Al-Zahra – City of Andalus

by Rabah Saoud Published on: 13th January 2002

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Al-Zahra became renowned for its high advanced civilisation, style and protocol in addition to the extensively decorated walls, floors and ceilings of its buildings. Venue for the legendary reception of King Ordono IV of Leon, held in 962.


Summarised extracts from a full article:
A review on Architecture in Muslim Spain and North Africa (756-1500AD) by Rabah Saoud

Medinat Al-Zahra is commonly associated with the name of Al-Zahrawi, the renowned Muslim surgeon invented the ‘forceps’ and the ‘catgut’. However its significance is in its beauty and the power it yeilded albeit for a short duration. This article is meant to arouse the interest of the reader to assist in providing more material about this town on which there seems to b little information. Al-Zahra was founded by “al-Nasir lidin-Allah”, Abd-al-Rahman III who ruled Cordoba between 912-961.

Beginning in 936, the town was slowly developed, mainly under Al-Hakem II (961 – 976), into a rectangular complex of about 875 by 1230 yards consisting of residential and administrative quarters enveloped within strong walls.

The town represented an urban unity defined by strong ramparts and composed of topographical as well as functional hierarchy reflecting the socio-economic and political status of the community.

The area was organised in terraces descending towards the Wadi al-Kabir “Guadalquivir” valley and comprising a considerable number of gardens, pools, arcades, halls and housing complexes. The northern terrace, the highest, accommodated the Caliph’s palace (Dar al-Mulk), which dominated the site and the plains beneath leading to the river. The power of the palace extended beyond the site to the whole of Andalusia and Europe.

The middle terrace accommodated the administrative buildings and palaces of important dignitaries and the Caliph’s entourage. The most important buildings of this section were the house of the Prime Minister Jafar al-Mushafi who took this position in 961, and two major public reception halls; Dar al-Wuzara “House of Viziers” , and to the south the Caliphs’ main reception hall. The mosque laid beyond the middle terrace was built by 1000 craftsmen in record time of 48 days (Hattstein & Delius, 2000). The remaining part of the town, the lower terrace, was reserved for infantry and cavalry housing as well as ordinary citizen. It has yet to be excavated.

Al-Zahra became renowned for its high advanced civilisation, style and protocol in addition to the extensively decorated walls, floors and ceilings of its buildings, which were depicted at least in two documentary occasions.

The legendary reception of King Ordono IV of Leon was held in 962. Historic sources described this famous event and what happened to the visiting Christian King. He arrived at the main entrance gate on the northern terrace situated near the large portico. As he entered, he was taken in an official royal procession through rows of guards, with their parade uniforms, lined up on the stone benches, which bordered the walls of the sloping streets. The procession went down to Dar al-Wuzara(endnote 4) (House of Viziers) where the king was asked to climb down from his horse and was taken inside for a short rest. Later, he continued on foot to the main Caliphal reception hall where the Caliph waited for him. At the end of the reception with the Caliph, the King went back to Dar al-Wuzara before departing to his country.

The second legendary reception was the one Abd al-Rahman III gave Johannes von Gorze, the monk ambassador of Emperor Otto I (962-973). Descriptions provided by Muslim writers are numerous, but the position of Al-Zahra cannot be better demonstrated than in Ibn Zaidun’s poetry (1003-1070), especially the following verses:

“I have recalled you with longing in al-Zahra,
Between limpid horizon and sweet face of earth whilst the breeze languished at sunset, almost diseased with pity for me.”

The city was destroyed in the civil war of 1010, which led to the emergence of Taifa Kingdoms. The state of ruin of Medinat Al-Zahra and the destruction of written documents made the task of assessing its contribution to Muslim and European world very difficult. However, there are suggestions that relate its influence on Europe to the spread of the horseshoe arch (in addition to Cordoba Mosque), as well the spread of Royal protocol and reception procession. The full impact of Medinat Al-Zahra still needs further exploration especially by Muslim scholars.

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