Madīnat az-Zahrāʾ was the capital of the 10th century Umayyad caliphate in al-Andalus and is today one of the most important sites of Islamic culture in the west. A five-year project is dedicated to the investigation of the Plaza de Armas, the main public square of the caliphal city. The aim of the field season 2017/2018 was the documentation and investigation of the Great Portico, which delimits the Plaza de Armas in the west and forms the façade of the caliphal palace. Seven phases of construction, use and destruction could identified, spanning the time from the foundation of the city in 936 or 940 to its destruction at the beginning of the 11th century and its subsequent demolition. Of particular interest are sediments from a period in which the portico was used a marble workshop. The documentation of the architectural fragments found during the excavation of the portico in 1975 was completed, furnishing further information on the original appearance of the portico, particularly the pavilion above the central arch. In addition, a geomagnetic survey was conducted in the area to the east of the Plaza de Armas, in order to study the eastern limit of the plaza. The dimension and structure of several buildings could be determined, including a second great portico.
Report of the second season of work at Madīnat al-Zahrā’
Madīnat al-Zahrā’ was founded in 325 AH/936 AD by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III as the capital of the western Umayyad caliphate. The city with its palaces, gardens, mosques and workshops quickly became the cultural center of the West, rivaling cities like Bagdad and Cairo in the East. Inhabited for less than a century, Madīnat al-Zahrā’ is today among the most important archaeological sites of the Islamic culture and is currently a candidate to be inscribed in the World Heritage list, placing it on the same level as Samarra’ and Historic Cairo.
Archaeological work has been conducted at the site for more than a century. Ricardo Velázquez Bosco (from 1911 to 1923), Félix Hernández Jiménez (from 1923 to 1975) and others brought to light the central area of the caliphal palace, including the famous Salón Rico. Comprehensive restauration work was carried out thereafter by Rafael Manzano Martos from 1975 to 1985. Antonio Vallejo Triano, director of the site from 1985 to 2013, lead a thorough reinvestigation and restauration of several building complexes, oversaw the construction of a well-equipped site museum and published a monumental book on the site.
Unlike the central palace area, little is known so far of the city and the subsidiary palaces of Madīnat al-Zahrā’. The aim of a new project is the study of the so called Plaza de Armas, a large public square to the east of the zone excavated to date. The plaza served as the main intersection between the palace and the city. To the west of the square lies the palace, to the south the congregational mosque of the city, to the east a so-far unknown building, possibly a secondary palace. The investigation of the plaza and its surrounding buildings offers new insights on how the caliph interacted with society and how this interaction developed over time.
Fig. 1: Work at the Great Portico of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ in 2017 (photo F. Arnold).
Work at Madīnat al-Zahrā’ is currently conducted within the framework of an agreement signed between the Junta de Andalucía and the German Archaeological Institute in 2015. In May 2017 a five-year project (“Proyecto General de Investigación”) was approved by the Junta de Andalucía, with the aim of investigating the Plaza de Armas. The first season of field work was carried out in June and July of 2017, in collaboration with Alberto Canto García of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Geophysical work was conducted in October 2017, and additional work in the magazines of the museum was carried out in the spring of 2018. Participants were Felix Arnold, Alberto Montejo Córdoba (director of Madīnat al-Zahrā’), Alberto Canto García, Richard Colman and Ana Zamorano Arenas (archaeology), Klara Czarnitzki (topography), Heike Lehmann and Yoshifumi Yosuoka (architecture), Anja Heidenreich and Esther Engel (pottery), Tomasz Herbich and Robert Ryndziewicz (geomagnetic survey), as well as the students Christoph Fahrion, Wioleta Jablonska, Desiré Pérez Navazo, Tyler Perkins, Reinhard Stolle and Alejandro Ugolini Sánchez-Barroso.
Fig. 2: Location of excavation trenches (drawing F. Arnold).
