Madinat al-Zahra and the Spaces of Knowledge

by Susana Calvo Capilla Published on: 20th February 2020

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The Revival of Classical Antiquity in Cordoba in the 10th century:




Fig 1. Above: Roman cornice (1st Century A.D.) found in Ramírez de Arellano Street, Córdoba. Archeological Museum of Córdoba (inv. CE028345). Below: cornice crowning the socle inside the mihrab of the Great Mosque of Cordoba (354/965).

The palatine city of Madīnat al-Zahrāʼ was, together with the enlargement of the Mosque of Cordoba, the great monumental project of the caliphate. Launched by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III (r. 300/912-350/961) around 324/936, the works were extended during some fifty years in numerous consecutive phases until the death of his son al-Ḥakam II (r. 350/961-366/976). Towards the year 400/1010, the city was sacked for the first time and fell into abandonment. Since its discovery in the late 19th century, in the northeast of Cordoba, the parts excavated so far (less than half of the surface occupied by the city) allows us to understand the wealth and complexity of the palatine ensemble. A new palace for the caliph, reception halls, residential units for the courtesans, a congregational mosque, gardens, spaces destined to the administration and the army as well as the neighbourhoods constituted the royal city. And there was something else: knowledge spaces.

Finding a collection of Roman sarcophagi and sculptures in some buildings of the palace of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ has led me to rethink the reasons why materials from Classical times were reused in Islamic architecture and the role played by Antiquity in the construction of al-Andalus. The presence of Roman sculptures in an Islamic palace of the 4th/10th century is absolutely exceptional so far. Why were Classical spolia used at a time, when they were no longer popular? Why reutilize old pieces with so many connotations, featuring scenes and characters (heroes, philosophers and muses) which were a priori pagan and hardly acceptable in an Islamic context like the Caliphate of Cordoba? What was the meaning assigned to these figures and what relationship did they have with their designated location?


Fig. 2.  Left: base of a column from the Sarcophagus found on the area of the Camino de Ronda Bajo Madinat al-Zahra’. Right: Marble base from the ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III’s Hall, Madīnat al-Zahrā’ (inv. 151.57)

The Roman sculptures and reliefs from al- Zahra’ were discovered over an extended period of time, starting from the first excavation campaigns undertaken by Ricardo Velazquez Bosco in the early 20th century, to the most recent ones.  Every piece was found in advanced stages of deterioration, impeding the process of gathering all the fragments necessary to reconstruct the pieces.  The fragments of the Sarcophagus of the Gate of Hades were uncovered in an area of the known as Court of the Clocks, above the vaults of the baths and the rooms adjacent to the Salon Rico or ‘Abd al-Rahman III’s Hall, located in a lower terrace. At the front, on both sides of the Gate of Hades or Tabernacle, we can see a couple represented as philosophers and accompanied by two muses each. Each of the minor sides features two philosophers, one of them sitting and the other standing, holding open and folded uolumina or scrolls. On the upper part of both sides there are orifices made later for its use as a fountain.


Fig. 3. Excavated areas of the Palace of Madīnat al-Zahrā’. 1: Court of the Pillars. 2: Court of the Clocks. 3: Court to be excavated. 4: Camino de Ronda Bajo (Lower Footpath).

The Sarcophagus of Meleager was discovered during the earliest excavation campaigns of the palace-city. The scene depicted at the front shows Meleager hunting the Kalydon boar. The decorated front faced the Western portico of the court. The fragments of two other sarcophagi depicting Philosophers and Muses and a Bacchic scene were discovered in a mound on the Camino de Ronda Bajo (Lower Footpath), north of the Lower Garden. The Philosophers and Muses sarcophagus is a piece of exceptional dimensions. Some characters are holding a uolumen or scroll and wearing a tunic as palliatus, both articles commonly used for the depiction of philosophers and masters. The fragment depicting the image of a female head in profile, dressed with a chiton and playing an aulós, most likely belonged to a scene of Bacchic thiasos.

Fig. 4a.
(Left) Sarcophagus Gate of Hades in the Court of the Clocks. Front fragments. Photo : D-DAI-MAD-WIT-R-116-91-10…
Fig. 4b. (Right) Sarcophagus Gate of Hades. Fragments of the left side. Photo: D-DAI-MAD-WIT-R-116-91-03


Fig. 4c. Sarcophagus of the Gate of Hades: reconstruction drawing by E. Candon and J. Beltrán, 1999 (fig. 41)

Finally, an outstanding herm of Heracles as a child and a series of fragments of three solar quadrants (sundials) were found in the Court of the Clocks, which suggest it may have been used for scientific and astronomical activities. It should be remembered that caliph al-Hakam II had a team of astronomers and astrologers in his service.

