Restoring 'lost city' of medieval Spain

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It has been 100 years since excavations started on the Madinat Al Zahra, the magnificent 10th century palace city near Cordoba in southern Spain.

Although only 11% of the city - built by the powerful caliph Abd Al Rahman III - has been uncovered, it is unlikely that it will take another century to unearth the remainder of the site given the rapid advances in excavation technology.

In a curious parallel, new techniques such a tele-imaging, that are being used in order to understand the 115-hectare site, reflect the revolutionary building techniques developed here a thousand years ago, and which came to define the distinct "Andalucian style".

A nearby museum completed on the site in 2008 and shortlisted for this year's Aga Khan Award for Architecture, is the base where research and restoration is carried out on objects recovered from the archaeological site.

Archaeologist Ramon Fernandez points to the remains of the palace where the caliph lived. It stands high above the rest of the city, giving the ruler a psychological advantage. He used it to impress his might on his subjects - and visiting foreign ambassadors.

"Situating his palace 5km outside the city of Cordoba compelled dignatories to make the journey out to the political, cultural and administrative capital of Al-Andalus," he explains.

"The dazzling caliph's headquarters, set into a mountain, could be seen from far away. Today it's hard to grasp its significance, but in the 10th century it was the greatest city on Earth."

Lasting impact

In addition to using costly materials such as ivory, marble, pearls and gold for his own quarters, the sheer amount of embellishment the caliph commissioned had a long lasting impact on arts and design.

Image caption,
New imaging techniques have been used to visualise the city

The caliph's use of culture to tell the world that he was the undisputed ruler of North Africa and the Iberian peninsula revolutionised existing architecture.

Antonio Vallejo, director of both the arhaeological site and its museum, confirms that the classical Andalucian style of architecture was developed at the Madinat Al Zahra.

"New characteristics appeared for the first time here in these buildings.They are arranged around a courtyard and all the show is on the inside" he says.

"Spaces such as patios with gardens and lateral porticos made their way into later architectural styles and can even be seen in today's architecture."

It took more than 30 years to build the palace complex where about 200,000 people lived in the 10th century.

Many were artists brought together from the furthest corners of the Islamic empire to create a city that became the model for later famous buildings, such as the famous Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain.

Experts in geometry were brought from Iraq to collaborate with the finest stone masons of the time to create an architectural extravaganza.

Meticulous work

Immaculata Munoz Matuta, who works as a technical restorer at the site, shows a large slab of marble that comes from the Caliph's bathroom.

It is covered with leaf decorations and has survived intact for more than a thousand years.

"It's fantastic because it's extremely big and heavy yet it's carved in a such a very delicate and detailed way and matches the motifs on the walls," she explains.

Image caption,
The design of the city strongly influenced later types of architecture

"The Alhambra decorations are in plaster, but the work here was very difficult and took ages because it was all in stone."

Some of the architectural pieces have been cleaned, restored and returned to the archaeological site, others are on show in the museum.

In contrast to the lofty heights of the Madinat, the nearby museum is just one floor high, using large underground areas for storage and restoration.

Antonio Vallejo, who has been working at the site for more than 25 years, says that the relationship between the site and the museum is unique in Spain.

"The museum is completely at the service of the archaeological site. Here we have the technology to conserve and explain the Madinat Al Zahra."

But the city had only a short life. Having taken over 30 years to construct, it was sacked in a civil war and the dynasty came to an end.

But its reputation lived on. Ramon Fernandez says that the Madinat Al Zahra became a symbol of magnificance and fate.

"People tried to get some of the legitimacy of the fallen dynasty by looting its treasures. It's a compelling balance between huge power and complete destruction after just 70 years."