Most things Islamic, Eastern or Different ways of living often comes with an exotic flavour and it is no different with Al-Andalus. The region has been viewed and perceived with a certain colourful flair thanks to the Orientalist efforts and it is hard not to associate with it when one learns about one of the greatest complexes of the region- Madinat Al Zahra.
But there is another side to this site.
Walking around Madinat Al Zahra has touched me on a deeper level than any buildings have ever visited and I have done many major architectural sites across the globe. I connected with it because it is a symbolism of the Muslim faith I respect deeply and love fiercely. In my estimation it symbolizes a mental attitude that was growing in the region- a confidence that was new, fresh, and surprising to the local as well as the rest of the world. The building of this site started in 936, seven years after Abd Ar Rahman III declared himself the caliph, promoting his position from being the emir while challenging the psychology of Muslims and the rest of the world. Being a caliph meant being a serious contender and he was not shy of announcing it to the rest of the world. So he built a palace complex to demonstrate he meant business.
The palace complex is just a few kms south of Cordoba and its full extent has never been excavated in its totality since it has been destroyed by the Berber mercenary armies of Al Mansour from North Africa in 1009. Its former glory talks of the glory of the Umayyads and that was exactly Abd Ar Rahman III’s aim with this project, his greatest public statement to the world. It is a magnificent, proud, loud and impressive set of palaces, gardens and vision of a truly powerful empire. He is thought to be so obsessed with it that he was reprimanded of not attending Friday prayers in the Great Mosque for several consecutive weeks. In a way, he demonstrated that building impressive palaces became his priority as he gradually turned away from faith itself. He put all his political, economic and social vision into the structure. The site sits proudly overlooking the land underneath and its intricate inside symbolizes its inward, self-contained beauty while stands confidently over the hills.
Al Maqqari’s described the palace as “…Its ceiling was of gold and a marble pure in colour and of many hues; its walls were the same. In the centre hung a magnificent pearl which Leo, the Emperor of Constantinople, has presented to al-Nasir. The roof tiles of the pavilion were of gold and silver. In the middle there was a large tank of mercury. The hall had eight openings formed by inter lacing arches of ebony and ivory inlaid with gold and all manner of precious gems. The arches were supported on columns of coloured marble and pure beryl. When the sun came through these openings and its rays rebounded off the roof and walls, the hall sparkled with light, and confounded all vision. When al-Nasir wished to impress visitors, he would signal one of his slaves to disturb the mercury. Then there would appear in the chamber a brilliancy like lightning which would fill their hearts with fear”.
Abd Ar Rahman III. wanted to inspire and induce awe from anyone who visited him so he ordered to set up sound effects and lions roaring at the background as ambassadors stepped into the lavish palaces. Wild animal zoo at he back, it reverberated distant noises through technological tricks creating fear and admiration in anyone’s heart who had the privilege to step into the world of the Umayyads. And what a world it was! The world that expressed how powerful the Umayyad dynasty has become and what powers they created. This site symbolized a shift from the community to the lavishness they conjured up and showed proudly to the world, that eventually led to the fall of the empire. By the time the Berber tribes arrived in 1009, it was signalling the end of the once powerful dynasty and destroying it was becoming an inevitable next step.
To be continued…
Here is the official link if you are planning a visit to Madinat Al Zahra