Monday, July 13, 2009

Córdoba's Medina Azahara loses out on World Heritage Site status

One of Córdoba's greatest cultural jewels, the medieval archeological site of Medina Azahara, has been excluded from the list of candidates to become a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The news has raised a few eyebrows, but not among the advisory bodies to the international organization, which include a Spanish committee called Icomos (International Council of Monuments and Historical-Artistic Sites). Experts who sit on this committee, such as its deputy secretary, Víctor Fernández, point at the 240 illegal homes that were built nearby as the main reason for leaving this priceless site out of the running.

But local authorities insist that the unlawful construction is not a good reason to snub the former palatial city, whose wealth and power were once legendary across the Arab world. "The nearest villa is built 800 meters from Medina's outer wall," says a spokesperson for City Hall.

The Córdoba city authorities and the regional government of Andalusia recently agreed to create a technical office to keep tabs on what goes on near Medina Azahara. Andalusian authorities also promised to work to have the site nominated once again.

But the Icomos experts are adamant. "It comes as no surprise that Medina Azahara is not on the list. In order to make the World Heritage Site list, a monument must not just be exceptional, complete and authentic; it must also be demonstrated that it is well managed and enjoys a comprehensive protection plan," says Fernández. "First you have to prove all this, and then you make the list. Although Medina Azahara has a lot going for it, it is perfectly possible to understand why it is not on the list: because it is not in the best possible condition."

He adds: "The main issue is for the people of Córdoba to ask themselves why these illegal estates were allowed to go up near Medina Azahara in the mid-1990s. That is when City Hall and locals should have been aware of how important this cultural asset is. Instead, there was a feeling of goodwill towards the real estate project."

Icomos believes that Medina Azahara has more than enough merits to make the list, and that Córdoba would profit enormously from having another World Heritage Site besides its historical center, which already has that honor.

However, getting it declared a World Heritage Site, if that ever happens, might take years. Construction of the Information Center has taken so long that some had lost hope of ever seeing it with their own eyes. Construction began in 2003 and, if all goes well, it will open to the public in September of this year. Besides offering visitors information about the site, authorities hope that it will turn Córdoba into an international reference for research on Islamic culture.