Madīnat al-Zahrā’ was founded in 940 CE near Córdoba, Spain as the capital of the Umayyad caliphate. The aim of a five-year project of the German Archaeological Institute and the Junta de Andalucía is the investigation of the so called Plaza de Armas, the central public square of the city, an area of the site that has not been well studied before. This season the eastern limit of the plaza was investigated, providing new insight into the development of the plaza. Originally two separate building complexes stood across from each other, the palace of the caliph to the west and a second palace to the east, possibly inhabited by the crown prince. In a second phase a monumental plaza was constructed between the two existing buildings. Two porticos now faced each other across the plaza. This season a part of the newly discovered eastern portico was excavated, providing information on its design. In the central axis of the portico the main gate leading to the eastern palace was discovered. The gate was flanked by niches and highly decorated. At the onset of the civil war (fitna), in November 1010 CE, the portico and the gate were destroyed by fire. From the destruction debris, elements of the gate were recovered, among them fragments of an arcade that had been located above the gate. Of particular interest are also fragments of a decoration painted in red and black. Metal elements of the gate were found, including iron nails of different sizes and segments of an iron clad door leaf of the upper arcade.


Report of the 2019-2020 season of work at Madīnat al-Zahrā’

Madīnat al-Zahrā’ was founded in 329 AH/940 CE 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. Because of its importance and state of preservation, the archaeological site was inscribed in 2018 in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The site has since received increased media attention, and a significant rise in tourism.

At Madīnat al-Zahrā’ archaeological work has been conducted for more than a century. R. Velázquez Bosco (from 1911 to 1923), F. 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 R. Manzano Martos from 1975 to 1985. A. 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 the current project is the study of the so called Plaza de Armas, a large public square to the east of the zone excavated to date (Fig. 1). The plaza served as the main intersection between the palace and the city, comparable to the mašwar in palace cities of Morocco or the maidān of Middle Eastern cities. 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. 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.

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Fig. 1: Map of Madīnat az-Zahrāʾ. The Plaza de Armas is marked in red (Lidar scan: Instituto Geográfico Nacional).

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. A. Montejo Córdoba, co-director of the project since 2017, was replaced in January 2020 by A. Vallejo Triano, as the new director of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ and co-director of the project.

The aim of the first season of field work (in June and July 2017) was the study of the portico on the western side of the plaza (Fig. 2). The aim of the second season (in June and July 2018) was the investigation of the building complex located on the opposite, eastern side of the plaza. The third season of field work – which is the subject of this report – was carried out in June and July 2019, again in collaboration with A. Canto García of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Participants were the archaeologists R. Clapés Salmoral (Córdoba), R. Coleman (Llanes), K. Czarnitzki (Berlin), M. González Virseda (Córdoba), W. Jablonska (Madrid), M. Osman Abdollah (Berlin), T. Perkins (Boston), I. O. Roibu (Madrid), R. Stolle (Leipzig) and A. Ugolini Sánchez-Barroso (Madrid), the architects H. Lehmann (Cologne), R. Michaelis (Braunschweig) and Y. Yasuoka (Tokyo) as well as the restorers I. Muñoz Matute (Córdoba), M. Muñoz Mora (Ciudad Real) and A. del Pino Campos (Córdoba).

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Fig. 2: Plan of the Plaza de Armas. Areas excavated in 217, 2018 and 2019 are indicated in red.

 The project has increasingly become the platform for a number of other undertakings. The aim of these projects is to place the investigation of the site on an international footing and thus intensify the study of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ in all its aspects. Regular meetings of the project members foster the exchange of information and ideas. The second meeting took place on July 12 and 13, 2019. Currently studies of glass objects (N. Schibille and A. Zamorano, funded by the ERC), metal objects (A. Ugolini Sánchez-Barroso), pottery (A. Martín and O. Roibu) and architectural elements (Y. Yasuoka, funded by the Japanese Academy of Science) are under way. A project aimed at a reinvestigation of the so called Salón Basilical has been approved by the German Research Foundation (H. Lehmann, now Technical University of Berlin). Independently, C. Duckworth from the University of Newcastle has been conducting a geophysical survey of the site, initially aimed at identifying workshop areas in the city. Taken together, these projects greatly increase our understanding of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ and its development.


