Sunday, December 3, 2023

Time flies when you're having fun, or writing novels.

It's been a tremendous twelve months. A new job and health issues have impacted my writing time, but I'm still at it, trying to wrap up the second half of Vlad Dracul's story in Order of the Dragon - Book Two

For those who've read my novels in the past, you know that I'm an obsessive researcher and try to get the details right. That's meant scrapping my novella about Vlad's eldest son Mircea, whose actions can't entirely be separated from his father's own, and requiring me to narrow my focus to the other two sons, Radu and Vlad the Monk. What about Vlad Dracula, you may ask? The inspiration of the vampire legend? He appears in each of my novels and novellas about his family, almost as a force of nature, but I have very specific reasons for choosing NOT to make him a protagonist in a third novella. One, Vlad Dracula has been done to death in fiction. The reality of his life AND the myth of his being a vampire (thanks ever so much, sarcastically, to Bram Stoker, as the real Vlad Dracula was WAY MORE INTERESTING). There's nothing new or nuanced that I could reveal about his experiences. Besides, I find his father and brothers equally interesting figures whose stories deserve to be told. Two, if you want to read one of the best portrayals of him in fiction, get a copy of C.C. Humphrey's Vlad: The Last Confession. You will be immersed as I was.

Since 2005, I've been blessed to share a friendship and partnership with author Mirella Patzer, but this year marked the culmination of a novel we've been working on since 2019, when she visited me during one boiling August here in Barbados. As I'm known for writing fiction set in Europe's Middle Ages, this novel, tentatively titled The Ordeal of Alice Clifton, is a complete departure from that period and takes readers to 18th century Philadelphia in the aftermath of the American Revolution. The novel tells the story of a real-life figure, the mulatto slave Alice Clifton, who endures the attentions of a brutal man related by marriage to the first Speaker of the House of Representatives. His rapes result in her pregnancy, and when her daughter dies, she is accused of infanticide. But for her trial and the intervention of the then leader of the Philadelphian government, Benjamin Franklin, no one would ever know Alice Clifton once existed. Mirella and I are shopping around for a home for our great collaboration. I'll announce future publication plans here. 

By the way, Mirella's newest novel, Her Secret Legacy, just made its debut on December 1. If you weren't aware of her or her work, why not get started with a copy of her latest today.  

My attention to detail in the Sultana series of novels also offered another chance to collaborate with an author whom I admire; David Blixt. He may not remember, but I first encountered him while attending a session he conducted at the Historical Novel Society's 2013 conference entitled, "Swordplay and Its Influences on Culture." Read all about his session here - and you can ask me sometime why I wore a dress and sandals to an event where attendees handled real swords! Little did I know back then that five to six years later, David and I would work together on an anthology, We All Fall Down: Stories of Plague and Resilience (2020). His contribution made me cry. It's rare for an author's words to have such a profound effect on me. If you haven't read his stories, get started here today. And not just because he and I are working on a project partly set in Moorish Spain that you'll want to read! More details about our work in the future.

Most recently, that obsession with Moorish Spain's history also led a doctoral student at the University of Granada to contact me regarding her thesis, which focuses on the sultanas of Granada, but also examines the importance of historical fiction. I'm a prodigious reader and history buff and will admit, I struggle with those who say they don't enjoy reading or find history dull. It was a great honor to share some correspondence with the student and to reflect on the questions she asked. As I told her, Moorish Spain has lived on in my head and heart for over thirty years. Ever since I was a freshman in college, where I first discovered the Islamic presence in Europe and how it was eradicated. I also related to the student that historical fiction's best service to history and historians is to evoke interest in the past, keeping history alive and relevant to our experiences today, and firing the imagination of readers. My motivation for continuing to write. 

Monday, December 12, 2022

The knightly Order of the Dragon in medieval history

On this date, in December 1408, a new chivalric order appeared in Hungary, partly modeled on the Order of Saint George. The Order of the Dragon, formed under the patronage of King Sigismund of the House of Luxembourg and his second wife, Queen Barbara of the House of Cillei. The dire circumstances that led to the creation of the Order, the roles of its most prominent members, and its relevance during the last century of the Middle Ages partly inspired my newest novel, Order of the Dragon – Book One, coming December 16, 2022. In it, Prince Vlad of Wallachia (modern-day Romania) seeks a knighthood within the Order of the Dragon, while hoping to rule his homeland, and save his family and people from the threats posed by the rapacious Ottoman Empire.

