. He started the construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba, as well as the fortress-palace later known as the Alcázar of the Caliphs. These buildings, along the market, configured the core elements of Umayyad Córdoba, in accordance to the political and religious ideology of the Umayyads. The foundation of the almunia or villa of al-Rusafa near Córdoba is also notorious, because many members of the Cordoban elite founded these large farms with precious gardens because for some reason the Andalusis loved botanical gardens. Throughout the 9th century, Córdoba kept expanding mainly westward and northward, since the destruction of the suburb of Secunda following the repression of al-Hakam I stopped the southern expansion on the other side of the Guadalquivir river.
Although there were some elements of continuity of the Roman and Christian past, the urban topography of Córdoba changed over the centuries to clearly become an Islamic city. It’s important to highlight that, because unlike it was previously thought, it’s not clear if the minority dhimmi population, that is, Mozarabs and Jews, had their own separated neighborhoods. Recent evidence seems to indicate the contrary, but there is nothing conclusive. What’s clear is that the society of Caliphal Córdoba was predominantly Muslim, but it was also a multiethnic and multireligious society marked by coexistence, rather than an idyllic convivencia. The great urban transformation and development of Córdoba happened during the reign of Abd al-Rahman III, although all the previous generations of Umayyad emirs had laid the foundations of that development, because like Rome, Córdoba wasn’t built in a day.
Caliph Abd al-Rahman III was a man who could do more than one thing at a time, and while he was busy suppressing the rebellions inherited from his grandfather Abd Allah, al-Nasir was also taking care of Córdoba. During the reign of al-Nasir, more and more people moved from the countryside to Córdoba looking for opportunities, in part due to the degree of political and economic centralization of the Umayyad regime, that’s why Caliphal Córdoba required heavy public and private investments in new infrastructures. The surrounding areas of the historic medina quarter of Córdoba became densely urbanized, creating a great metropolitan area that transformed the fields and orchards into urban spaces with mosques, baths, or cemeteries. The expansion of Córdoba happened in all directions, but especially westward towards the palace-city of Medina Azahara that I will discuss later, although during the dictatorship of Almanzor the construction of the palace-city of Medina al-Zahira briefly stimulated the expansion to the east.
The Umayyads planned this expansion and used both old Roman roads and new roads to articulate the urban development of Caliphal Córdoba, always along the construction of new infrastructures and facilities. Continuing the tradition of the previous Umayyad emirs, Abd al-Rahman III expanded the Great Mosque of Córdoba and remodeled it. He ordered the refurbishing of the courtyard of the Great Mosque, the construction of the monumental mosque tower, the minaret of the Great Mosque of Córdoba, and the facade of the mosque that separated the prayer room from the courtyard was restored. His son and successor continued that task and he widened the prayer room and introduced many structural and decorative changes. Al-Hakam II added mosaics to make the Cordoban mosque look more like the Umayyad mosques of Medina, Jerusalem or Damascus, and this was a conscious effort to remember their past as Caliphs of the entire Muslim community and legitimize the Cordoban Umayyads as caliphs. Moreover, tens of new mosques and private and open prayer spaces called musalla were constructed in Córdoba and across al-Andalus during the 10th century, a symbol of the triumph of the Islamic society.
Apart from religious buildings, there were many works to improve the living standards in Córdoba. The Caliphate paved roads, expanded markets, and build new mints, post houses, fountains, public baths or a sewerage system. Other facilities like public ovens, academies, lodges, libraries or orphanages were also needed as Córdoba continued to expand, although interestingly there doesn’t seem to have been a hospital in Córdoba and medical consultations and treatments were rather private. The Umayyads and members of the elite founded these projects as investments or as charitable foundations to improve their social prestige. The demands of the status-hungry elite and the growing population helped to refine the crafts of al-Andalus and converted Caliphal Córdoba into the economic engine of al-Andalus, similar to the current role of Madrid for Spain. To sum up, during the Caliphate Córdoba was transformed into a cosmopolitan metropolitan capital, worthy of being the capital of a caliphate.
