Summary report

Outside of Córdoba (Spain), the remains of the palatial city of a caliph are preserved: Madīnat al-Zahrāʼ. 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 year, excavations at the north-east corner of the plaza have provided new insights into the structural development and formation of the area. Five building phases may be differentiated. Originally an open esplanade in front of the palace gate, the area was successively embellished as a monumental courtyard. Architectural elements recovered during this season furthermore provide additional information on the design and color-scheme of the eastern portico.

Report of work at Madīnat al-Zahrā’

Caliph ꜤAbd al-Raḥmān III founded a new capital in 940/941 CE: Madīnat al-Zahrāʼ. Located just outside of Córdoba (Spain), a major center of Islamic culture emerged in just a few years, with palaces, gardens, mosques, workshops, and residential districts. Envoys of the Byzantine and Roman-German emperors were received, victories in northern Africa were celebrated. Destroyed at the beginning of the civil war from 1009 AD and subsequently not built over, the structure and functioning of a center of power from the heyday of Islamic culture can be studied here as in hardly any other place.

Currently, the Madrid Department of the German Archaeological Institute, together with the Conjunto Arqueológico de Madinat al-Zahra (under the direction of Antonio Vallejo Triano), is investigating the monumental square in front of the gates of the city's caliphal palace, the so-called "Plaza de Armas" (Fig. 1, Area A). In 2017, it was possible to document a portico that had already been uncovered on the west side of the square in 1975 and subsequently partially rebuilt. In 2018, a building complex on the opposite side was investigated, and in 2019 its entrance gate. An excavation at the northeast corner of the Plaza de Armas was planned for 2020. However, due to the Covid19 pandemic, the excavation could not be conducted until May 10-July 2, 2021 (Fig. 2). The goal was to clarify the structural development of the plaza at a neuralgic point.


Fig. 1: Madinat al-Zahra (Córdoba, Spain). Satellite image of the central area, showing the location of the Plaza de Armas (A) and the Upper Hall (B). Image: Google Earth 2017.


Fig. 2: Madinat al-Zahra (Córdoba, Spain). Excavation at the northeast corner of the Plaza de Armas. In the background, the western portico. Photo: F. Arnold, DAI Madrid

The excavation project is accompanied by a number of other projects. For example, since the fall of 2019, it has been possible to work continuously on the restoration and examination of iron elements recovered in the area of the east gate. Ongoing is the project of Yoshifumi Yasuoka (Waseda University, Tokyo) on the canon of the column capitals of Madīnat al-Zahrāʼ. Furthermore, the architectural investigation of the Upper Hall of Madīnat al-Zahrāʼ (Fig. 1, Area B) has been underway since 2020 under the direction of Heike Lehmann (TU Berlin), funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

The 2021 excavation at the northeast corner of the Plaza de Armas has once again made it clear that the esplanade in front of the gates of the caliph's palace was not planned and built as a whole, but that its current form is the result of a succession of construction measures, new concepts and changes in plans (Fig. 3). The insights gained into the history of the esplanade's development have partly confirmed and refined previous assumptions and partly revised them. Five major phases of construction activity can now be distinguished at the plaza complex, each of which was the result of a new planning of the area in front of the palace entrance. The dating of the individual phases is not certain, but probably falls in the years between the founding of the city in 940/941 and the move of Caliph al-Ḥakam II to Córdoba on March 26, 975.


Fig. 3: Madīnat al-Zahrāʼ (Córdoba, Spain). Ground of the Plaza de Armas in Phase 4. Drawing: F. Arnold, DAI Madrid.

 Phase 1: Esplanade of the Caliph's Palace

The area of the later plaza was originally a south-sloping, structurally undefined site to the east outside the caliph's palace. The palace was built as a 620 x 650 m complex, with an extensive garden in the lower, southern area and residential and representative buildings in the upper, northern area. A high wall reinforced with buttresses surrounded the palace. Gates are attested in the west, south and east. Only in time did an entrance at the northern end of the eastern wall develop into the palace's main gate, the Bāb al-Sudda. The later Plaza de Armas was the forecourt of this gate.

Phase 2: Open space between two buildings

Outside the palace, opposite the main gate to the east, a second building complex was errected, about 120 x 235 m in size. It too was surrounded by a high wall. This year's excavation also revealed that its northwest corner was fortified by a buttress. In 2018 a pavilion that stood on a 3.5 m high platform was investigated within this complex. What is striking about the walls of the first construction phase of the complex is their double-shell construction and the use of clay instead of lime mortar. The function of the complex is still unclear.

Between the caliph's palace and the building complex to the east was an open area measuring about 120 x 160 m and sloping down to the south. The entrances to the two buildings were directly opposite each other from the beginning. The open space was bounded in the north, towards the hill, by a wall. On the outside, the wall, which was only 1 m thick, was reinforced by templates and presumably served as a definition of the terrain used by the manor. At about the same time, the outer wall of the caliph's palace was reinforced and provided with towers, following the example of the Alcázar, the caliph's city palace in Córdoba.

Phase 3: A portico as the facade of the Caliph's Palace

In a first expansion phase, a 120 m wide portico was placed in front of the caliph's palace on the west side of the square. For this purpose, the area directly in front of the palace façade had to be leveled, but not the entire open space, which continued to slope southward. The portico, which has been partially rebuilt today, is divided into 14 bays, with a slightly wider bay marking the location of the palace entrance. The central bay had a horseshoe arch supported by columns, while the remaining bays had simple segmental arches, built of alternating limestone blocks and red brick segments. The portico surpassed in size the courtyard facade of the mosque of Córdoba, renewed at about the same time (951 AD). The arcade piers were connected to the back wall of the portico by transverse arches and - unlike in the mosque - were reinforced on the outside with buttresses, so that they had a cruciform cross-section. The portico had a flat, accessible roof, of which extensive, red-painted pavement fragments have been preserved in the debris. Above the central bay there was a pavilion from which the ruler could overlook the esplanade in front of the palace. At the same time, the pavilion symbolically marked the presence of the caliph. The construction of the portico created a transition zone between the palace and the exterior, and a backdrop for the staging of stately receptions.

Phase 4: Monumental plaza

It was not until the next phase that the decision was made to construct a courtyard-like plaza in front of the palace. For this purpose, the entire area between the palace and the eastern building complex was leveled, in the north by lowering the terrain by up to 6 m, in the south by backfilling by up to 10 m. To reinforce the northern edge, the existing wall had to be reinforced by placing a second wall in front of it. At the same time, the terrain within the eastern building complex was terraced. The north wall was also reinforced here, in this case by the addition of a two-story room sequence on the inside of the wall. It was only in this phase that the northern boundary of the area took on the character of a city wall.

A second portico was built on the eastern side of the square, as a facade of the eastern building complex and opposite the existing portico. It was at least 100 meters wide. In the 2019 excavation, only small remains of the pillar foundations were found in the area of the central bay. In this year's excavation, much more extensive remains of the portico were found (Fig. 4). Unlike on the west side, transverse arches and buttresses were apparently omitted here, so that the pillars have a simple rectangular cross-section. The arches were horseshoe-shaped throughout and were constructed exclusively of limestone, with no alternating use of brick. Extensive remains of the color scheme show that the arches were painted alternately in white and red (Fig. 5). The outer edge of the arch was decorated with a so-called hammer frieze on the outside, a multi-lobular pattern on the inside. Remains of collapsed wooden beams, roof tiles and iron nails found in the debris indicate that the portico had a sloping tiled roof.


Fig. 4: Madinat al-Zahra (Córdoba, Spain). Wall remains of the city wall and the eastern portico. Photo: F. Arnold, DAI Madrid.


Fig. 5: Madinat al-Zahra (Córdoba, Spain). Reconstruction of an arch of the eastern portico based on the preserved elements. Drawing: F. Arnold, DAI Madrid.

During the excavation at the northeast corner of the square, a T-shaped pillar was discovered. The absence of a construction joint shows that at the same time as the eastern portico, a row of rooms was also built on the north side of the plaza. At the northwest corner of the square, a gateway was built that connected the square to a street that ran north along the city wall. This road, known today as the "Camino de los Nogales", can be followed across several bridges until the urban area of Córdoba.

For the construction of the north gate, a ramp had to be built inside the plaza. The construction of the ramp and the gate required the blocking of three bays of the western portico. On this occasion, offices and horse stables were built inside the western portico. The portico was gradually transformed from a reception area to a place of control.

On the south side, the leveling of the square required the construction of massive substructures. Their examination is planned for 2022. It is already possible to see how extensive and far-reaching the construction measures of Phase 4 were. An open space was transformed into a monumental plaza complex. In Islamic architecture, plazas of this dimension are otherwise only known from the Middle East, from cities like Samarra.

Phase 5: Later changes

Various remains indicate limited changes after the completion of the plaza. For example, a door was subsequently broken through the back wall at the northern end of the eastern portico, apparently to create a direct connection to a passageway inside the eastern building complex. In the building complex itself, feeding troughs indicate its use as a stable building. In this context, the flooring was replaced and ramps were created.

The two large porticoes were destroyed by fire, presumably during the historically recorded looting on November 4, 1010. Again, clear evidence of fire was observed in the findings of this year's excavation. Thus, the entire roof of the eastern portico must have caught fire. There also seems to have been a fire inside the eastern building complex, but only on the upper floor. Its tiled roof and the red-painted floor collapsed onto the ground floor. Here, traces of fire are missing from the walls, which have been preserved up to 6 meters high. Subsequently, the area repeatedly served as a source of building material, especially in the 15th century.

Program for next season

Within the framework of an agreement of collaboration between the German Archaeological Institute and the Junta de Andalucía signed in 2015 for joint research at Madīnat al-Zahrā’ a project of five years has been initiated (extended to six years due to the pandemic), with the aim of investigating the Plaza de Armas of Madīnat al-Zahrā’ and its surrounding buildings. The first season of field work took place in June/July 2017, the second season in June/July 2018, the third season in June/July 2019 and the fourth in May/June 2021. The fifth and final season is scheduled for June 2022 and will be dedicated to the investigation of the buildings along the south side of the Plaza de Armas, of which only a section in its southwest corner is currently known.