During the previous century, before the Order arose, most of Eastern Europe saw the Ottomans under their leader Osman Bey, who came from the Anatolian region of Turkey, conquering the lands formerly held by the Byzantine Empire. Although the European nations responded to the Turkish incursions, the invasion of the Balkans occurred. After Osman’s son Orhan captured the strategic port of Gallipoli in 1354 and made it one of the first Ottoman strongholds in Europe, the Turkic expansion seemed inevitable. Most devastating to the populations of the Balkans was the practice of devşirme; the claiming of Christian boys between the ages of seven/eight and twenty, stolen from their families and trained as future soldiers and bureaucrats of the Ottoman Empire.

Most of Serbia became a vassal state when Sultan Murad I, the son of Orhan, paid the ultimate price for his victory at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Within seven years, the Ottomans established almost full control over Bulgaria at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396, after they eliminated a coalition that comprised warriors from Hungary, Wallachia, Bulgaria, France, and Germany. Fifteen thousand European fighters and their leaders died at Nicopolis, but King Sigismund numbered among the survivors. Only the Mongol capture of Murad's son, the Turkish Sultan Bayezid I in 1402 and the subsequent civil war of eleven years between his sons offered hope of a respite.

Details about the Order of the Dragon survive. With Saint George, the dragon-slayer as its patron, the knights of the Order pledged themselves to two duties; the defense of King Sigismund and his family, and the defeat of the Turks. Part of the statute of the Order that survives in a copy from 1707 shows that the king held the following expectation: “…in company with the prelates, barons, and magnates of our kingdom, whom we invite to participate with us in this party, by reason of the sign and effigy of our pure inclination and intention to crush the pernicious deeds of the same perfidious Enemy, and of the followers of the ancient Dragon, and (as one would expect) of the pagan knights, schismatics, and other nations of the Orthodox faith, and those envious of the Cross of Christ, and of our kingdoms, and of his holy and saving religion of faith, under the banner of the triumphant Cross of Christ …”

The Order was not only intended to fight the Turks, but also to preserve Sigismund’s hold on the throne. History shows that he faced constant danger. Born in Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic) he ascended the Hungarian throne through marriage in 1385. Years later, when his first wife Queen Mary died in a riding accident along with the child she carried, Sigismund feared he would lose power. He answered Pope Boniface IX’s call for a new crusade against the Ottomans, which ended in disaster at the Battle of Nicopolis. Revolts arose against Sigismund’s reign, but he allied himself with powerful noblemen to keep control of the kingdom. Many of those men would become the first knights of the Order of the Dragon.

Its members, who were called Draconists, included princes and nobility who had lost their lands to Turkish attacks. The Draconists often wore, suspended from a necklace, the image of a curled-up dragon with its tail coiled around its neck. On its back, from the neck to its tail, the red cross of Saint George stood out against the background. Latin inscriptions of “O quam misericors est Deus” (meaning, how merciful is God) and “Justus et paciens” (meaning, just and patient) accompanied the dragon emblem. The Order’s members also displayed a seal in the form of an Ouroboros, an ancient dragon motif. They wore red garments with a green mantle on ceremonial occasions and donned a black mantle on Fridays.

Some of the members numbering between twenty-one and twenty-five first inducted into the Order include the following persons who feature prominently in my new novel, Order of the Dragon – Book One:

· Sigismund of Luxembourg, King of Hungary.

· Barbara of Cillei, Sigismund’s wife and Queen of Hungary.

· Hermann II, Count of Cillei, father of Queen Barbara.

· Frederick of Cillei, son of Hermann II and brother of Queen Barbara.

· Stefan Lazarević, Serbian ruler who abandoned the Ottoman alliance after his father’s death at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and later allied with King Sigismund.

· Fruzhin, Prince of Bulgaria, the maternal nephew of Stefan Lazarević, and a surviving son of the Bulgarian ruler murdered after the Battle of Kosovo, Ivan Shishman.

· Nicholas II Garai, married to Queen Barbara's sister, the Palatine or chief officer of Hungary under King Sigismund, who also rescued him when Hungarian revolts occurred after the losses at Nicopolis.