But the best-known construction ordered by Abd al-Rahman III is the magnificent palace-city of Madinat al-Zahra, Hispanized as Medina Azahara. Basically, the role of Medina Azahara is the same that centuries later El Escorial had in Habsburg Spain or Versailles in France. Medina Azahara was a great palace-city that matched up to the dignity of the Caliph as a symbol of his power. The city was located very near to the official capital, 7 kilometers or 5 miles west of Córdoba, in the foothills of a mountain of Sierra Morena. It was a city that comprised an area of 112 hectares, and Medina Azahara had its own administrative offices, mosques, markets, workshops, gardens, residences, and baths. The construction of Medina Azahara began either in 936, after a great fire had devastated the center of Córdoba, or in 940, after the Battle of Simancas that we will see in the next episode. The cost of the complex was as high as the scale of this ambitious project, and it’s said that the construction involved 10,000 workers and consumed one-third of the annual revenues of the Caliphate of Córdoba during its construction, between the 940s and 950s. Such a colossal undertaking hadn’t been done in Europe for ages, if ever.
You may wonder what’s the meaning of Medina Azahara and the origins of that name. A legendary story claims that a slave concubine of Abd al-Rahman III died leaving a large sum of money to ransom Muslim captives. But since there weren’t any at that time, a concubine of al-Nasir called al-Zahra asked him to build a town for her and give it her name. Since al-Zahra was the favorite of the Caliph at that time, Abd al-Rahman acceded to her petition, and that would be the legendary reason of why the palace-city was founded. However, the motivation behind starting such an expensive project wasn’t that trivial. The name Madinat al-Zahra in English would be translated as the Resplendent City, and this name was chosen to show the superiority of the Umayyads over their archenemies, the Fatimids. The magnificence and richness of the palaces and gardens of Medina Azahara is attested in many different sources. A description of the reception hall known as Salón Rico mentioned that the hall had a gold and silver roof, walls of colored marble, and there was also a giant pearl that the Byzantine Emperor had sent as a gift. In the center of the Salón Rico there was a large tank of mercury too, and this has been corroborated by archeological findings. The 16th century Algerian historian al-Maqqari wrote: “as the sun entered through these doors and its rays played off the roof and walls of the hall, it sparkled with light, confounding all vision. When al-Nasir wanted to impress his visitors, he would signal to one of his slaves to cause the mercury in the tank to vibrate, whereupon there would appear in the chamber a flash like that of lightning bolts that would fill the hearts with fear.”
As his power became more absolute, Caliph Abd al-Rahman III distanced himself more from his subjects, a calculated absence to produce absolute omnipotence and to almost become a divine figurehead. We see rulers doing that many times in history, and for those of you who have read The 48 Laws of Power this is Law #16: Use Absence to Increase Respect and Honor. Moreover, related to the increasing isolation of the Caliph, Abd al-Rahman III and his successors came to rely increasingly on mercenaries and slaves and his Berber allies for war, and on individuals that were not ancestral Umayyad clients for administrative posts. We see this trend happening in the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates, but giving so much power to alien groups isolated the Umayyads from their ancestral clients and the common people that legitimized their rule in the first place. As we will see, that had dramatic consequences for the Caliphate of Córdoba after the death of the Caliph al-Hakam II. Going back to my point, Emir Abd al-Rahman II had already imitated the protocol and formalities of the Abbasid Caliphate, which in turn were based on the court ceremonies of the Byzantine and Iranian tradition. But with the proclamation of the Caliphate of Córdoba, Abd al-Rahman III and later his son al-Hakam II sophisticated and made more complex and solemn the courtesan protocol. Sadly, we don’t have a ceremonial protocol like the Byzantine contemporary De Ceremoniis, and the majority of stories of the court life of Córdoba are from the reign of al-Hakam II. But we know a few things that I would like to discuss.
