In What Ways Was Madinat al-Zahra Used for the ‘Staging of Power’?

In What Ways Was Madinat al-Zahra Used for the 'Staging of Power'?

All rulers in different époques used extremely diverse means to demonstrate the power. Some of them were constantly waging wars, some tried to execute their enemies to maintain the fear among their people. Others wanted to show their kindness and generosity, and several monarchs strived for perpetuating their power and greatness building the constructions that would draw the attention of people as long as the human civilization exists. Madinat al-Zahra became one of such places because its creation was another method of caliph’s might demonstration. It did not only speak for the greatness and wealth of the ruler, but also served for staging of his power. The organization of Madinat al-Zahra, its luxury, decoration, placement, order, and other aspects were the ways ‘Abd al-Rahman III used to highlight and preserve his authority.

In order to maintain control over the state, the sovereigns have to come up with the means to make all people feel his/her power – “inspire fear and respect” (Barceló, 1998, p. 426). In the times of the Al-Andalus caliphate, the ways of demonstrating power should have been barely discernible. The rulers and their closest advisors tried to keep everything in secret in order to make the things look natural. On rare occasions, usually extremely solemn and important, caliph appeared before the political leaders and officials of the state. That was the appropriate time to demonstrate the ruler’s superiority and exceptionality. According to Miquel Barceló, the building that became the place of such a meeting had to look in a particular way in order to inspire the feeling of respect and mystery (1998, p. 427). Clearly, Madinat al-Zahra was built in such a matter as to ensure putting such intentions into practice.

The construction of Madinat al-Zahra started around 940, when the caliph ‘Abd al-Rahman III, who ordered to build it, lost the battle at Simancas (Fierro, 2005, p. 112). After the defeat in military sphere, the ruler decided to demonstrate his power in other accessible for him ways. Madinat al-Zahra is not a single building. It is the whole town with the mosques, markets, baths, administrative buildings and separate governing (Fierro, 2005, p. 112). Even though it became a magnificent creation, the city did not become a rival of Cordoba (another big settlement which used to be the center of cultural, economic, governmental, and trade life). They can be regarded as the capital split into two parts. Madinat al-Zahra became a means ‘Abd al-Rahman III used to “stage his power” as its greatness and uniqueness astonish people nowadays in the same way they did many centuries ago.

The most apparent thing that an observer can define as the demonstration of might is the way the city was built. All the constructions appeared on the slopes of a mounting. The builders cut three extremely large stepped terraces (Fierro, 2005, p. 112). On the lower terrace, the gardens were situated; the middle one was the location of official buildings; and the upper one became the area where residential constructions were found. Such a placement of the buildings symbolized the division of control and manifestation of the caliph’s power. The area where ‘Abd al-Rahman III lived was on the highest level; then, the controlling bodies were placed; and on the lowest stage, the object of observation and control was situated. Similar hierarchy can be found in many aspects of the city, but the omnipresence of the caliph in every place is undeniable. Each terrace contained some building that the ruler liked to visit. The Salon of the caliph was situated on the middle terrace and overlooked the Upper Garden (Fierro, 2005, p. 112). The mosque was built at a short distance from the city, outside its walls. Such a location can serve as the symbol of divine equality – God’s and caliph’s. Thus, the specific construction was carefully planned as it had a particular purpose – staging of the caliph’s power.

Another aspect that proves that Madinat al-Zahra was used for ‘Abd al-Rahman’s III manifestation of authority was the luxury of the city. It was full of gold and silver, marble buildings, pearls, fountains, and beautiful gardens. The total amount of money spent on the construction of the city constituted the third part of the total state annual revenues (Fierro, 2005, p. 112). The wealth was often used for the staging of power, so there is nothing strange in the fact that ‘Abd al-Rahman III adhered to this strategy as well. In most cases, wealthy people are regarded as mighty. Therefore, demonstrating that his wealth is close to endless, the caliph wanted people think of him as the most powerful person and obey his will.

The way some parts of the city were decorated and organized can also be viewed as the means the caliph used for the demonstration of power. Fierro states that the complex of Hall together with gardens “may be interpreted as the reference to Paradise, which is conceived in Islam as a heavenly lush and well-watered garden or gardens with palaces and pavilions, where male believers will have at their disposal those beautiful women, the houris” (2005, p. 115). Thus, not only the mosque built apart from the city, but also the Hall with gardens implied the divine nature of caliph, his sacred power, and sinless nature. Arranging the construction in such a way, ‘Abd al-Rahman III demonstrated his direct relation to God, his saintly behavior, and the will that cannot be contradicted similarly to the God’s one. Moreover, the organization of the gardens could also symbolize the order that the caliphate brought to the country (Fierro, 2005, p. 116). If there is an order, the caliph should be respected, and his power cannot be called into question.

