Al-Andalus. 10th Century. Córdoba and Culture.

Abd al-Rahman III and Córdoba.

During the 10th century, al-Andalus enjoyed enormous political and cultural clout, especially under Abd al-Rahman III (ruled 912-961), his son al-Hakam II (r 961-976), and the vizier al-Mansur, effective ruler during most of the reign of Abd al-Rahman’s grandson, Hisham II (r 976-1009).

The capital, Córdoba, was a centre of learning and the largest city in Europe, attracting visitors from far and wide. It dazzled with its civilised air and multicultural activity, with Muslims, Jews, and Mozarabs (Christians living in al-Andalus) mingling at all levels.

Córdoba’s most famous attraction, the Great Mosque from the air. A Christian cathedral rises from the middle of the mosque.
One of the favourite “photo ops” in Cordoba. The Calleja de las flores with a view of the Renaissance belfry that replaced the minaret in the 16th century.

Diplomats and emissaries came from far and wide: Constantinople, the Holy Roman Empire, the Maghreb (North West Africa) and also from the fledgling Christian kingdoms north of al-Andalus wanting to make peace with Abd al-Rahman. Visitors brought with them expensive and exotic gifts: gold and silver, silk, firs, rare wood, horses, slaves, rugs, tapestries to enrich already wealthy rulers.

Madinat al-Zahra.
Abd al-Rahman III’s stature, the bustling souks, the paved streets, public lighting, gardens and fountains and luxurious villas along the banks of the Guadalquivir impressed visiting dignitaries to Córdoba.  And to top it all there was the Great Mosque which, although not the finished product we see today, was already an impressive structure.

Around 936, Abd al-Rahman commissioned another building, a magnificent, fortified palace complex and mini city just 6 kilometres west of the city. It now lies largely in ruins, but in its day it was as remarkable as the Great Mosque, if chronicle descriptions are anything to go by. Covering 115 hectares (284 acres), Madinat al-Zahra, as the complex is called, was not an idle whim of Abd al-Rahman. It was built as the new centre of government with all the lavish opulence befitting the most powerful state in Europe.

At the same time, it was a statement of Abd al-Rahman’s personal authority and a powerful declaration of his greatness. Madinat al-Zahra was (in much the same way as Abd al-Rahman’s self-declared title of “caliph,” which he took in 929), a challenge to the rival Abbasid caliphate in the Middle East, whose royal palaces in Baghdad and Samarra were widely admired.  Madinat al-Zahra was not completed until around 976, during the reign of al-Hakam II (ruled 961-976).

The complex was built hierarchically in three tiers on an arid hillside of the Sierra de Córdoba, looking over the Guadalquivir valley. The upper tier housed the caliph’s residence, the middle contained the lavish reception halls, offices and the homes of government officials, as well as orchards, gardens and ponds, an aviary and a menagerie.

On the lower terrace we find the mosque, markets, baths and the houses of the common people and the army. Here, too, there were gardens. It is hard to imagine the sumptuous greenery and extensive ponds now, because the land is so dry. But the life blood of the whole complex was a long system of underground pipes and aqueducts that carried water 16 kilometres (10 miles) from the hills to the north.

According to Arabic historians, some 10.000 men with 2.600 mules and 400 camels were required to cart marble and jasper and other costly materials to the site. These included over 4.000 columns (about four times as many as used in the Great Mosque), many brought from Carthage and other ancient cities. Guests and envoys were guided from the outer area of the palace along paths carpeted with costly rugs and coverings.

Medina al-Zahara: Salón rico.

The Salón Rico (Rich Hall), where they were received by the caliph –dressed in a simple white robe– was constructed of the finest tinted marble. The horseshoe arches of this room retain the alternating red and white masonry curvature of the Great Mosque that became a hallmark of the Umayyad style.

In the middle of the Salón Rico was a large bowl filled with mercury. When the caliph wanted to impress, he would have the base of the bowl rocked and so dazzle his guests with the reflections of the sunbeams as they ricocheted from the surface of the mercury around the room.

The excavated ruins give a glimpse of the magnificence of Madinat al-Zahra. Our imagination must feed on those samples of arabesque patterns and floral and arboreal motifs** delicately carved on the wall surfaces and capitals in the Salón Rico, and on the descriptions provided by visiting dignitaries.

**In many ways, the decorations in Madinat al-Zahra
anticipate the intricate arabesques of the Alhambra
in Granada.

When Abd al-Rahman died in 961, the still incomplete but magnificent palace must have conveyed an air of power and permanence. And yet perhaps nothing in Spain better captures the vagaries of destiny or the fragility of fame than the fate of this complex.