Excavation work conducted in 2019

In 2018, an excavation was carried out for the first time on the eastern side of the Plaza de Armas. This revealed the remains of an extensive building complex (here referred to as the "Eastern Palace"), including a T-shaped reception hall on a 3 m high platform. In this year's campaign, the relationship of this building complex to the plaza was investigated, and the design of the eastern side of the plaza was clarified. A geomagnetic survey had already provided indications of a second portico in this area. An excavation in the central axis of the portico could now confirm the existence of this 115 m wide portico (Fig. 2 and 3). In addition, the main entrance gate of the Eastern Palace was discovered and the structural development of the area was investigated. In total, seven phases of construction, use and destruction can now be distinguished (Fig. 4).

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Fig. 3: Excavation work in the area of the eastern portico, with the western portico in the background (photo: F. Arnold).


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Fig. 4: Reconstruction of the building phases of the Plaza de Armas. a: Phase 1; b: Phase 2; c: Phase 3.


 Phase 1: Eastern building complex

The building complex on the east side of the square was initially built as an independent enclosure (Fig. 4a). The remains of a perimeter wall and a 3 m wide gate are preserved in the excavated area. The gate was located directly opposite the entrance gate of the caliphal palace (alcázar) on the western side of the plaza. Originally, the plaza was an open space between two large building complexes, the caliphal palace in the west and the newly discovered Palace in the east. This second complex may have had an administrative purpose and possibly served as a residence of the crown prince. The later caliph al-Ḥakam II acted as the head of the administration of the caliphate since 941 CE, shortly after the foundation of Madīnat al-Zahrā'. Maybe it is no coincidence that the crown prince also appears as the builder of the nearby Friday mosque of Madīnat al-Zahrā' in a foundation inscription dated to 333AH/944–945 CE.

Phase 2: Portico and gate

A portico was subsequently added in front of the Eastern Palace (Fig. 4b). In terms of size and overall layout, it is similar to the portico on the western side of the plaza and was part of a new conception of the open space as a monumentally designed plaza on a terrace (Fig. 5). In detail, however, the newly discovered portico differs from the well-known complex on the west side of the Plaza de Armas. For example, the pillars do not have a cruciform cross-section as in the western portico, but have a simple rectangular cross-section. Apparently, arches in the transverse direction of the portico were omitted here, and consequently also buttresses in the façade. Collapsed remains of the roof construction including roof tiles and iron nails show that the roof of the eastern portico was covered with a sloping roof and was therefore not accessible like the roof of the western portico. Above the central nave there also seems to have been no pavilion like the one on the western side. The entrance gate was highlighted in the façade only by a somewhat larger horseshoe arch supported by columns. Fragments of the column shafts made of reddish breccia as well as an impost made of grey marble and a fragment of the alfiz were found in the debris (Fig. 6).

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Fig. 5: Reconstruction of the Plaza de Armas, with the two porticos facing each other (drawing: F. Arnold).


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Fig. 6: Decorative panel from the central nave of the eastern portico (photo: M. Latova).

 The entrance gate of the Eastern Palace was lavishly decorated in this phase (Fig. 7 and 8). An entrance corridor was added to the inside of the gate, with an access way that is bent twice. As in the entrance area of the caliphal palace, benches were arranged along the walls, on which guards and waiting guests could sit. In the façade the gate was now flanked by two niches. Such niches can also be found at the gates of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, following the tradition of Roman triumphal arches. An arcade was apparently located above the doorway. In the debris fallen remains of this arcade were found, including fragments of column shafts of grey marble, decorated capitals of white marble, key stones and remains of a frieze decorated with relief ornamentation. Unusual are fragments of a decoration painted in black and dark red color (Fig. 9).

At the bottom of the gate, 18–21 cm long nails of the wooden gate wings were found in the debris, as well as the retaining rings of a bolt (Figs. 10 and 11). In addition, an ornamental fitting has been preserved. Outside the doorway the remains of another door leaf were discovered. It was fully covered with iron bands, like the gates of the mosque of Córdoba. The leaf must have come from the arcade located above the gate, which therefore could not have been a blind arcade but the window opening of an upper floor. As in many other gate buildings of Islamic times, a reception room may have been located on the upper level.


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Fig. 7: Remains of the entrance gate of the Eastern Palace (photo: F. Arnold).

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Fig. 8: Reconstruction of the gate (drawing: F. Arnold).