According to the Andalusi sources, Madīnat al-Zahrā’ housed spaces dedicated to the education of the princes, places where the scholars (physicians, astronomers, grammarians, legal and religious scholars –‘ulamā’ and fuqahā’) employed by the caliph worked, as well as the archives and the famous palatine library, called by Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ the bayt al-ḥikma of al-Ḥakam II. In his biography of Abū Bakr Ibn al-Salīm, jurisprudence expert and great qadi (judge) of Cordoba, Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ brings up an anecdote supposedly taken from Ibn Ḥayyān (d. 469/1076), the best-informed historian about the tenth century. According to that account, before rising to the position of cadí in 356/966-7, Ibn al-Salīm would have criticised Abū l-Qāsim Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Yūsuf, tutor to Prince Hišam, because al-Hakam II had paid him to collate his books. But, years later, and despite his misgivings, the caliph persuaded Ibn al-Salīm, “resorting to his love of science” according to the chronicler, to “collate (muqābala) [his books in] the dawāwīn (sg. dīwān) of his bayt al-ḥikma” and also in exchange for payment.


Fig. 5. Sarcophagus of Meleager in the Court of the Pillars. Orifices on both minor sides for their use as basin.

This extraordinary mention of al-Hakam’s house of knowledge, the only one I know of so far, is by an author who wrote almost two centuries after the events, when the expressions bayt al-ḥikma and jizānat al-ḥikma were customarily used and interchangeable. According to Van Bladel and Gutas, those two expressions refer to one of the institutions dedicated to preserving knowledge in the Abbasid court of al-Ma’mun. Qāḍī ‘Iyāḍ, considered to be a rigorous historian who had studied in the East, could have copied this term from an earlier source, like Ibn Ḥayyān, or could have decided to use it by assimilation with the events in Baghdad. In either case, the mention seems very eloquent to me and complete the information that was already known about the al-Hakam’s library.


Fig. 6.  Sarcophagus of Philosophers and Muses of Madinat al-Zahra’. Fragments of the front. Conjunto Arqueológico de Madīnat al-Zahrā’

Al-Maqqari (d. 1040/1631) quotes earlier authors in his Nafḥ al-tīb to describe al-Hakam II as “a lover of science who gathered more books than any other sovereign”. According to Ibn Ḥazm, “the treasure (khizanat) of knowledge and books was in the house of the Banū Marwān, and the catalogue of books, including only the title and description, took up 44 volumes of 20 pages each.” He sent his emissaries to Baghdad to look for originals and copies and paid generous amounts of golden dinars; “In his library, he gathered experts in transcription and the copying of books, skilled in preservation and book-binding”, in addition to correctors and illuminators. As said by these authors, in the libraries also took place the collation of the copies and the translation of books from Latin and Greek into Arabic, a movement which implications are yet to be properly evaluated. These libraries were also called al-khizāna al-‘ulūm wa l-kutub bi-dār Banī Marwān.


Fig. 7. Sarcophagus found on the Camino de Ronda Bajo. Bacchic thiasos (?)

What was the exact location of the caliphal libraries? This is still unknown, but there is no doubt the books were distributed at least between the two main caliphal residences of Cordoba and Madīnat al-Zahrā’. We do not have any formal or typological equivalent to identify these spaces, since the earliest Eastern institutions –such as the Bayt al-Ḥikma and other Abbasid centres dedicated to the recovery, preservation and promotion of sciences— did not leave any material trace. Textual descriptions suggest that in the 9th and 10th centuries these were multifunctional areas, with no clearly established architectural typology (In order to find buildings that were specifically designed to store books, teach and study, we must go back to Classical and Late Antiquity.)


Fig. 8. Herm of Heracles as a child from the Court of the Clocks. Conjunto Arqueológico de Madīnat al-Zahrā’.

