I couldn’t decide whether to make the trip to Madinat al-Zahra, the 10th-century summer palace of the caliph of Córdoba. Once a spectacular city of 25,000 built by Abd ar-Rahman III for his favorite concubine, now it is not much more than a footprint of stone. I turned to TripAdvisor to help me decide.
A popular destination in TripAdvisor may have hundreds of reviews. It’s not possible to read them all, nor is it worth it. Many contribute nothing. Most of the “Excellent” reviews are uninformative and repetitive, so I start with the “Terrible” reviews.
Review: The video presentation at the Visitor Center is very well done, but then you go to the archaeological site and don’t see anything resembling what you saw in the video.
Reaction: Either the archaeological site is a pile of rubble, or this person has no imagination.
Review: They have reconstructed the buildings at the site; you can’t tell what is original and what was created.
Reaction: Okay, so there’s more than a pile of rubble, but it’s either all fake or this person can’t tell the difference.
Review: We refused to pay 2,10€ to ride the bus to the archaeological site because they wouldn’t let us drive our own car.
Reaction: Cheap bastards with an axe to grind!
By now, I was hopelessly confused, so I turned to Marcus. “Let’s just go,” he said. Quite right. Why am I wasting all this time with people I don’t know when I can just ask the one I know best?
We went; we loved it! The video presentation at the Visitor Center was amazing – the best I have ever seen at an historic sight. They not only used computer animation to show what the 1100-year-old ruins most likely looked like in their magnificence, but they also used animated people to show how they most likely lived. The most remarkable example of this showed ambassadors from foreign countries visiting the city. The entire entourage (maybe twenty people) would ride their horses through the fabulous entrance arches into a maze of ramps up to the Caliph’s reception area. The path twisted and turned, designed to give the impression that the reception must be just around the corner. Corner after corner was negotiated only to reveal another ramp. Visiting dignitaries could only imagine the enormity of the palace. Then, when they finally arrived at the reception room, they had to wait for hours to be received – all designed to impress upon them the Caliph’s importance.
After the video, we were thrilled to go to the actual site to see these same arches and ramps. If I hadn’t seen the film, I wouldn’t have had any idea what I was looking at. And, yes, it was obvious what was original construction and what was not. They intentionally used concrete alongside the original stone to show how it had been reconstructed. One of my favorite exhibits showed the reconstruction of an arch from the few original pieces they had found. Made me want to run right out and become an archaeologist!
One of the Terribles commented that the archaeological site at Madinat al-Zahra was a travesty, like reconstructing the Colosseum. Nonsense! They have created the perfect balance between displaying the ruins as they were unearthed, and allowing us to imagine what this phenomenon was like at its pinnacle. Don’t bother with the Terribles; just go and enjoy!