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Medina Azahara from Cordoba

Discover Medina Azahara, the brilliant city of the caliph Abderramán III that in the times of Al-Andalus inspired a multitude of legends.

Isabel Catalán

Isabel Catalán

13 min read

Medina Azahara from Cordoba

Detail of the Medina Azahara | ©Turismo de Córdoba

Cordoba is one of the most exciting cities in Spain thanks to its impressive cultural legacy and fascinating history. The period of greatest splendor of Al-Andalus was the Umayyad Caliphate and as a symbol of that greatness a new city called Medina Azahara was erected on the outskirts of Cordoba, the most beautiful city in the Islamic West that only survived for 70 years.

Today, you can visit its remains just 8 kilometers from Cordoba and thus reconstruct in memory what once was the glory of Medina Azahara. For me it is, without a doubt, one of the essential excursions to do in Cordoba during your vacation. I'll tell you why!

1. How to visit Medina Azahara?

Archaeological remains of Medina Azahara | ©-JvL-
Archaeological remains of Medina Azahara | ©-JvL-

Although you can visit Medina Azahara on your own, from experience I tell you that given its vast extension and the large number of spaces that make up this site, my advice is that you opt for a guided tour to tour the entire Umayyad palatine city without losing detail. In addition, with the help of a guide you will learn to decipher its profuse decoration and you will soak up its history, which is not as well known as that of the Alhambra in Granada.

2. Visit to Medina Azahara from Córdoba

Casa Real del Califa | ©-JvL-
Casa Real del Califa | ©-JvL-

With this visit to Medina Azahara from Córdoba of 3 hours duration you will travel to the heart of the Caliphate of Córdoba, the most splendorous period of Al-Andalus, in the company of a guide who will tell you the fascinating history of the brilliant city of Abderramán III and will show you on foot the remains of this interesting archaeological site.

What does this excursion consist of?

This tour to Medina Azahara from Cordoba consists of two parts: on the one hand the visit to the archaeological site of Medina Azahara and on the other hand the visit to its Interpretation Center.

The tour starts at 10:15 AM at the Cruz Roja traffic circle, where you will take the bus to the Medina Azahara complex. There your guide will be waiting for you, who you will be able to identify because he will be carrying an orange umbrella. Once you indicate the name of your reservation, you will join the group and board another bus to the ruins of the palatine city, which is located 2 kilometers from the Interpretation Center.

In Medina Azahara you will spend 2 hours with the guide walking among the remains of palaces, ceremonial halls, mosques and workshops knowing all the stories and surprising anecdotes about this archaeological site declared World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2018.

At the end you will return to the Interpretation Center of the site to start the second part of this excursion to Medina Azahara, which includes a visit to the museum with the guide who will explain all the collections it houses and will give you a more complete view of the activity. You will learn a lot!

You will finally arrive in Cordoba around 13:30 PM, a great time to have lunch and continue your vacation in the Andalusian city.

Languages

The activity is available in Spanish and English.

How many travelers per group?

In this activity there will be a maximum of 15 travelers.

Services included

Local guide

3. Guided Visit to Medina Azahara

Detail of the beautiful decoration of the Rich Room ©Roberto Venturini
Detail of the beautiful decoration of the Rich Room ©Roberto Venturini

With this 3 hour guided tour of Medina Azahara you will explore in the company of an official guide this incredible archaeological site located only 8 kilometers from Cordoba. A place that bears witness to the greatness that Cordoba had in the tenth century during the Umayyad Caliphate.

How does the visit go?

This guided visit to Medina Azahara begins at 10:30 AM, when at the starting point the group boards the bus to the site from Cordoba.

Once there you will have to take a shuttle bus, which is included in the tour, to go to the ruins of Medina Azahara as they are far from the Interpretation Center where the first bus will drop you off. With this tour, entry to the archaeological site is free for European Union citizens while non-EU visitors will have a symbolic price of only 1.50 euros.

