The city of Córdoba is located on the north bank of the Guadalquivir River in the southern region of Spain known today as Andalusia. Though the city is perhaps best known as the capital of a branch of the Umayyad dynasty that ruled the Iberian Peninsula from the middle of the eighth-century until the early eleventh-century, Córdoba was heir to a distinguished history before the advent of Islamic rule in the region.
Originally a Phoenician city, Córdoba was conquered for Rome in 152 BC and eventually became the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior. In the sixth-century the city was conquered by Visigothic forces, and in 711/92 AH by a combined Arab and Berber army. This last conquest paved the way for Abd al-Rahman I, an Umayyad prince from Syria, to establish himself as an independent ruler on the Iberian Peninsula. During the period of Umayyad rule, which ended in 1035/426 AH, the city's Roman walls and famous bridge were repaired, hydrological infrastructure appropriated and expanded, an impressive number of urban foundations were constructed in the city, and numerous suburbs developed around the original walled Roman/Visigothic city (madina). The rectangular madina was divided into four quarters by the intersection of the Roman cardo and decumanus, forming two major arteries from which others branched, around which development occurred. The decumanus was the main north-south thoroughfare, terminating at the southern end of the madina. This southern section was the city's most important civic space, distinguished by a concentration of government, religious, and commercial institutions. Here travelers entered the city from the rebuilt Roman bridge and would have emerged into an open space from which the city's principal thoroughfares opened, bordered by government buildings to the northwest, including the palace of the Umayyad rulers (no longer extant).
Córdoba's most famous monument, the Great Mosque, is located in this section of the city, where it was once connected to the Umayyad palace with a covered passage over the street (sabat). Founded by Abd al-Rahman I, the Great Mosque was considered a wonder of the medieval world and was appropriated as the cathedral of Córdoba when the Christian forces of the Castilian crown conquered the city in 1236/633 AH. The most important thoroughfare, al-Rasif, stretched along the river in this southern section of the medina, and was used for public processions. This section of Córdoba boasted a concentration of markets, including the royal market for luxury goods known as al-Qayseriyya, as well as taverns, caravanserais, baths, and inns that catered to the merchants and other travelers that flocked to this cultural capital of the western Mediterranean. Although it is difficult to verify the accounts of the medieval geographers, poets, and authors who wrote admiringly of the city's thousands of mosques, shops, baths, and palaces, Córdoba was perhaps the most important cultural center of the medieval western Mediterranean.
Abd al-Rahman III began construction of Madinat al-Zahra, a planned palatine city 4 kilometers west of Córdoba, that further stimulated development of suburban and country estates in the western zone. Constructed on a series of rectangular terraces at the foot of the Sierra Morena mountain range, Madinat al-Zahra boasted its own markets, mosques, and population that served the caliph, his administrators, and the army who relocated to the new city from old Córdoba. Madinat al-Zahra was sacked and destroyed in the early eleventh-century, a tumultuous period in Cordoba's history. Excavations ongoing since the early twentieth-century in the official and residential areas of the upper two terraces have revealed a fraction of the palatine city. Its former luxury are reflected in the reception halls, residential quarters, gardens and pavilions located on the city's upper two terraces.
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