Today I visited Medinat al Zahra – the excavated city built in the tenth century and later buried only to be discovered in the early 1900’s. This was the most well organised and pleasant tour so far with a very friendly guide who alternated effectively between English and Spanish for his customers. A large air conditioned bus took us from Cordoba city to the large parking area at the base of the excavated city. Comprising over 100 hectares of which only one tenth has been excavated, the excavating team has constructed a museum some distance from the recovered site in order to allow for continued excavation over the years. An excellent video presents an animated explanation of the history of Medinat al Zahra, with interactive displays visually highlighting the existing topography alongside
the historical progression of the city. Unfortunately there was simply not enough time to adequately see all that was on display in this thoroughly high tech and modern display, busses waiting to take groups to visit the actual site.
The walk was long but well worth the effort even though the weather continued to be unseasonably hot. Entering first from the mountainside – the servant’s entrance with its militarily significant zigzag road – it was immediately apparent just how appropriate this site was for a city. With its back to the mountains, only a short distance from the existing city of Cordoba, and looking to the south over fertile fields, the city was adequately supplied by water, limestone deposits for building and minerals for mining. The city was built in an exceedingly short time despite the extensive carving and architectural decorations discovered all over the site. It was apparently built to support the claim to Caliphate of one of the last dynastic inheritors of the Umayyad rule, a rule that had been successfully challenged in other parts of the empire. Standing on the ruins of this beautiful city, overlooking the gardens and the carefully laid out quarters of the Caliph – from his throne room, administrative areas and private areas – it is hard to believe that it could have been built so quickly and destroyed again so quickly. Within 70 years rebellions throughout the caliphate and ‘fitnah’ and discord had caused the Caliphate to crumble, the whole site being pillaged for its building parts by other conquerors. Gradually landslides, natural erosion and earthquakes buried this beautiful city – with its magnificent arches, careful planning and ideal location, remaining hidden for nearly a thousand years.
Returning full of thought and wonder for the rise and fall of civilisations, power and wealth, I then trekked to the Caliphate’s baths – only a short distance from Al Mesquita. Fortified by a small tortilla (potatoey omelette with red pepper garnish) and fresh bread lavishly covered with light whipped butter, I was ready for more hours of walking. The Caliph’s baths – like so many parts of Andalusia – did not represent one epoch only, but stages of history. The first baths were established as part of the Caliph’s personal cleanliness routine, with up to 500 eventually being located throughout Cordoba for public use. As the Muslims were conquered, so their Christian successors built their own baths – using some of the former baths – as the Muslims had previously by including Roman designs. Cool and shadowy, filled again with the classic palm type column and arch found in Al Mesquita, they were vaulted over with natural light streaming through star shaped holes in the arched roofs. With lavatories, disrobing areas, cool room, warm rooms and abundant flowing water, these baths once again represented an advanced civilisation which nevertheless was lost in time.
From there I wandered to the Alcazar – the huge palace built by Spanish conquerors over the former fantastic Alcazar belonging to the Muslims. According to the displays, each conqueror wanted no rival from the past, so the former Alcazar had to be completely buried in order for the new Christian conqueror to built an even bigger and more elaborate palace – one which would have no existing rival. Indeed Alcazar today is replete with beautiful gardens, orange groves and citadels of power, but it is also stained with the terrible history of the inquisition. The horrific torture and deprivation of justice and humanity was palpable as I walked the corridors and climbed the stairs of towers and vaults. No such history of brutal repression, ghastly repression of thought and climate of fear and intrigue has been associated with Muslim rule. Rather the rule of Muslims is acknowledged by all parties as a time of flourishing art and culture, wisdom and respect for different faiths, and development of science and literature. Even the history of military conquests have not discoloured the acknowledged greatness of Islamic history in these parts, something I am immensely proud of.