Furthermore, serious defensive constructions of Madinat al-Zahra demonstrated the might of the caliph. Triano indicates that the city was protected by double walls, square towers, and some defensive area (1992, p. 27). If the ruler can defend the state, he is usually believed to be a powerful person. Feeling the safe being in the city, its considerable protection, the visitors thought that the caliph was mighty enough to defeat all the enemies and save the country. Therefore, the place became a smart way to show the strength of ‘Abd al-Rahman III. In most cases, the monarchs used military forces to demonstrate power, but excessive number of troops created the impression of bloodthirsty despots. ‘Abd al-Rahman III built the city to make people think of protection, not despotism and oppression. In such a way, the caliph did not only use Madinat al-Zahra for staging of power, but also for establishment of his trustworthiness.

In order to demonstrate the ruler’s superiority and exceptionality, the builders and decorators of Madinat al-Zahra devised special techniques to be used during the ceremonies there. The caliph did not have to come directly to his visitors; he appeared before them behind semi-transparent piece of cloth or curtain. Only if the authorization was given, the guest could approach him. When the ruler left, he disappeared progressively, moving away from the public. The only proof of his presence was the shade of a man behind the layers of curtains, who finally became invisible. In such a way, caliph was equated to God as “a complete absence calculated to produce the sensation of an absolute omnipresence” (Barceló, 1998, p. 427). “The sitr was precisely to signal the unbridgeable gap between the caliph and all other men, and his exceptional identity as God’s caliph” (Barceló, 1998, p. 435). The court was not sure about the exact time when the ruler could hear or see them, so they had a fear to say something that might contradict his will. There was no possibility for them to become equal to the ruler, so they should have been separated and always obey his power. This method of demonstrating the authority does not seem to be great in comparison to the overall impression Madinat al-Zahra made and the purpose it served for. However, it is still significant for the overall picture of caliph’s ways of power staging. Barceló states that there is no clear evidence that such technique was used in Madinat al-Zahra; nevertheless, since the Al-Andalus traditions developed under the significant influence of Eastern countries, there is every possibility to assume that the officials were not able to see their caliph during the ceremonies (1998, p. 427).

The relation to the eternal mind and superficial powers was represented through one more element of decoration. One of the salons in the Madinat al-Zahra palace contained another artificially created trick, which served for equating the caliph to Allah. In the center of the salon, the architect created the pool of mercury (Barceló, 1998, p. 430). It could reflect the sun, and the flashing and sparkles appeared on the walls of the chamber decorated with gold and silver. Marble and crystal columns caught the gleam too, so the whole salon glittered and shone in a mystical for most people way. Something that cannot be easily explained surprises people and makes them think of some divine interference. Since the caliph was the one to build the palace, he was regarded as the creator of that sparkling beauty. The visitors thought that an ordinary human could not build the chamber. Thus, they believed the ruler had some extraterrestrial powers, and therefore, respected and treated him with fear. If a decoration of a single salon in the palace created such an impression, one could assume what effect the overall construction of Madinat al-Zahra could have. The architects as well as decorators tried really hard to satisfy the caliph’s requirements and provide the ruler with the possibility to “stage his power” by his rare visits to the palace.

Demonstration of authority with the help of Madinat al-Zahra had some specific characteristics. It was related not only to the way the construction was performed, but also to the places people occupied. Madinat al-Zahra became the location where four of five major ceremonies took place (Barceló, 1998, p. 433). The hierarchy was present during the ceremonies in order to demonstrate caliph’s power and superiority. The reception hall of the palace, also called ‘majlis’, had such an interior that the visitors “were placed according to the varying degrees of their individual or corporate relationship to the caliph” (Barceló, 1998, p. 433). Since different classes of people attended the ceremony (those classes did not refer to ordinary citizens, but to those who had some direct relation to the state’s affairs), the ruler could influence them directly staging his power through his personal appearance and disappearance, not only transmitting the orders through the advisors and officials. Direct contact enables establishing stronger connection with people and affecting their perceptions more than indirect one. The placement of the guests symbolized their relationship with the caliph and therefore with the God, for caliph was his vicegerent on the Earth. For this reason, the ruler’s full-blood brothers sat on either hand of the caliph; then, half-blood brothers were placed (Barceló, 1998, p. 433). Two immediate sides were given to the visitors, and each group was separated by some space. The more distant the visitor’s relation to the ruler was, the more remote place he occupied. The reception hall in Madinat al-Zahra was built in a way that people could see the gradual shift of power. Caliph occupied the most prominent position, which allowed him to see everyone. His being in the center, on the dais, gave every guest the possibility to understand that his power was all embracing, endless, and superior. The curtain that possibly separated the ruler from the rest of the people could symbolize the inability of an ordinary person to reach the caliph and, therefore, obtain the same power as this person had.

To conclude, one may suppose that the overall construction of Madinat al-Zahra served for the caliph’s staging of power. There are several particular aspects about the city that prove the fact. The first one is its structure. Its hierarchy can be found in the design of the whole settlement and its particular parts. Specific placement of the buildings points to the caliph’s superiority and equality to God. Second, the luxury and protection of the settlement prove that the creator is powerful. Finally, some elements of décor in Madinat al-Zahra contribute to the creation of mysterious, divine, and sinless image of the ruler. They are the gardens, curtains that covered the caliph’s figure from other people, unusual lightening of the chambers, and others. Thus, Madinat al-Zahra was used for staging of power in many ways.

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