By 1010, i.e. within 35 years of completion, it lay in ruins, plundered and destroyed during the civil wars that led to the disintegration of the Umayyad caliphate. After being cannibalised for its stones and columns (used, for example, in the building of the monastery of San Jerónimo nearby), Madinat al-Zahra lay buried and forgotten until the mid-19th century. But it was only in the 20th century that excavations began, and an enormous amount remains to be done among the rubble.

Multicultural Contribution.
As a centre of learning and diplomatic activity, Córdoba was in constant contact with distant countries, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Here its multicultural make-up served it well. 

It had lively Christian and Jewish communities, and Abd al-Rahman III and al-Hakam II made use of members of both groups to further diplomatic aims.  For example, a Christian cleric named Recemund not only enjoyed a career as civil servant under Abd al-Rahman, he also went on a year-long diplomatic mission on behalf of the caliph to the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I. In return he received the bishopric of Elvira (Granada), an elevation which he appears to have earned through his bargaining power than through religious zeal. There is no doubt that he was a Christian, but there is no evidence also that he ever exercised his bishopric role, since he remained in Córdoba. In addition, he later traveled again on a diplomatic mission, this time to Constantinople. As a Christian cleric it would be natural for him to speak Latin, and his continued presence in the caliph’s court also meant that he was fluent in Arabic.

A more intriguing figure is Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915-970). Perhaps no individual better captures the multicultural aspect of life in Córdoba or the important role of the Jews in al-Andalus at this time than Hasdai, personal physician to the caliph, adviser, diplomat, scholar, benefactor and patron.

Hasdai ibn Shaprut was born in Córdoba in 915 to a wealthy Jewish family. In addition to Hebrew, he also studied Latin and was fluent in Arabic and the Spanish of the time.

When still a young man he attracted the attention of the caliph with his knowledge of medicine, particularly the properties of poisons and their antidotes (poisoning was a favourite method of assassination!). He soon gained the confidence of Abd al-Rahman III and worked his way up the ranks to become the caliph’s personal physician (and in that capacity cured the king of León, Sancho el Craso (Sancho the Fat), of obesity in 957!).

As personal physician to the ruler, Hasdai found himself in a powerful position. Gradually he began to undertake tasks of a sensitive diplomatic nature on behalf of the caliph. As a Jew, he could be called upon to act discreetly** between Muslims and Christians, especially when political alliances between the two groups took precedence over religious concerns.

**Hasdai’s prudence is attested to by a Christian abbot,
who praised his Jewish contemporary as “none more
wise was ever seen or heard of…
” (Smith 63).

A case in point is when Hasdai served as intermediary between Abd al-Rahman III and the Christian emperor of Byzantium in the late 940s against a common enemy, the Caliph of Baghdad. His talents as negotiator and translator were called upon also to mediate with Christian courts, in León, Burgundy and the German empire

One of the benefits of travel and of his high profile was that Hasdai ibn Shaprut was able to establish and maintain close contact with fellow Jews over a wide area. Records indicate that he took a keen interest in the welfare of Jewish communities as far as Central Asia, and that he actively participated in attempting to alleviate suffering or discrimination wherever possible.

As his fame grew he received requests for assistance, which he always tried to give. Elected leader (nasi) of the Jewish community in Córdoba by Abd al-Rahman, Hasdai also played a major role in encouraging cultural expression among the Jews of al-Andalus. He became a patron of scholars and founded a school in Córdoba. When a major Talmudic academy was closed in Baghdad, Hasdai purchased the library and had it transferred to Córdoba.

As a result the Jews of al-Andalus became far less dependent on the rabbinic schools of Baghdad for their guidance, and developed a sense of their own autonomy. One of the results of this is that scholars from the Middle East and North Africa, attracted by the fame of Córdoba, flocked to the city, ushering in what has been called a cultural golden era in Sephardic history.

Barrucand, Marainne & Bednorz, Achim  Moorish Architecture in Andalusia  Cologne 1992
Christys, Ann   Christians in Al-Andalus 711-1000  Richmond, Surrey 2002
Fletcher, Richard  Moorish Spain London 1992 (paperback 1994)
Fletcher, Richard The Quest for El Cid  London 1989
Gerber, Jane S  The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience  New York 1994
Hitchcock, Richard Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: Identities and Influence Aldershot, England 2008
Melville, Charles & Ubaydli, Ahmad Christians and Moors in Spain, Vol. III Arabic Sources Warminster, England 1992
Smith, Colin Christians and Moors in Spain, Vol. I Arts & Phillips Ltd: Warminster: England 1988

Image of mosque from the air: By Toni Castillo Quero – Flickr: [1], CC BY-SA 2.0,
Image of Salón Rico, Madinat al-Zahra: