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Madinat al-Zahra

Date of Submission: 27/01/2015
Criteria: (i)(iii)(v)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport of Spain
State, Province or Region:
Andalusia, Cordoba
Coordinates: X 335760 Y 4194800
Ref.: 5978
Word File

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


The proposed property for submission on the Tenta­tive List is the archaeological site of the old Caliphal city of Madinat al-Zahra, located approximately 5.5 km west of Córdoba, Andalusia, Spain.

The city was founded in 940 or 941, by the Caliph Abd al-Rahman III as the seat of the newly created Caliphate of Córdoba. However, it was short lived being destroyed in 1010 during the riots which brought about the end of this Caliphate. Even so, the magnificence of its ruins was acclaimed by XI-century Andalusian poets. After slowly being abandoned and after the Christian occu­pation, the city fell into oblivion, so much so, that even its very existence was forgotten, thus converting it into an intangible mythical reference to the Golden Age in a faraway western point of Islam.

The neglect of the city and the fact that it was completely forgotten (indeed, after nearly six centuries the location where the city stood turned into a meadow) has meant that its ruins have been perfectly conserved. Once the excavations began a century ago in 1911, the city’s ar­chaeological remains began to be recovered. This work has continued up until the present day and will go on far into the future.

The archaeological research has uncovered a planned structured city, within a walled site. It is in a perfectly geometrical rectangle of approximately 1500 metres across east to west, and 750 metres north to south.

The city’s settlement was carefully chosen in a very at­tractive landscape. It is situated where the mountain sides of the Sierra Morena Mountain Range meet the flat meadows of the River Guadalquivir. Indeed, the view over said meadows and over the countryside of Córdoba is breath taking. This unique situation has been taken advantage of in order to arrange the urban ensemble into three terraces, one overlapping the other, which clearly reveals the hierarchy of the State. The Caliph’s residence was situated on the top terrace, the gardens and dignitaries’ residences were situated on the middle terrace, and the city itself was located on the bottom terrace, with the Moorish quarter, the workers’ houses, state buildings and open spaces.

This stepped distribution gives the city an elaborate landscape, the views over the valley are outstanding. The layout of the gardens and other open spaces are also clearly for visual effect. The landscape is clearly visible too when the city is seen from the valley, it has a wide visual range of more than 50 kms.

The excavated area, up until now, represents approxi­mately 11% of the total, and mainly covers the central most representative part and the Fortress, with its re­ception areas and huge gardens as well as the Mosque, in the central quarter, the Medina. Outside the site, the remains of great infrastructures like roads and aque­ducts have been found. In the part which has not been excavated yet, the aerial ortho-photographs and the geo­physical surveys have revealed the main characteristics of its layout.

From the point of view of the history of urban planning, Madinat al-Zahra offers us both a unique example of Islamic town planning as well as an insight into the territorial context at such a crucial time in its evolution.

The excavated area, where the layout of terraces still remains, has allowed us to see how the masonry was elaborated; however, a great number of examples of the adornments have been discovered all over the site, es­pecially in the form of carved limestone relief plaques, featuring such motifs as plants and shapes, which were found on practically all of the walls of the most repre­sentative buildings in the city. This type of plaster work was analyzed and classified. The painstaking work of anastylosis was carried out and some of the most signifi­cant constructions of Madinat al-Zahra were recovered.

Consequently, Madinat al-Zahra offers us one of the most important examples of parietal decoration from a key era in the development of this consubstantial feature of Arabic architecture.

The main representative buildings are characterized by their basilica-shaped ground plan. Amongst which the great reception Hall, which is in the centre of the city, is worthy of special mention. Its walls were completely covered with parietal plasterwork adornments. Indeed, at present, the restoration of this building is in the pro­cess of being finished. The collection of palaces and representative buildings with their gardens, baths and annexes represent a unique testimony of the evolution of this important type of architecture.

Next to this area, which is very well defined by a sur­rounding wall around the palatial city, an extensive buffer zone has been marked out. It stretches 11 km east west, until the edge of the city of Córdoba, and some 6 km north south, from the old cattle road which comes into the city, to the top of the ledge of the mountain range where the city is settled.

