The city-palace Medina Azahara (the shining city) was situated four miles west of Córdoba in the foothills of the Sierra Morena and was built around 936-940 AD by Abd-al-Rahman III, the first Caliph of Córdoba.
Around its lush gardens were mosques, barracks, offices, schools, workshops, and a coin mint. Its famous “lost gate” was burnt when the city was ransacked in 1010 AD by an uprising of Berber rebels that eventually toppled the caliphate.
Starting out as a member of the powerful Umayyad dynasty , Abd-al-Rahman III was the first caliph of Córdoba in Andalusia, Spain, ruling over the Iberian peninsula during the Middle Ages from 912–961 AD.
According to an article in the Times, Abd-al-Rahman III “declared himself” caliph on January 16, 929 AD after breaking allegiances with his rivals, the Fatimids of Ifriqiya in Northern Africa and the Abbasids in Baghdad, and the new caliphate of Córdoba grew to cover much of the modern Iberian peninsula.
Palace of the Self-Appointed Caliph
The ancient city was first rediscovered in the 1910s and Medina Azahara has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2018. Their website informs that after being sacked and burned in 1010 AD, the city’s ruins were plundered and its stones were robbed and used in the construction of new structures.
But in the primary excavations the palace’s spacious parade ground, where the caliph’s private army mustered, was the size of two football pitches.
A team of archaeologists have now uncovered the charred remains of the city’s legendary gate on the lowest of the complex’s three terraced levels, outside of the walled precinct. According to a report in the Daily Mail , the researchers believe their new findings will greatly add to their understanding of the workings of the palace, and particularly the vast parade ground that the palace opened on to.
Lead investigator, archaeologist Alberto Canto of the The Autonomous University of Madrid , said the gate of Medina Azahara stood on a porch that had collapsed after the fire that destroyed the city, and his team found its: “tiles, wood, nails, beams, hinges and ornaments.”
The researchers think the grand entryway was embedded in a plastered portico and decorated with blue plant motifs, it stood around two stories high, and that it had been stylized similarly to the doors of the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, in Andalusia.
Mercury Pools to Impress, And Potentially Poison, Guests
The Medina Azahara complex comprises over 250 acres of land and archaeologists estimate that it was built by around 10,000 workers at the cost of “one third of the caliphate’s annual revenue.”
Mr. Canto said that around the massive parade ground were: “administrative and governmental offices, barracks, baths, three gardens, a mint, mosques, reception halls, residences, schools, stables and workshops,” and built at the working heart of Medina Azahara was the grand reception hall, the “Salón Rico” (Rich Hall).
In 2005 the palace was described by the American newspaper The New York Times as follows: “Teeming with treasures that dazzled the most jaded traveler or world weary aristocrat. Pools of mercury could be shaken to spray beams of reflected sunlight across marble walls and ceilings of gold.”
According to the archaeologist Mr. Canto, the pools filled with mercury were shaken to spray beams of reflected sunlight “on cue by a servant,” causing the sun’s reflected rays to dash and flash across the walls and ceiling in a lightning-like display, which the caliph used to entertain his guests.
A Quicksilver River to Jannah or Jahannam?
Mercury is highly toxic and capable of quickly destroying the human body and while the liquid metal had no apparent practical purpose for ancient people, it has been found in tombs from China to Pre-Colombian South America.
In 2015, Mexican researcher Sergio Gómez announced that his team of archaeologists had found a 300 ft. (91.44 meter) long tunnel with three chambers at the end, 60 ft. (18.29 meters) below the famous Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, the third largest pyramid of Teotihuacan, the ruined city in central Mexico.
According to Scientific American , near the entrance of the chambers the researchers found a “trove of strange artifacts,” including, “jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with carved shells and rubber balls.” But Gómez said they also discovered “large quantities of liquid mercury in a chamber below the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent.”
Annabeth Headreck is a professor at the University of Denver, and speaking to Scientific American she said, “The shimmering, reflective qualities of liquid mercury may have resembled an underworld river to the supernatural world: the entrance to the underworld.”
This makes one ask if maybe the shimmering mercury pools in the Caliph’s place at Medina Azahara, which he showed off to his guests, were also imbued with supernatural beliefs relating to Jannah or Jahannam, the Islamic garden of paradise and the place where evildoers are punished, respectively.