Although we know mainly about the strict rules of etiquette inside the reception hall, the truth is that the entire complex of Medina Azahara served as the setting for the ceremonies. The typical ceremony would start with the caliph of Córdoba arriving alone in the reception hall after praying in the mosque. The religious and political overlap is calculated, since a caliph claimed to be both the political and religious leader of the Muslims. When the caliph seated on the throne, all the other groups could move following a particular order. First the brothers of the caliph seated near the caliph, then the viziers made their entrance and paid their respects, and then different public officials or visitors entered according to their hierarchical rank and status. It’s interesting to highlight that, despite having a pretty big standing army, the Caliphal Cordoban army didn’t have a voice in the court, as the state and society had a strong civil character. Moreover, at least foreign delegations had to kiss the hand of the caliph to pay their respects. However, despite how sophisticated and opulent these ceremonies may sound, the courtesan protocol of the Caliphate of Córdoba wasn’t the weirdest of the world. Unlike the Abbasids or Fatimids, the Umayyads didn’t use a semi-transparent curtain to signal the unbridgeable gap between a caliph and all other men, so we can conclude that the Caliphate of Córdoba didn’t have the time to reach that level of invisibility and omnipotence of the caliph. Despite the superficial differences, the objectives of courtesan ceremonies and protocols are always the same: they are rituals of power, to allow rulers to manifest their power with a set of symbols and rules.
Leaving that aside, let’s focus on other aspects of the Caliphal complex. The palace-city of Medina Azahara was divided in three terraced slopes. The uppermost palace was the caliph’s private residence, home to his harem of wives and concubines, young children, and other Umayyad family members. Three of Abd al-Rahman’s wives stand out. One was known as Umm Quraysh, a local woman of humble origins that the Caliph had met while she was bleaching clothes on a riverbank. The brother of Umm Quraysh, Najda ibn Husayn, greatly benefited from their marriage, as he was promoted in several administrative positions until he became a general. The second relevant wife was Fatima, a cousin of al-Nasir, and the third was Marjan, a beautiful and clever Christian woman who machinated to make Fatima lose the favor of the Caliph. Marjan became the confidant of Abd al-Rahman and she was the mother of al-Hakam II, the second Caliph of Córdoba. But losing the favor of the Caliph wasn’t the worst that could happen to you, since we know about some stories of concubines who offended the Caliph and paid a very high price, in one occasion the disfigurement of her face and in another outright execution. As seen in other occasions, Abd al-Rahman could be a very cruel man.
About his off-spring, in total Abd al-Rahman III had 11 or 12 surviving sons and 16 daughters. His sons received palaces and estates with all the rents associated to them, to ensure a comfortable living, while at the same time they were forced to live confined outside of Medina Azahara to avoid the emergence of pretenders and conspiracies. The Fatimids or centuries later King Louis XIV did exactly the contrary and they had potential conspirators living under the same roof, because as it’s said in The Godfather Part II, keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Of the other family members, it’s worth to mention that, although the succession occurred without opposition, Abd al-Rahman III had to execute some Umayyads who aspired to succeed him. I’ve counted three conspiracies involving Umayyads, one in 921, another in 936, and maybe the most shocking one occurred in 950, when al-Nasir followed in his grandfather’s steps by executing himself one of his sons. According to one source, Abd al-Rahman cut the throat of his son during the Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, in emulation of the Prophet Abraham who killed his own son too. Despite these bloody stories, it’s true that the large Umayyad family stood remarkably behind Abd al-Rahman. Apart from the family of the Caliph, eunuch slaves of predominantly northern Spanish and Eastern European origin lived in the royal palace too. In 961, when Abd al-Rahman III died, it’s said that he had 3,750 saqaliba male slaves and 6,300 female slaves. Some of these slaves were later freed and some even got rich and bought their own slaves, but of course that was the exception rather than the rule.