Documentation and excavation work in the Great Portico
The main objective of the second season of the project was the archaeological investigation of the western façade of the Plaza de Armas, which is occupied by a monumental portico. All architectural remains visible today were documented in detail and a total of 10 trenches were undertaken to investigate the original appearance of the portico and study its development over time (Fig. 1-2). Among the main results of the work is a further clarification of the building phases of the area, with implications for the site as a whole (Fig. 3). In addition important information was gained on the use of the portico, including sediments of a marble workshop.
Fig. 3: Development of the palace façade (drawing F. Arnold).
From the time of the foundation of the site remains of an enclosure wall are preserved. The wall is only 1 m thick and built of ashlar masonry, in some parts combined with segments made of rubble masonry using volcanic rock. At this time Madīnat al-Zahrā’ covered an area of only 600 x 650 m, and comprised for the most part a large plantation. Historical sources suggest that al-Zahrā’ was at first designed as a recreational summer palace (al-munya) for the caliph, comparable to other such palaces in the area surrounding Córdoba. Some sources indicate 325/936 as the year of foundation, others the year 329/940.
The initial enclosure wall was intermittently reinforced by buttresses. Two large towers might indicate the location of an original entrance gate. A trench conducted this season to verify whether a gate actually existed here did not yield any results, however, since the original masonry is not preserved in the segment between the towers. Subsequently a gate was added further north and reinforced with additional masonry. Over time this secondary gate came to function as the principal entrance to the palace complex, probably to be identified as the “Bāb al-Sudda” mentioned in historical sources.
Only a few years later – certainly before the reforms begun in 339/950 – the original enclosure wall was reinforced in the north and east. The wall was now about 2.25 m thick and supplied on the outside in regular intervals with buttresses or small towers. To the north the enclosure was extended by 7 m and given a slightly divergent orientation. The reason was probably the construction of a new palace complex within the enclosure, possible in the area later occupied by the so called Salón Basilical. This building may have been roofed by the glazed tiles, which have been found in the debris below the floors of the subsequent Phase 4. The tiles were glazed in different colors (green, yellow, white and manganese) and probably formed a design on the roof. The identification with the famous cupola hall of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ is possible, which is said to have been constructed early on and dismantled after 949 on the advice of the scholar and judge Munḏir ibn Saʾīd.
On the eastern side the buttresses of the enclosure wall are not of equal size and placed at irregular intervals. To the north and south the buttresses are larger, comparable to those on the northern side of the enclosure. In the central segment – flanking the preexisting palace gate – the buttresses are smaller and spaced more closely. The intervals correspond to the walls of a building placed on the inside of the enclosure wall. The ground plan of the building resembles that of a palace hall, with a broad central hall flanked at either end by square side chambers. The ground floor appears to have served from the start as an entrance passage to the palace, however. Possibly a reception hall was located on the second floor, a motive found in many early Islamic palaces including several Umayyad “desert castles”, the round city of Bagdad and the Alcázar of Córdoba. The design of the outer façade of the hall, possibly with a central arcade and two flanking windows may have predetermined the location of the buttresses on the outside of the enclosure wall.
The reinforcement of the enclosure wall with buttresses and the refurbishment of the palace gate indicate a growing importance of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ as a caliphal residence. According to historic sources the mint and the caliphal workshops were moved to the site in 336/947-948, a clear sign that Madīnat al-Zahrā’ was now considered to be the capital of the caliphate. A congregational mosque had been constructed in 333/944-945, a prerequisite for Madīnat al-Zahrā’ to be considered a city (madīnat) apart from nearby Córdoba.
Fig. 4: Reconstruction of the central arch of the portico with the pavilion above (drawing F. Arnold).
Starting about 339/950 the palace buildings of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ were replaced by monumental structures including the Salón Basilical and in 342–345/953–957 the famous Salón Rico. At the same time a city wall was constructed, enclosing not only the palace area (qaṣr, Spanish Alcázar) but also the urban area, 750 x 1500 m in total. At this time the space in front of the existing palace gate (Bāb al-Sudda) was enclosed to form a monumental plaza of 114 x 150 m. To this end a more than 10 m high terrace wall was constructed to the south, facing the congregational mosque located on a lower level. The buttressed palace façade now functioned as the western side of this plaza. To open the façade of the palace to the plaza a huge pillared portico was constructed. Among the prototypes of the portico may have been the palace façade of Khirbat al-Mafjar near Jericho (West Bank).
