MEDINA AZAHARA

Cordoba

What is Medina Azahara?

Medina Azahara, which is located 8 km from Cordoba, is an archeological site for one of the most splendid Moorish cities ever built. “The brilliant city” as its name translates, was built by Abd-al Rahman III of the Umayyad dynasty in 936 AD. It was founded to promote the image of the newly independent western Caliphate as being the strongest and most powerful kingdom of the middle ages.

However, due to a civil war, the city lasted less than 75 years. For almost 1,000 years it laid forgotten until its rediscovery in 1911. Today, Medina Azahara’s ruins give great insight into everyday society of Moorish Spain. Since 2018, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Patricia Palacios, co-founder of España Guide
About
PATRICIA PALACIOS
España Guide Co-Founder
Patricia is an engineer turned content creator who for over a decade has been helping travelers navigate her native Spain. In addition to her own website, her tips and recommendations have been featured on BBC Travel, CNN, El País & Lonely Planet, just to name a few.

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Medina Azahara Tickets & Opening Times

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OPENING TIMES

March 21 to June 20

  • Tuesday to Thursday: 9am to 6pm
  • Fridays & Saturdays: 9am to 9pm
  • Sundays & holidays: 9am to 3pm

June 21 to September 20

  • Tuesday to Saturday: 9am to 3pm & 8pm to 10pm
  • Sundays & holidays: 9am to 3pm

September 21 to March 20

  • Tuesday to Saturday: 9am to 6pm
  • Sundays & holidays: 9am to 3pm

Closed: Mondays; Jan 1 & 6; May 1; Dec 24, 25 & 31

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PRICE

General: free for EU residents, 1.5€ others

Shuttle bus (entrance to archaeologic site):

  • General: 3€
  • Children (5 to 12): 1.5€
  • Children (under 5): free

Guided tour: from 18.95€

BOOK TOUR
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Is Medina Azahara Worth Visiting?

Arches of the Upper Basilica Building in Medina Azahara – Cordoba, Spain
Upper Basilica Building in Medina Azahara
© ESPAÑA GUIDE

Medina Azahara might have been one of the most magnificent cities ever built by mankind, but don’t expect too much. By that we mean that you should not go there expecting to see immaculately decorated Moorish architecture. Medina Azahara is nothing like Cordoba’s Mezquita or Granada’s Alhambra in that sense.

Medina Azahara does have one visually impressive area known as the Salón de Abd al-Rahman III or Salón Rico. This lavish set of rooms divided by arches is where guests were received in the palace. Unfortunately, this area has been closed to visitors since 2009 due to restoration work. Its reopening time is scheduled for “someday.” The images of the Salón Rico are used a lot in the brochures and advertising of Medina Azahara, but just note, you will not be able to see it.

Painting of a reception in Medina Azahara representing the civilization of the Caliphate of Cordoba in the time of Abd-al-Rahman-III
The civilization of the Caliphate of Cordoba in the time of Abd-al-Rahman-III

So what does Medina Azahara have? Well, the city is thought to occupy an extensive 112 hectares (roughly 1 sq km), however only between 10-30% has been excavated.

There are well-preserved remains of diverse infrastructure: roads, canals and bridges, buildings, decorative elements and objects of daily use. The city’s ruins tell the story of what daily life in the Caliph was like 1,000 years ago.

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TAKE PART IN A TOUR OF MEDINA AZAHARA

If you just walk through the site without anyone explaining the things that you are seeing, you will probably be underwhelmed. For that reason we recommend to take part in a guided tour of Medina Azahara. The tour guide will be able to help color in between the lines of the blank foundations and give you a much better picture of how life really was in Medieval Moorish Spain.

OUR VERDICT

So, is it worth visiting Medina Azahara? That depends on you and your time schedule. If you are traveling by bus from Cordoba, you will need to dedicate about a half of a day to the visit. In our opinion, if you have limited time in southern Spain, skip it.

What to See in Medina Azahara

Entrance of the vivienda de la albera (pond house) in Medina Azahara – Cordoba, Spain
Vivienda de la Alberca (Pond house)
© ESPAÑA GUIDE

Medina Azahara is situated at the foot of the Sierra Morena mountains. The slope of the terrain allowed for the city to be distributed on three terraces. Although there has been excavation done on all three levels, only some of the top levels can be explored today.

The top terrace (and some of the second) was occupied by the castle known as the Alcazar. This is where the royal family resided. As such it is known as the dar al-mulk or the house of power. It was separated from the rest of the city by a wall.

The second terrace was were many of the government buildings and reception halls were located. The main highlight is the salón de Abd al-Rahman III or Salón Rico (Rich Hall). This was the heart of the palatial complex. It’s the most valuable part of the archaeological site in both its historical importance and also its artistic beauty.

The Rich Hall is characterized by several rooms divided by lavishly decorated arches. The vast space opened up onto a pond and a huge garden with a pavilion in the center.

Unfortunately, this area has been closed for restoration works since 2009. No official time for its reopening has been set.

