Growth in Spain Threatens a Jewel of Medieval Islam





MEDINA AZAHARA, Spain - To hear historians tell it, this buried city three miles west of Córdoba was the Versailles of the Middle Ages, a collection of estates and palaces 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 contemporary records.

Doors carved of ivory and ebony led to sprawling gardens full of exotic animals and sculptures made of amber and pearls.

"Travelers from distant lands, men of all ranks and professions in life, following various religions, princes, ambassadors, merchants, pilgrims, theologians, and poets all agreed that they had never seen in the course of their travels anything that could be compared to it," wrote the 19th-century historian Stanley Lane-Poole in his book "The Story of the Moors in Spain."

Archaeologists are more hesitant, saying that while many of those marvels may have existed, physical evidence of them has yet to be found. But they, too, are full of superlatives.

"This was the largest city ever built from scratch in Western Europe," covering nearly 280 acres, Antonio Vallejo, the chief archaeologist here, said in an interview. "Most large Western cities grow over time. This was built in a single effort, from a single design."

Now, less than a hundred years after its ruins were identified and its location resurrected on modern maps, a threat has emerged. Construction companies are putting up houses on the site of the city, 90 percent of which remains unexcavated.



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