Medina Azahara and the Aljaferia Palace are two outstanding architectural landmarks in the history of Islamic architecture. The later was constructed in Cordoba in Spain in 936 AD. It served as a de facto capital of the al Andalus (Muslim Spain) in mediaeval times. Medina Azahara was a palace-city comprising of several reception halls, gardens, government offices, residences, barracks, and mosques. On the other hand, the Aljaferia Palace in Zaragoza, Spain was constructed towards the end of the 11th Century (Fairchild, 2000).
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The palace-city reflects the success of the taifa of Zaragoza during its heydays. Recently, the structure was embraced as home for the Cortes (regional parliament) for the Aragon autonomous community. Moorish architectural designs are employed in both structures. As a result, the two have remarkable similarities despite the fact that they were constructed in two different historical times. The architectural design and elements, socio-cultural influence, and usage of the different structures within the two landmarks are compared and contrasted in this paper.
Under the umbrella of the Moorish architectural design, the two architectural works encompass a number of other independent structures. For instance, the Aljaferia Palace features a palace of about 70X70 meters surrounded by a wall with a number of round towers (Ruggles, 1991). Two of the towers flank the gate of the palace to create a fortified exterior. The throne hall and the mosque which are among the still existing structures in the Aljaferia are luxuriously ornamented. Ornamental programs and architectural motifs that evoke the caliph characterize most of the structures and wall in the Aljaferia palace. Curved stucco ornaments and the interlacing arches on most of the structures make it totally outstanding.
Medina Azahara had reception halls that employed a ‘basilical’ plan with each having three or even more naves in a manner similar to the designs of mosques. The entire palace-city was built on a 112 hectare piece of land (Fairchild, 2000). It constituted Caliphal residences and servant quarters, a congregational mosque, and vast gardens. Among the key factors that informed the design of the Medina Azahara was its location and topography.
It was built in the Sierra Morena foothills which made it quite easy to combine aspects of its location with its functionality to come up with a unique urban program. Astute designing as well as the advantages presented by the uneven terrain enabled the organization of the different sub-structures within the Medina Azahara. The palace was positioned on a higher terrace and other structures such as the Caliph residences and the Aljama mosque followed in other lower terraces down-hill (Ruggles, 1991).
Three gardens were also included in the planning of the city. One of them, called the The Prince’s Garden was positioned on the top terrace next to the palace. It was a recreational point for the nobles and royal visitors of the palace. This deliberate planning of the main features of the complex reveals the careful planning of the entire palace-city. As such, there are reasons for the positioning of the palace, the gardens, and even the mosque in the places where they were located. For instance, the palace which was a place for only a few wealthy and influential personalities was the at the core and at the uppermost terrace while the mosque which was a place for all was located at the lower open spaces to accommodate as many worshippers as possible (Barrucand & Achim, 2002).
Certain features were common in both the Aljaferia palace and the Medina Azahara. These included the highly decorated congregational mosques, open spaces and, gardens. On the contrary, a significant disparity existed between the two. For instance, while the Aljaferia had intensely decorated walls, the decorations in the Medina Azahara were mostly limited to the palace interior walls and the mosque. The dome-shaped entrances and roof domes that are characteristic of the Moorish architectural design were common in both structures.
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While the Aljaferia Palace was home to the Banu Hud dynasty (Fairchild, 2000). This was during the time of Abu Jaffar Al-Muqtadir after the Banu Tujibi was abolished. At the time of its construction, the taifa of Zaragoza was among the most successful entities in the region. As such, the palace reflects the historical time when the entity was at its peak. Despite being an icon of power, the structure features numerous other structures that depict the different perspectives of the lives of its inhabitants.
For instance, being an Islamic centre, the structure featured a mosque that was heavily decorated. The Troubadour Tower which was the oldest construct of the Aljaferia was a defensive structure (Fairchild, 2000). It is surrounded by multiple alabaster masonry walls. On the upper part of the tower, it is made up of lime concrete which is relatively lighter.
The Madina Azahra was initially designed to serve as a royal residence and as a unifying factor in terms of its political functions. It was a lavish place and the fact that it is one of the few buildings that managed to overcome the numerous attempts to obliterate it is fact that it was actually a symbol of strength for the community living within it. Other features of the Medina Azahara including mosques denoted the attachment of the structure to the Islamic way of life. The several structures within the Medina Azahara brought in close proximity some of the useful aspects of the Arab and Islamic cultures. The palace and the mosque occupy biggest spaces in both Aljaferia palace and Medina Azahara (Fairchild, 2000). This connotes the central position that the Islamic religion had in the lives of the people living in both palace-cities.
Medina Azahara was home for the Caliphs while the Aljaferia was a resident for royal leaders. However, the two structures were considered key political points in the region. The main inspiration behind the construction of Medina Azahara was mainly politico-ideological. The position of the Caliph in the society demanded that a new city that symbolized his power be constructed. It was meant to depict the superiority of the Caliph over his other rivals such as the Fatimids in North Africa.
The structure remained influential and highly regarded throughout the reign of Al-Hakam, Abd ar-Rahman’s son (Barrucand & Achim, 2002). However, after his death, the complex ceased to serve as the Caliph’s residence. It was destroyed later in 1010 during a civil war and reduced to ruins. The once vibrant palace-city remained abandoned as ruins for centuries until 1912 when excavations and renovations commenced.
Certain architectural elements in both the Aljaferia palace and the Medina Azahara depict the beliefs and the lifestyles of the inhabitants. For instance, in both cases, the planning of the spaces and the use of decorations corresponded to the inhabitants of the spaces. The palaces as well as the mosques were heavily decorated with expensive marble carvings while the open spaces which were often used by the common residents were plain.
The Arabic influences in the aspects of the people’s lives were depicted mainly in the decorations and the planning of the spaces. While those areas occupied by the wealthy and the influential were lavishly ornamented and spacious, the public spaces were more restricted in terms of space and had limited and relatively fewer decorations or carvings. This depicted the social stratification that was in existence in the society. However, while the mosques were public places open to all despite their positions in the society, they were also expensively decorated (Barrucand & Achim, 2002). This reflected the high regard that the people in both the complexes had for their religion. As a sacred place, the mosque was considered as a more important structure even than the palace.
Both the Medina Azahara and the Aljaferia palace were significant architectural symbols that carried a lot of importance in the times that they existed. They were not only key administrative points in Muslim Spain but they also portrayed the beliefs, traditions, and the lifestyles of the people living in them. The Moorish architectural design employed in both constructions makes most of the features remarkably similar. The palace, mosque, and gardens were common features in the two complexes. While the palace was the central place in the Aljaferia, the Aljama mosque and the Caliph residence were the main features of the Medina Azahara.
Barrucand, M., & Achim, B. (2002). Moorish Architecture in Andalusia. New York: Willey & sons. Web.
Fairchild, R. (2000). Gardens, Landscape, and Vision in the Palaces of Islamic Spain. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press. Web.
Ruggles, D.F. (1991). Historiography and the Rediscovery of Madinat al-Zahra. Islamic Studies (Islamabad), 30, 129-40. Web.