The project for the museum at the archaeological site of Madinat al-Zahra, which won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2010, adopts the form of a semi-underground construction in which the spaces are arranged around a sequence of solids and voids, covered and open areas. Visitors are guided along an itinerary that showcases the key aspects of the palatine city of Madinat al-Zahra and offers a more meaningful insight into the historical and heritage dimension of an archaeological site that was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2018.
The first caliph of al-Andalus, Abd al-Raḥman III, built Madinat al-Zahra between 936 and 940 to serve as his official residence, administrative headquarters, outward representation of the power of the caliphate and symbol of the strength of his sovereignty and the independence of al-Andalus with respect to Damascus. The exhibition highlights this through different areas that weave a coherent narrative about the caliphate city, its origin and history, the people who lived there and the values they espoused, and the recovery of the site for public appreciation.
Pottery, coins, weapons and decorative architectural materials and features are some of the pieces used to illustrate this narrative, all crystallised in an exhibition design that is austere in form but interspersed with dramatic effects in the itinerary and the arrangement of the different elements, creating novel perspectives. Two materials in particular predominate in the museum: Corten steel and glass. They are combined with three types of display structures: backlit panels to introduce themes through images and texts; showcases and tables; and large cube-shaped modules in the form of sculptures to exhibit original pieces, scale models and even a virtual theatre recreating the ceremonial splendour of a caliphate audience.