This season the southern end of the portico was clarified. The façade of the portico turns out to have been asymmetrical, with a central arch marking the location of the preexisting palace gate, seven arches to the north and six arches in the south. The placement of the pillars appears to have taken into account the location of the buttresses of the existing palace façade, quite possibly because of the existing second story. Only in the north and the south additional buttresses needed to be added to support the cross arches of the new portico. Architectural elements found during the excavation in 1975 indicate the existence of a second story above the central arch in the form of a columned pavilion. The pavilion may have functioned as a mirador-like extension to the hall on the second floor of the existing palace (Fig. 4).
The portico now served as a reception area to the main palace of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ and as the starting point of an inclined passage leading to the new Salón Basilical. Along the back wall of the portico a high bench was constructed. Holes along the front edge of the bench indicate that the bench was used to dismount and fix horses, by visitors proceeding into the palace on foot rather than on horseback. For these visitors a side entrance was created to the north of the main gate. To the south a second side entrance gave access to a passage leading to the lower terrace of the palace, including the Salón Rico.
An excavation to the south of the portico brought to light a massive stone foundation (Fig. 6). The huge masonry probably served as the substructure for a ramp leading up to the portico from the level of the city. Whether this was the only access at this time to the plaza will have to be verified in a coming season.
Fig. 5: Foundations discovered at the southern end of the portico (photo F. Arnold).
The bench built in Phase 4 along the back wall of the portico was enlarged in Phase 6. In the northern half of the portico this enlargement of the bench was placed on top of a sequence of sediments which had accumulated on the pavement of the portico and must therefore date from the time between the construction of the portico in Phase 4 and the extension of the bench in Phase 6. A test trench excavated this season indicates that the sediments consist exclusively of refuse from cutting of stone (Fig. 6). A rapid sequence of fine layers may be observed, each composed exclusively of one kind of stone – white marble, pink breccia, gray limestone and yellow breccia. The layers must originate from cutting these materials into shape to create architectural building elements such as column bases, shafts and capitals. Among the stone chippings remains of tools were found including polishing stones of hard stone (Fig. 7) and the tip of a metal pick. Bones of sheep may originate from the breakfast of the craftsmen.
In Phase 5 the portico thus appears to have been utilized as a workshop for high quality building elements. The restricted space within the palace and the high price of the materials used may explain the location of the workshop just outside the palace gate and in plain view of visitors. The portico furthermore provided shade for the craftsmen. For which building the elements created here were intended is not known. The Salón Rico comes to mind, which is the closest building in which all mentioned materials were used.
Fig. 6: Sediments of a marble workshop on the floor of the portico (photo M. Pijuán).
Fig. 7: Tools used in the workshop to polish marble (photo A. Ugolini).
Later – possibly during the reign of al-Ḥakam II (350–365/961–976) – some of the arches of the portico were closed. One reason appears to have been the construction of a new gate which provided directed access to the plaza from the north – important for visitors and possibly soldiers wishing to bypass the busy market street of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ to the south of the plaza and gain direct access to the palace gate from the outside. A ramp needed to be built in front the portico to connect the level of the plaza to the street outside the northern city wall. For this reason the three northern arches of the portico were blocked.
The documentation work carried out this season clearly shows that the southernmost arches of the portico were closed as well at this time. The objective appears to have been to create closed spaces inside the portico. The northernmost space appears to have been used as a stable, the one next to it as a latrine. Others appear to have been used as offices, however, and the creation of these offices may have been one of the main reasons for blocking the arches.