Then the tour of Medina Azahara will begin with the guide, who will show you the remains of the palaces, gardens, mosques and ceremonial halls of what was the most beautiful city of the Islamic West in the Middle Ages.

During the visit the guide will also tell you some legends and curiosities about Medina Azahara, which in my opinion makes this tour much more fun and entertaining.

Languages

The activity is available in Spanish and English.

How many travelers per group?

In this activity there will be a maximum of 50 travelers.

Services included

  • Shuttle bus from the parking lot to the Medina Azhara site
  • Official Guide
  • Free admission for EU citizens

4. In general, how long does it take to see Medina Azahara?

View from the top of the Medina Azahara complex | ©-JvL-
View from the top of the Medina Azahara complex | ©-JvL-

The duration of the entire visit is approximately 2.5 to 3 hours.

5. Is it possible to organize the visit to Medina Azahara on your own?

Museum of Medina Azahara | ©Emilio
Museum of Medina Azahara | ©Emilio

In case you choose to do this tour at your own pace, in order to better understand the importance of Medina Azahara in the history of Spain, I advise you to first visit the Interpretation Center that is located in the vicinity of the archaeological ruins and then the palatine city, to get a better idea of what it was and meant in Al-Andalus before contemplating its remains in person.

In order to organize your trip to Medina Azahara on your own, I recommend you to download two maps with the itineraries to the museum and the archaeological site that you can find in the web oficial. They will surely help you to plan your visit!

6. How to get to Medina Azahara?

Gardens of Medina Azahara ©Diego Tirira
Gardens of Medina Azahara ©Diego Tirira

By bus

A tourist bus leaves from the Avenida del Alcázar to the Medina Azahara Interpretation Center. To get a ticket for this bus you must reserve a seat at the tourist office in Cordoba at least one day in advance.

By car

From the center of Cordoba, the Medina Azahara Interpretation Center can be reached by the A-431 road from Palma del Rio until you reach the sign indicating Madinat al-Zahra.

Once you arrive at the site you will have to park your car in the museum parking lot and take the shuttle bus up to the archaeological site, which is located two kilometers from the center. It leaves every 20 minutes and the bus ticket is purchased at the museum.

How to get to the archaeological site?

As I said, the archaeological site of Medina Azahara is located 2 kilometers from the Interpretation Center so to connect both points there is a shuttle bus that we can take after getting the ticket and check in at the museum.

This bus runs continuously during the center's opening hours and passes every 15 to 20 minutes. The ticket costs 2.50 euros (general fare) and 1.50 euros (reduced fare for senior citizens and children from 5 to 12 years old) and includes a round trip. Children under 5 years old get on free of charge.

The last shuttle bus that takes visitors to the ruins of Medina Azahara leaves the parking lot of the Interpretation Center 60 minutes before closing time.

Remember that this is the only way to access the ancient palatine city, as no private vehicles are allowed.

7. Medina Azahara entrance fee and opening hours

Grand Portico | ©-JvL-
Grand Portico | ©-JvL-

Schedules

Medina Azahara is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 AM to 6 PM. Sundays, holidays and Monday eve of holidays open from 9 AM to 3 PM. Mondays closed. Also closed on January 1, January 6, May 1, December 24, December 25 and December 31.

Depending on the month and the season, the schedules change and night visits are made only to the site of Medina Azahara from 7 PM to 12 AM. For more information, please consult the official website.

Ticket price

  • Free for accredited citizens of the European Union.
  • The entrance fee for citizens of other countries is 1.50 euros.

8. Why visit Medina Azahara?

House of Yafar | ©Jocelyn Erskine-Kellie
House of Yafar | ©Jocelyn Erskine-Kellie

The Alhambra in Granada is the Andalusian palatine city that attracts all eyes and is known worldwide for its breathtaking beauty and excellent state of preservation. It receives millions of visitors a year, people queue endlessly at the ticket offices to gain access and tickets are sold out months in advance.