The second terrace of Medina Azahara was the administrative palace, with the reception hall, two wide gardens, and the residence of hundreds of courtiers, high functionaries, aristocratic hostages and envoys. At the bottom, in the third terrace, we could find the residence of all the other workers, shops and a mosque, with all the Medina Azahara complex surrounded by a defensive wall. It’s evident that Medina Azahara was a showcase of the power and wealth of the caliph, built of the finest materials from al-Andalus and beyond. The gardens were presided by plundered pagan statues, thus calling to mind the richness of the Greco-Roman heritage. Foreign envoys could admire relics or the booty won in battles, as well as luxurious gifts that had been sent by foreign rulers, such as the marble fountains and giant pearl that al-Nasir received from the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII. The gilded and bejeweled Caliphal throne was intended to recreate that of the Biblical Solomon, while the furnishing of the palace was opulent and it included the finest ironwork, furniture of exotic woods, and boxes manufactured with African ivory. The palace also held an immense library, especially during the reign of al-Hakam II, that contained thousands of volumes representing the knowledge of the Islamic and Latin tradition.
In 947 the mint of Córdoba was relocated to Medina Azahara and from then on we see a proliferation of floral motifs on the coins too, so it’s clear that the upper Andalusi class was crazy about plants. The complex of the Salón Rico and the gardens of Medina Azahara were an earthly emulation of the Paradise as conceived in Islam, as a well-watered garden with palaces and pavilions where male Muslims would have beautiful women at their disposal. The asymmetry in the pairs of floral motifs in the Salón Rico or the layout of the gardens are also understood by an interpretation of the Quran, and the message that Abd al-Rahman III was trying to send is that the Umayyads ensured the spiritual salvation and that if there was a Paradise in this world, it must have been Medina Azahara. The location of Medina Azahara on the slope of a mountain also helped common Muslims to get a glimpse of how the Paradise looked like, and for the Caliph the panoramic views of Córdoba represented his control over al-Andalus. Nonetheless, the power of the Umayyads in al-Andalus wouldn’t last too long, and Medina Azahara would be destroyed and sacked several times in the civil wars that suddenly brought the end of the Caliphate of Córdoba and the Umayyad dynasty. The 11th century Andalusi poet al-Sumaysir wrote: “I stopped at al-Zahra in a questioning mood, / contemplating and weeping over the scattered ruins, / Saying: Oh, al-Zahra, come back, come back! / But she said: Can the dead return to life?”.
THE VERDICT: In today’s verdict I want to discuss the destruction and restoration of heritage. Throughout history, we sadly see many times how landmark monuments and historic sites are destroyed for a variety of reasons. Sometimes cultural heritage is damaged or destroyed by a natural disaster, or accidentally by negligence. But the worst and criminal reason is to destroy that heritage deliberately. ISIS destroyed many ancient sites and artifacts to remove whatever they considered pagan and contrary to Islam, while also selling valuable items in black markets. Unfortunately, the destruction of native temples and books also happened in the Spanish conquests of America, because they were considered basically Satanic and it was a way to erase the collective memory of the natives and establish a new order. In China we see hundreds of examples of destruction of heritage, sometimes caused by natural disasters and other times because of religious persecutions. Quite commonly destruction happened when a Chinese or foreign dynasty defeated another and destroyed palaces and other monuments as a symbol of their victory, and many times rebellions allowed common people to loot and plunder as much as they could for their personal benefit. A mix of political and purely selfish economic reasons seems to have provoked the destruction of Medina Azahara during the fitna of al-Andalus, and when something is destroyed, it’s likely impossible to have it restored to its original state. We cannot change what happened in the past, but we can protect and restore our heritage now, and people and civil societies should be more aware about the importance of heritage to put pressure on politicians to protect our history. Thousands of years from now all the buildings we see now will have disappeared, maybe the human race or the Earth will no longer exist, but we have to protect our heritage for as long as we can. And with that, The Verdict ends.
In the next episode I’m going to talk about the reign of Ramiro II of León and especially the decisive Battle of Simancas. To end this episode, let me remind you that the podcast has a website, thehistoryofspain.com, that has a fantastic store with merchandising, history books, travel guides, books and materials to learn Spanish, and more. If you love the podcast, you may want to support it by becoming a patron or making a donation, but there are other non-financial ways to support the show, like reviewing the podcast or spreading the word. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, YouTube and more and follow the social media accounts of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn. I hope you enjoyed the episode and thank you for listening!
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