There are two important sites to the furthest western and eastern points of Madinat al-Zahra: the al-Rummaniyya farm to the west, which has been partially excavated, and a large official building to the east, in the area known as Turruñuelos, which has not yet been excavated. In the space between, there are the remains of the great road infrastructures and aqueducts which supplied the city, as well as the original quarries which provided the material for construction, together with other significant archaeological remains.

The Madinat al-Zahra Museum has been open since 2009. It is located 1.5 kms. away from the archaeologi­cal site and is not visible from the site, thus avoiding any impact on the landscape. Due to the quality of its architecture, the building has in fact been awarded some international prizes, such as the Aga Khan prize for Ar­chitecture, 2010, and the Prize for the Best European Museum, 2012. The Museum comprises of reception areas and spaces to explain about the city to the visi­tors: a presentation room, an auditorium, an informa­tion centre, etc. There are also areas devoted to the con­tinual conservation and research work carried out by the managing body of the site: restoration workshops, store­houses for goods, a library, research rooms, offices, etc.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The archaeological site of Madinat al-Zahra is out­standing due to the fact that the remains of the en­semble of a structured X-century city (this represents one of the peak moments in the history of Andalusian architecture and culture) were hidden and their integ­rity has been unaltered. The Caliphs, Abd al-Rahman III and al-Hakam II were actually building the most monumental part of the Mosque in Córdoba (declared World Heritage in 1984) at the same time. In fact, the first excavations that took place were started by the archi­tect who was actually restoring the Mosque in Córdoba, Velázquez Bosco. He began this work in order to have more insight into Andalusian Caliphal architecture to be able to better restore the Mosque.

Its outstanding and universal nature comes from its unique values in the field of art, architecture, town planning and territorial layout. It includes some of the first and most important Islamic gardens ever known, as well as the fact that it represents a testimony, without comparison, of the culture and urban life at a time when al- Andalus was the most important cultural focal point in Western Europe and the Maghreb.

Another outstanding factor stems from the fact that it represents an example of the perfect unison of urban planning with the environment. It is a city with buildings and structured gardens for the population to be able to enjoy the natural characteristics of the surrounding area. This unison with the landscape is shown in the modeling of the territory as well as in the way the local stone, water supply and plants were taken advantage of. The fact that the place has stayed just as it was, affected only by its natural deterioration, without any new con­structions being built, has meant that its value concern­ing its environment, has been conserved.

Another outstanding value comes from the fact that, after its short role as the centre of a vast empire and the area where the embassies of the Christian and Mus­lim kingdoms of Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa were welcomed, its sudden disappearance turned it into a myth. This myth fed a rich literature, in which the fortune of a lost paradise was evoked throughout the Arab speaking world. The fact that it has been recently rediscovered has meant that this intangible cultural leg­acy has reappeared, and at the same time, the literary tradition has also been revived, in such a way that, just considering the Spanish language alone, the Caliphal city has become the stage of several novels published over the last few years. It could be considered as a rela­tionship between the city and a literary motive, which evokes Troy, where the same relationship was the main reason for its nomination.

Criterion (i): The city of Madinat al-Zahra is one of the most im­portant and universally recognized examples of town planning and architecture of the Islamic Far East of this period, the X century, the era when this culture reached its maximum splendour.

Criterion (iii): To be a masterpiece and to bear a unique testimony to the extinct Andalusian Islamic cultural tradition, and to be an outstanding testimony of its most thriving era which took place more than a thousand years ago.

Criterion (v): Buildings representative of a culture showing outstand­ing human interaction with the environment.

Criterion (vi): The sudden disappearance of the city at the time of its greatest spendour, and the fact that it was subsequently forgotten, has turned Madinat al-Zahra into a myth, and an intangible heritage which had great influence on Ara­bic literary works of outstanding universal significance.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Authenticity: The fact that the ancient literary sources have been re­covered and the extensive research carried out over a century of restoration work, bear witness to the authen­ticity of the site.