One of the challenges in the study of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ is precisely to identify the functions of certain palatial spaces. It was only recently that the historiography has detached itself from the old Romantic and Orientalist view of the Islamic palaces as a setting for leisure and pleasure. To reach any conclusion about the functionality of a space we need to, not only examine its architectural forms, its decoration and the materials found in its interior, but also the historical, cultural and artistic context. Some buildings of the palace with a central courtyard, in particular the Court of the Pillars and the Court of the Clocks, considered so far as “administrative and service areas”, have enough peculiarities to suggest that they had a quite more specialized function. Their strategic location inside the palace, their architectural structure and, above all, the fragments of sundials, Roman sculptures and sarcophagi reused as fountains in their courtyard suggest that these were spaces related to scientific and intellectual activities. These figures of philosophers and muses would only be acceptable in a domain related to the sciences of the ancients (ʽulūm al-awāʼil), where the images of the philosophers and the heroes of the Antiquity would be recognised and accepted thanks to the books collected and the numerous scholars and scientists active in the court of the Caliphs.


Fig. 9. Plan of Court of Pillars. By Vallejo, 2011 (fig. 43)

The adoption of the caliphal dignity by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III (r. 300/912-350/961) in 316/929 led al-Andalus to become the most important artistic and knowledge centre in the western Mediterranean, directly competing with the Fatimid and Abbasid Caliphates and with the Byzantine Empire. As a mean of legitimisation, the Andalusi Umayyads invoked the legacy of the “Rightly Guided” caliphs and of their eastern ancestors that enabled them to present themselves as supreme guides and guardians of Sunni orthodoxy. Similarly, like their Umayyad ancestors and the 9th century Abbasid Caliphs, al-Ḥakam II promoted the sciences and the arts, surrounded himself with scholars and took care of the princes’ education, following the model of the wise rulers, i.e. Alexander the Great, Khosrow, Ardashir and the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mūn. Finally, while becoming the heirs of their Hispanic past, Roman and Hispano-Visigothic, they built a political, cultural and visual corpus predominantly Andalusi.


Fig. 10. Plan of the Court of the Clocks. Vallejo, 2011 (fig. 58)

Those factors were translated in their artistic projects. The phenomenon of recovering Antiquity prompted by the Caliphal court explains why reliefs and Roman sculptures were properly accepted and understood in Madīnat al-Zahrā’. This can also be seen in the revival of classical forms in caliphal architecture. One example is the Classical cornice crowning the basement of the mihrab of Cordoba or the caliphal bases and capitals. In the reception halls of Madīnat al-Zahrā ‘ (called maŷlis by Ibn Ḥayyān), the Andalusi Umayyads recovered the Roman tradition of ceremonial space, used for the cult of the sovereign, that the oriental Umayyads had introduced in their palaces.


Fig. 11. Fragment of one solar quadrant found in the Court of the Clocks (piedra caliza). Museo de Madīnat al-Zahrā’ (Nº Inv. 30135).

The historians at the service of the Umayyad dynasty partially outlined the theoretical discourse upholding the use of spolia in the tenth century monuments. Chroniclers, such as Ahmad al-Razi, were commissioned by al-Hakam II to write a history of al-Andalus. Myths and history were often confused: mythological figures became historical characters both in the East and in al-Andalus, like Hirqilish. If we also consider the survival of certain images from the Greek-Roman mythology related to the stars, such as the female statues crowning the gates of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ and Cordoba, we have sufficient evidence to conclude that the choice of sculptural reliefs representing scenes of muses and philosophers in a studious environment surrounded by books, was a deliberate action designed to exalt –in this case, through images— the importance of Ancient heritage in the creation of the Caliphal culture. Those Roman sculptures became allegories to “the Wisdom of the Ancient”, a visual reference to a past which Muslims had already claimed as their own in the 9th century, and now Andalusi Umayyads used as a means to legitimize their ascension to the Caliphate.

Click here for the full article in Spanish (Espanol) that was originally published in Anales de Historia del Arte, 2012, vol. 22, Num. Especial (II), 131-160.

Sources of the Text

“Madīnat al-Zahrā’ y la observación del tiempo:  el renacer de la Antigüedad Clásica en la Córdoba del siglo X.” In Anales de historia del arte, Departamento de Historia del Arte (Universidad Complutense de Madrid), vol. 22, 2012. pp. 131-160.

“Los espacios de conocimiento en el Islam: Mezquitas, Casas de la Sabiduría y Madrasas.” In M. Parada López de Corselas (ed.), DOMUS HISPANICA. El Real Colegio de España y el cardenal Gil de Albornoz en la Historia del Arte, Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2018, pp. 179-193.

Fig. 12. Sarcophagus Gate of Hades. Right side. Photo: D-DAI-MAD-WIT-R-116-91-11.

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