Arches at the House of Yafar in Medina Azahara, Cordoba
House of Yafar in Medina Azahara
© ESPAÑA GUIDE

Also on the second terrace is the casa de Yafar (house of Yafar) which can be seen today. The house only has the foundation remaining, but the entrance gate has been successfully restored. The house is believed to have belonged to Ya´far ibn Abd al-Rahmán who was the hajib (prime minister) in 961.

There are a few other archways that can be found in Medina Azahara – some of them restored better than others.

The bottom terrace was occupied by the medina itself. This is where the Aljama Mosque, markets, baths, public gardens and houses belonging to normal citizens were located. But it’s not possible to visit any of this area.

MEDINA AZAHARA MUSEUM

The Medina Azahara Museum is located at the entrance of the archeological site. This small museum contains a permanent exhibition about the site: foundation and construction, the city and its inhabitants, its destruction and recovery.

You can watch a 15-min video entitled “Madinat al-Zahra: the brilliant city”, which is a great introduction before heading off to visit the site.

Inside the museum you will also find bathrooms, a café-restaurant, and a book and souvenir shop.

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History of Medina Azahara

Views over Yafar's house in Madinat al-Zahra – Cordoba, Spain
Views over Yafar's house in Madinat al-Zahra
© ESPAÑA GUIDE

Medina Azahara has been described as the Versailles of the Middle Ages. It was built by Abd-al Rahman III in 936 of the Umayyad dynasty, only 8 years after proclaiming himself caliph. The intention for founding the city was clear – to show the power and supremacy of both the new ruler and the newly independent western caliphate.

Vast sums of money were dedicated to the new city’s construction. Only the best materials were used: marble in a rainbow of colors, gold, precious stones, etc. Literature of the time describes Medina Azahara’s artistic splendor as being monumental. Some Arab authors even stated that it was the most magnificent city ever built by mankind.

Sadly, less than 75 years passed between the time when its foundations were laid and its destruction.

Gate to enter the Alcazar of Medina Azahara – Cordoba, Spain
Entrance to the Alcazar
© ESPAÑA GUIDE

WHAT HAPPENED TO MADINAT AL-ZAHRA?

40 years into Medina Azahara’s construction, Al-Hakam II (son and successor of Abd al-Rahman III) died. His young son Hisham II was proclaimed caliph. This created a schism since many believed that Muslim law forbad children from ascending to the role of caliph.

As a result, the hajib (prime minister) Almanzor slowly took control of the government. Once Almanzor died in 1002, the question of succession lead to a civil war. Medina Azahara was one of the war’s casualties. With the destruction of the city, the fall of the caliphate soon followed. By 1031, both the city and the kingdom had ended.

The city was mostly forgotten until 1911, when the ruins of Medina Azahara began to be unearthed. Since then archeological works have continued. Today, only about 10-30% of the roughly 1 sq km city have been dug up.

ORIGIN OF THE NAME 'MADINAT AL-ZAHRA'

There is a popular belief that Abd-al Rahman III named the city after his favorite wife Az-zahr (meaning flower). Legend has it that it was her who suggested to Abd al-Rahman III to build a new city with her name. But this theory for the name is not highly regarded by almost any historians.

The most probably theory is that Abd al-Rahman III built the new city for political and ideological reasons. It seems he wanted to show his power by creating a new city as a symbol of this new era. “Al-Zahrá” also means the brilliant, the shinny one. The name therefore makes reference to this new and shinny city of the newly independent caliphate.

How to Get to Medina Azahara

Medina Azahara is located 8 km west of Cordoba’s center. Upon arrival you will first see the visitors center. There you will find the ticket office, museum, café-restaurant, book and souvenir shop, bathrooms, etc. However, the archeological site is still over 2 km away.

To get from the visitors center to the archeological site, everyone must take a shuttle bus (regardless if you have your own car or not). It costs 3€ (1.5€ for children between 5 and 12 years old & free for smaller children). Buses leaves every 15-20 minutes.

BY CAR

From Cordoba, take the road A-431 (Carretera de Palma del Río) until you see the sign “Madinat al-Zahra.” There is a large parking area (free) next to the visitors center.

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BY TAXI

Taking a taxi is a very comfortable but yet affordable way to get to Medina Azahara. Taxis from Cordoba have a fixed rate to Medina Azahara:

  • Weekdays: 3 people for 4.75€/person, 4 people for 3.65€/person
  • Holidays & weekends: 3 people for 5.90€/person, 4 people for 4.43€/person
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BY BUS

If you are in Cordoba without your own vehicle then the tourist bus service can be an economical option.

  • The price of the round trip is as follows (it includes the shuttle bus within Medina Azahara):
    • General: 9€
    • Children (5 to 12): 5€
    • Children (under 5): free
  • Trip duration: 20 min one way
  • How to book a bus ticket to Medina Azahara?
  • Where are the bus pick up points in Cordoba?
  • What are the pick up times?
    Tuesday to Sunday at 10:15 am, 11 am and 11:45 am
  • What are the return times?
    3h 15 min after pick up. That is at 1:30 pm, 2:15pm and 3pm
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