However, not many travelers know of the existence of Medina Azahara, the predecessor of the Alhambra as far as palatine Andalusian cities are concerned.

This is because the fate of both palace complexes was very different. While the Alhambra could be preserved in time after the end of the Reconquest, the life of Medina Azahara was very short-lived because it was razed to the ground during the civil war that ended the Umayyad Caliphate and gave way to the Taifa kingdoms. The abandonment, the passage of time and the plundering did the rest.

However, thanks to the restoration work that has been done in Medina Azahara it is possible to get an idea of the extraordinary beauty that this caliphate city had in its origins and for those who are passionate about history and art, it is a wonder to walk through the site imagining how Medina Azahara was during its time of splendor and the great importance it had in the Middle Ages at the political, cultural and commercial level.

9. What is Medina Azahara like?

Detail of the rich decoration of Medina Azahara | ©-JvL-
Detail of the rich decoration of Medina Azahara | ©-JvL-

I remember that walking through the ruins of Medina Azahara was like taking a trip back in time to the heyday of Al-Andalus and the Umayyad dynasty in Spain. A thrilling experience!

I found it fascinating to have the opportunity to walk around the oldest Andalusian palatine city in the country. The pearl of one of the great empires in the Mediterranean comparable to the Byzantine in its time, for the construction of which architects came from Baghdad and Constantinople.

The visit to Medina Azahara is in itself an adventure. Since it is not possible to access the site by car, you must park your car in the parking lot of the Interpretation Center, register and get your ticket here before taking the shuttle bus that will take you to the monumental complex.

Although it is very tempting, it is not possible to reach Medina Azahara walking through the countryside enjoying the scenery because the road in some sections becomes narrow and dangerous.

Once registered, I got on the bus that connects the museum with the site (it runs every 15 to 20 minutes) and I arrived at Medina Azahara.

What to see in Medina Azahara?

The first thing that caught my attention was the privileged place where Medina Azahara is located.

Taking advantage of the natural slope of the land, the city was designed in a system of terraces at three levels so that in the upper area was built the Royal Alcazar (the residence of the caliph from where he could contemplate the valley of the Guadalquivir), the middle part was dedicated to the administration buildings and the homes of the court officials and in the lower area was the medina itself.

Although the city was razed to the ground by war and later by plundering, I was surprised that there are still traces that allow us to see the opulence of the decoration that this palatine city once had.

The decoration of the palatine city

Caliph Abderraman III spared nothing as Medina Azahara represented the power of his newly proclaimed caliphate and, therefore, everything was designed to show the world the splendor of the Umayyad dynasty.

White marble was brought from Portugal for the columns and capitals, alabaster was used for the floor of the most important rooms as well as local purplish limestone that offered an exquisite contrast between the red decorations and the white walls.

If we add to all this the profuse decoration with vegetal motifs, the epigraphic inscriptions, the landscaped areas, the fountains and the ponds, it is easy to understand why it was said that Medina Azahara was one of the most splendid cities ever built by man.

What are your most outstanding spaces?

Here you can see the Royal House of the Caliph and the magnificent Rico Hall, where political receptions were held in the city and which was characterized by its rich decoration. Also the Mezquita Aljama and the casa de Yafar, the residence of the first minister of the caliph Alhaken II, who built the maqsura of the mosque of Cordoba.

Other areas of interest are the great Portico, the eastern entrance to the Alcazar area, and the casa de la Alberca, which is believed to have been the home of the caliph Alhaken II.

What is the Interpretation Center like?

The objective of this museum is to promote the study and dissemination of the archaeological site of Medina Azahara as well as to be a bridge between the western and eastern worlds.

Its tour is an introduction to Medina Azahara of about 60 minutes that will allow you to discover its history through four permanent exhibitions that deal with:

  • The foundation of the city and its context.
  • The construction of Madinat al-Zahra.
  • The city and its inhabitants.
  • The destruction and recovery of Madinat al-Zahra.