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Fig. 9: Decoration in red and black paint (photo: M. Latova).

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Fig. 10: Iron nails found under the collapsed archway (photo: F. Arnold).

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Fig. 11: Iron nails of the gate (photo: M. Latova).

Phase 3: Reuse as stables

The Eastern Palace was later converted for a use by horses (Fig. 4c). Thus, troughs were built into the pavilion building found in 2018 and ramps were constructed in the surrounding area. In addition, the slab pavement was replaced by a cobblestone pavement. Selective adjustments were also made in the gate area, including the addition of door leaves to close the exit also towards the east. The palace had probably been empty since the accession to the throne of al-Ḥakam II in October 961 CE. Unlike his father, the crown prince al-Hišām, who was born in 966 CE, resided inside the palace, in the Dār al-Mulk. The Plaza de Armas was increasingly used for public receptions, but also for exercises and equestrian games of the cavalry from North Africa, which from 972 CE onward played an increasingly important role in the military of the caliphate. The empty Eastern Palace may have been used to shelter the horses of these military units, or horses of participants in large-scale festivities. Historical sources mention the existence of a nearby caliphal mews (Dār al-Ḫayl).

Phase 4: Destruction by fire

In the portico and the gate of the eastern palace extensive evidence of fire destruction was found. For example, a layer of burnt roof beams, roof tiles and iron nails has been preserved on the floors, above which are blocks of stone from the upper wall sections, which have been discolored red by the effects of fire. The gate also seems to have collapsed, including the arcade located above. In the debris, the aforementioned nails and metal fittings of the gate as well as the remains of the iron-fitted leaf of the arcade were found in this layer. The fire probably occurred at the beginning of the civil war (fitna), during the looting of Madīnat al-Zahrā' by North African troops on November 14th and 15th, 1010 CE. A coin minted in Fez (Morocco) in 389 AH/998–999 CE that was found in the debris may have been lost during this event. Significantly, there is no evidence of destruction by fire within the Eastern Palace. As in other areas of the city, the destruction by fire was apparently limited to ideologically significant areas.

In addition to more than a thousand metal objects, extensive ceramic material was also recovered in the fire layer during this year's excavation. Some of these could be ceramic vessels from the last phase of the use of the gate. In addition to the palace ware ("verde y manganeso") characteristic of Madīnat al-Zahrā', the fragment of a white-glazed bowl was found, which may have been imported from Iraq. Remarkable is also a piece of Roman terra sigilata as well as some fragments of green glazed ceramics of the late 9th century CE.

Phase 5-7: Dismantling and destruction

After the destruction by fire in 1010 CE, the ruins served as a source of raw material. In the 11th century CE, lead pipes and movable metal parts were dismantled first, followed by individual sections of the walls (Phase 5). In the 15th century CE, the walls were systematically dismantled in order to extract building material, including for the construction of the nearby monastery of San Jerónimo de Valparaíso (Phase 6). This was confirmed in 2018 by the discovery of a coin from the time when the monastery was founded, with the name of Juan II of Castile (1406–1454). Since the 18th century CE, the area was mainly used as pasture (Phase 7).

Restauration work

During the excavation of this season more than a thousand objects of metal were recovered. The majority are iron nails of different sizes, deriving from the roof construction and other building elements (Fig. 11). The most important find is the cladding of a door leaf, which had probably belonged to the arcade located above the gate. During the excavation work in July 2019 the remains of the door leaf were recovered in large sections and transported to the magazine of the site museum for restauration.

In the fall of 2019, x-ray images of most metal objects recovered this season were made, by the help of a transportable x-ray machine. The images reveal the dense agglomeration of nails and metal bands within the remains of the door leaf (Fig. 12). In addition they provide crucial evidence for the further treatment and conservation of the material. An archaeologist and a restorer have begun the meticulous work of cleaning and recovering the material. The work is still on-going and will hopefully be completed by the end of 2020.

The conservation and study of the remains will furnish for the first time detailed information on how a door leaf of this size was constructed. In the future the piece could be prepared for an exposition, in the site museum or elsewhere.

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Fig. 12: X-ray of a fragment of the door leaf (image: Clínica Veterinaria Virgen de Fátima, Córdoba)

Dr. Felix Arnold
German Archaeological Institute, Madrid, Spain