At least two such offices are preserved. To the north of the main gate lies a square chamber with benches along three sides. Visitors needed to dismount first, before entering the chamber. The second office was located inside the palace walls, at the southern end of the entrance passage. The square chamber communicated both to the entrance passage to the north and the portico to the east and thus served as a kind of intermediary zone between plaza and palace. A staircase outside the office allowed visitors to dismount more easily. On top of the staircase holes indicate that a wooden balustrade was constructed here along the front edge of the bench, and access to the bench could be closed by a wooden door.
Historical sources mention that both the chief of police (ṣāhib al-šurta) and the prefect (ṣāhib al-madīna) of the city had a seat (kursi) near the main gate of the palace (Bāb al-Sudda). The two preserved offices may be identified as the seats of these two officials – one to oversee the protection of this vulnerable point of access to the caliphal palace, the other to control the flow of visitors, and possibly to accept petitions addressed to the caliph.
In the northern half of the portico remains of a destruction layer of the portico are preserved. Aside from fallen stones, bricks and roof tiles parts of the burnt wooden roof construction were recovered. Some wood fragments found this season might originate from the boards of a flat ceiling, resembling those of the mosque of Córdoba. Large fragments of a thick concrete pavement indicate that the portico had a flat roof. The destruction layer probably dates from the time of the fitna, when Madīnat al-Zahrā’ was sacked in 399/1009 and 401/1010. Trenches originating from the subsequent dismantling of the stone masonry date from subsequent centuries.
Documentation of materials from the excavation of the portico in 1975
Another focus of this season was to complete the documentation and study of the materials recovered during the excavation of the Great Portico by Félix Hernández in 1975. More than 1.200 pieces of architecture have now been registered, photographed and described: Many have also been drawn to scale. The architectural elements provide essential information on the buildings on the second floor of the portico, including the pavilion above the central arch. Among these are 3 bases, 8 column shafts, 7 capitals (2 of Corinthian type, 3 of composite type and 2 of uncertain type), 19 imposts of different types, 7 voussoirs, 2 corbels and 4 merlons. The pavilion can now be reconstructed in detail (Fig. 4) and appears to have resembled the design of the gates of the mosque of Córdoba, with an arcade of 3 arches placed above a central gate. A comprehensive catalogue of all pieces related to the portico will be published together with the architecture of the portico.
Fig. 8: Remains of door fittings found in 1975 (photo A. Ugolini).
In addition, 9 boxes of metal remains, 9 boxes of glass and 86 boxes of pottery have been registered and photographed. Interesting are remains from door fittings, which might derive from the gates of the portico. These include nails, some up to 40 cm long, as well as metal bands with large rivets which were used to hold the boards of the wooden doors together (Fig. 8). Most were found in the proximity of the southern side entrance and may derive from this door. The pottery dates for the most part to the second half of the 10th century, as would be expected. Some date to the Almohad period, however, and indicate a period of re-use for which no other evidence has been found so far.
Fig. 9: Geomagnetic survey conducted in 2017 (photo Th. Herbich).
The aim of the coming season will be to investigate the building to the east of the Plaza de Armas. Areal images and previous surveys have pointed to the existence of a subsidiary palace in this area. An understanding of the character of this building is essential to interpret the nature of the plaza – whether it was a space located between two palaces – like the Bayn al-Qaṣrayn in Fatimid Cairo – or whether it was a public square outside the single main palace – like the mašwar of later capital cities.
In preparation of the excavation work to be conducted in the area in June and July 2018 a geomagnetic survey was conducted by Tomasz Herbich of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, supplementing the geoelectric survey conducted last season by David Jordan (Fig. 9). The geomagnetic image clearly shows the location a huge linear structure which delimits the plaza to the east (Fig. 10). The size and spacing of the walls are very similar to the great portico to the west, and it is very likely that these are the remains of a second great portico. The orientation differs slightly, however, and appears to follow that of the adjacent area of the city. The internal walls of the supposed palace to the east are less clearly visible on the geomagnetic image, possibly because the walls are covered by a thick destruction level. Only the excavations planned for next season can yield further information on this building.
Dr. Felix Arnold
German Archaeological Institute, Madrid
Fig. 10: Geomagnetic image of the structures located east of the Plaza de Armas (Th. Herbich).