All the historical objects found in the archaeological excavations are preserved here and a 15-minute audiovisual documentary called "Madinat al-Zahra: the shining city" is shown, which is worth watching to learn more about Medina Azahara and life there, as it was inhabited by more than 20,000 people at the time.

10. How was Medina Azahara born?

Travel back in time and discover the culture of Al-Andalus | ©fraboof
Travel back in time and discover the culture of Al-Andalus | ©fraboof

Legend has it that Abderramán III, the first caliph of Córdoba, ordered the construction of the palatine city of Medina Azahara at the foot of Sierra Morena in the 9th century to please the whim of Azahara, his favorite concubine.

However, the real origin of this palace complex does not lie in the romanticism of the president but in a purely political reason.

On the one hand, the caliph wanted to consolidate his image of power after establishing the independent caliphate of Cordoba and sought to make propaganda of his power, wealth and good taste in front of the adversary kingdoms. On the other hand, Abderraman III also wanted to get away from his subjects in a city as populated as Cordoba was at that time and live in an idyllic place separated from the rest of society, so in keeping with the medieval mentality of the time.

11. Why did Medina Azahara disappear?

Ruins of the Medina Azahara complex ©Diego Tirira
Ruins of the Medina Azahara complex ©Diego Tirira

The great work of Abdarrahman III was Medina Azahara, symbol of the political power of the self-proclaimed caliph of Al-Andalus. With the death of his son Alhakam II began the caliphate of his grandson Hisham II, who indulged in worldly pleasures and was a puppet in the hands of his vizier, the famous Almanzor, who ended up becoming the leader of Al-Andalus.

Thus, Almanzor abandoned Medina Azahara and founded Medina Alzahira, his own palatine city, located west of Cordoba, which has not been located to date.

What no one could have suspected was that the days of the Umayyad caliphate were numbered. It disappeared in 1031 for good, after a fierce civil war that overthrew Hisham III and led to the division of the territory into different kingdoms known as the Taifa kingdoms.

From then on, Medina Azahara was burned and sacked. It fell into oblivion for centuries, until the first archaeological excavations were carried out in 1911, which brought to light the remains of the ancient Umayyad palatine city, declared a World Heritage Site in 2018.

12. Tips for visiting Medina Azahara

The complex is integrated into the landscape to amaze the tourist ©dr_zoidberg
The complex is integrated into the landscape to amaze the tourist ©dr_zoidberg

When to visit Medina Azahara?

Any time of the year is good to visit Medina Azahara, although temperatures in summer are usually quite high. That is why during this season I advise you to visit early in the morning or late afternoon.

Is it possible to buy food or drink at the archaeological site?

In the interior it is not possible to buy water or food, so I recommend that you carry a bottle and some nuts and dried fruit in your backpack in case you work up an appetite.

However, the Interpretation Center has a cafeteria-restaurant where you can recover your energy after the excursion.

How to dress to see Medina Azahara?

In the visit to Medina Azahara there is a lot to see, so you will walk for quite a while. Remember to wear comfortable clothes and shoes, and to protect yourself from the cold in winter and the sun in summer.

13. How to complete the visit to Medina Azahara?

Mezquita de Córdoba | ©Angel de los Rios
Mezquita de Córdoba | ©Angel de los Rios

If you plan to make a trip to Cordoba, I recommend that you make an excursion to Medina Azahara and complete it with a visit to the cathedral-mosque to understand the importance of the Umayyad capital in the tenth century.

In my article Tickets for the Mosque of Cordoba I tell you all the details to get tickets to this temple and the different tours that exist.

In case you travel to Andalusia in the footsteps of Al-Andalus, another magnificent palatine city you can discover is the Alhambra of Granada.

If you want to include it in your trip you have several options to explore this wonderful medieval Nasrid fortress. I explain them in detail in my article Entradas y visitas guiadas de la Alhambra en Granada.