The restoration work has been carried out painstak­ingly by means of anastylosis after thorough scientific investigation. The fact that the criteria used in Madinat al-Zahra over this century of restoration work have been both constant and refined is exceptional. Indeed, the managing teams have had continuity and great compe­tence throughout the whole century, and this has aided in the process. After a period of time of mere explora­tory drilling carried out by the architect who discovered the site, Velázquez Bosco, between 1911 and 1922, the most significant work of consolidation took place be­tween 1922 and 1975, under the supervision of Félix Hernández. This is when the bases and criteria for the intervention were established. During the latest period, from 1985 until the present, it was essential to have con­tinuity in the works and the most prestigious institutes in this field have all contributed.

Integrity: The proposed property not only has integrity in the whole walled area of the Caliphal city, but in the exten­sive buffer zone too, where the land which depends on the city is located. To this end, the functional, landscape and environmental characteristics have all been taken into account.

The functional aspects are: the hydraulic infrastructures, a long Roman aqueduct which was reconstructed during the Caliphal period, the network of roads and bridges, the original quarries where the building material for the city and the palaces and surrounding rural constructions came from, these were known as “almunias” (farms, orchards).

Concerning environmental features, the most repre­sentative spaces of the natural surroundings are the mountains, with the indigenous plant life of Mediter­ranean forests, and the meadows used for cattle pastures and farmland. These wide open spaces allow for the environmental conditions and the visual landscape to be conserved, which justified, amongst other reasons, the city being established far from the centre of Córdoba. In the 1990’s, when the buffer zone of the city was being marked out, a process to build three illegal residential estates began. However, thanks to the active intervention of the Archaeological Ensemble’s Managing Body, this process was detained.

Comparison with other similar properties

The archaeological site of this Andalusian X-century Islamic Caliphal city of Madinat al-Zahra holds a series of characteristics which make it of unique uni­versal significance.

a) The unchanged ruins of a city built as a showcase for the most critical moment of a culture of universal impact, have been conserved.

b) An extensive city and its surrounding area represent­ing the capital of an Empire, has been completely con­served. Its sudden destruction, after a little more than half a century of life, without being transformed by any subsequent intervention, turns it into a unique object of historic research of this period.

c) The supremacy bestowed upon conceiving such a city within such a landscape, from a visual point of view and regarding the relationship with the environment, water and plant life, makes it especially attractive when considering present-day available budgets.

It is true that the idea of creating a city following a new design to represent the power of a Caliphate is not unique to Madinat al-Zahra. Indeed, it was normal practice in the first centuries of the quickly-expanding Islamic culture. However, the case of Madinat al-Zahra, due to its magnitude, its natural framework, the degree of conservation and recovery, is without comparison.

If we study the great Islamic capitals which have already been declared World Heritage, we can divide them into two groups: cities which have disappeared as such and which are fossilized in archaeological sites, (Madinat al-Zahra belongs to this group) and those cities which are still alive today.

The second group is the biggest, and in turn can be divided into two sub-groups: a smaller Eastern group: Isfahan, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem and Cairo; and a larger Western Mediterranean, Maghreb and al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) group: Kairouan, Argel, Fez, Marrakech, Meknes, in the Maghreb, where the medinas of Susa, Tunisia, Tétouan and Essaouira and those of Córdoba, Granada and Toledo in Muslim Spain have also been declared as World Heritage.

Independently of the outstanding nature of each of these examples, they cannot be compared to the case in question due to several reasons. Firstly, all of them have undergone continuous changes throughout their history. These changes have indeed been such, that the actual characteristics most typically associated with those mythical centuries of the greatest expansion and boom of the Islam Arabic culture, that is to say from the VIII to XI centuries, where Madinat al-Zahra is situated, have either disappeared, or, undergone such tremen­dous changes that they are barely recognizable. There are fundamental monuments from this era in some of these places, for example the mosques of Damascus, Je­rusalem, Kairouan or Córdoba, but they are just singular monuments and not examples of whole urban areas.

