Built in the foothills of the Sierra Morena by Abd ar-Rahman III for his favorite concubine, az-Zahra (the Flower), this once-splendid summer pleasure palace was begun in 936. Historians say it took 10,000 men, 2,600 mules, and 400 camels 25 years to erect this fantasy of 4,300 columns in dazzling pink, green, and white marble and jasper brought from Carthage. A palace, a mosque, luxurious baths, fragrant gardens, fish ponds, an aviary, and a zoo stood on three terraces here, and for around 70 years the Madinat was the de facto capital of al-Andalus, until, in 1013, it was sacked and destroyed by Berber mercenaries. In 1944 the Royal Apartments were rediscovered, and the throne room carefully reconstructed. The outline of the mosque has also been excavated. The only covered part of the site is the Salon de Abd ar-Rahman III (currently being restored); the rest is a sprawl of foundations and arches that hint at the splendor of the original city-palace. Visits begin at the nearby museum,
which provides background information and a 3-D reconstruction of the city, and continue with a walk among the ruins, where you can only imagine the bustle and splendor of days gone by. There's no public transportation, but a tourist bus runs twice daily (three times on Saturday); the tourist office can provide details of stops and schedule.