Concerning archaeological sites, there are so many on the Heritage List from Greek or Roman cities of the classic era, the presence of an Islamic city is very un­common. Indeed, there are only three examples, two of which are in Asia Minor, which are previous to Madinat al-Zahra: the Umayyad city of Anjar, Lebanon, VIII cen­tury, and the great Abbasid capital city of Samarra, Irak, IX century, and another in the Maghreb, from the XI century, la Qala des Banu Hammad, in Argelia.

Anjar, due to the early date of its foundation, (towards 710), and it was soon after destroyed, (744), has an ur­ban and architectural organization in the style of Tar­dorromano models and the Hellenistic tradition of the Eastern Mediterranean, thus, it is far from the complete example of Arabic architecture which Madinat al-Zahra represents. Moreover, it is much smaller (its dimen­sions are 380x350 m.) The fortified desert palaces: Qu­sair Amra Palace on the Representative List, and the Qasr al-Mushatta Palace and the al-Qastal Palace on the Indicative List belong to the same Umayyad period. However, none of these are true cities comparable to Madinat al-Zahra.

The contrary can be said for the Abbasid capital city of Samarra, Irak, which was developed in the IX century, between 836 and 892. The great size of the place, which is more than 40 km in length, and due to its great com­plexity, as it has a great variety of overlapping styles, makes it different from the singular design present in Madinat al-Zahra. In Samarra, what’s more, consolida­tion and restoration work has mainly been focused on the mosque and its spiral minaret. This is an integral restoration but with questionable criteria. In any case, it is a city belonging to a very different cultural and geo­graphic scope to ours. On the other hand, the damage done during the latest wars and the actual uncontrolled urban development which has taken place on part of the ruins, have meant that it has been included on the World Heritage List of Property at risk.

Other Abbasid foundations, not included on the List, such as the neighbouring towns of al-Raqqa and al­Rafika have been invaded by new constructions, and the integral nature of any restoration work which has taken place is questionable.

The foundations of Fatimíes-ziríes in Ifriquiya is closer in time and space to Madinat al-Zahra. The foundation of al-Mahdia in 916 is considered by some authors as one of the reasons for Abderrahman III to create the new capital. The fact that, at present, all of this site’s maritime peninsula is full of new constructions, except the port and its monuments, greatly takes away from its archaeological value.

The city which was successor to the latter, Al-Mansuriya, near Kairouan, developed time wise in a similar way to Madinat al-Zahra, as it was founded only five years after, in 946, and was destroyed in 1053. However, there are few remains. La Qala des Banu Hammad, is the next foundation from that monarchy and is of greater interest. It was begun in 1007 and was destroyed in 1152. It was constructed practically at the same time as Madinat al-Zahra disappeared and it is included on the Heritage List. In this case, the degree of conservation and its location at the foot of a mountain, are similar to that of Madinat al-Zahra. However, it is very different to Madinat al-Zahra, due to the fact that the urban struc­ture is irregular, and that there is more emphasis on defensive constructions, also there are several different architectural and decorative models therein.

One of the most relevant values of Madinat al-Zahra is its wonderful palatial architecture, its rich decoration and the accessibility of the gardens which are typical of this type of architecture in Arabic culture. The Umayyad Qusair Amra fortified Palace from the VIII century is already on the World Heritage List, as are the IX-centu­ry Abbasid palaces and gardens of Samarra, amongst which Balkuwara is worth a special mention. Within the culture of the Middle East, an ensemble of nine Per­sian palatial gardens from different periods has been declared as World Heritage recently. In Andalusia, there are two later examples from the XIV century: the Alham­bra in Granada and the Alcázar (the Fortified Palace) in Seville. The X-century palatial architecture and gardens in Madinat al-Zahra represent a necessary link in the historic evolution of said type of architecture, decoration and gardens in Western Islamic culture.

To sum up, Madinat al-Zahra, as an Islamic–Arabic ar­chaeological urban site, corresponds to a category which is scarcely represented on the World Heritage List, and within this category, this city has singular characteristics which make it stand out from the other property already on the List. We have to agree that this is an outstanding example considering its architecture and urban plan­ning, corresponding to the X century, which is a period not yet represented on the World Heritage List.