· Stibor of Stiboricz, the governor of Transylvania.

· Pipo of Ozora, count of Temes, a Hungarian magnate, Florentine by birth.

· Hrvoje Vukčić Hrvatinić, Grand Duke of Bosnia and an erstwhile enemy of King Sigismund.

· Wladyslaw II Jagiellon, King of Poland and Supreme Duke of Lithuania, who was also an erstwhile enemy of King Sigismund.

· Vytautas of Lithuania, Grand Duke of Lithuania.

· Ernest of the House of Hapsburg called the Iron Duke of Austria.

Others would join them over the years, including the rulers of England, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Aragon in Spain. Learn more when Order of the Dragon – Book One makes its debut later this week.


Note: The images included in the post; 1. The ceremonial sword of the Order of the Dragon, 2. The dragon emblem, 3. Sigismund of Luxembourg,  4. Fruzhin, Prince of Bulgaria, and 5. Pipo of Ozora, are in the public domain and may be found at Wikipedia.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Order of the Dragon, Books 1 and 2 - Covers

My latest novel, Order of the Dragon, explores the family of Prince Vlad Dracula of Romania, battling Europe’s Christian and Turkic enemies. Vlad Dracul was the father of the real Dracula, who inspired centuries of vampire legends thanks to author Bram Stoker's quintessential novel. The story is told in two parts; the first half debuts in December 2022 and the second half in March 2023.

Order of the Dragon
offers a prelude to the novella series Sons of the Dragon, three overlapping stories about Dracula's brothers; each of whom, like him, would succeed their father as a medieval Eastern European ruling prince. Those novellas will debut in June 2023, September 2023, and December 2023. So while it's been a long, long time since I've posted (or frankly, published) anything, clearly I've been quite busy.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Happy Birthday, Baby! Sultana, Book 1 is officially ten years old

Time flies when you're having fun. Hard to believe this book baby is a whopping ten years old! I can still remember everything that led to its publication and all that has come afterward.

Years of obsessive research among dusty library stacks and across the internet. The first perfect night in Spain where not even the frigid temperature or an undercooked meal of paella and sour sangria could have ruined my initial sight of Alhambra Palace from the Cuesta de Los Tomasas. Long hours of writing and revisions, coupled with some key advice from my critique group, whose members helped shaped Sultana into the novel it is today. The support of the best writing friends and the encouragement of readers, who responded so well to the book, they inspired me to write a series. Speaking and reading engagements at libraries and presentations for the Historical Novel Society.  The first offer of translation and the others that followed. The delight on my mother's face as I shared my love of Moorish Spain during our stay in Granada - her approval and praise after she read the book meant the world to me.

All that has occurred because of a novel some said would never be successful once self-published. Still amazes me.

In celebration of its tenth anniversary, I'm pleased to offer Sultana for FREE all month long starting February 1, exclusively.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Here's what you may have missed from me in 2020

 This year has changed all of our routines and for me, that meant missing out on some opportunities to connect with writers and readers in person. Thank goodness for Zoom and Google Meet, where I was able to make those connections online.

Here are two events in which I participated. If you didn't get the opportunity to attend, this is what you missed:

December 9, 2 pm: Zoom Presentation with al-Andalus Authors John D. Cressler, Joan Cook, David Penny.

October 6, 12 - 2 pm: Zoom Presentation with authors of We All Fall Down anthology through Historical Novel Society, NYC Chapter. 

I suspect covid-19 will be with us far longer than anyone anticipates, but at least, we can still be connected online.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Heretical Doctor, Ibn al-Khatib (Part 3)

Ibn al-Khatib's story did end, unexpectedly and tragically as I mentioned in The Heretic, one of the stories within the anthology We All Fall Down. The cause can be found within that partly fictionalized account of his life during the plague.

In my previous post, I mentioned Ibn Khatima, who had documented the arrival of the Black Death in his home of Almería during the summer of 1438. He also wrote a treatise on the subject. Ibn al-Khatib also did the same, which he concluded in 1362. Within his observations, he indicated, “The existence of contagion is established by experience [and] by trustworthy reports on transmission by garments, vessels, ear-rings; by the spread of it by persons from one house, by infection of a healthy sea-port by an arrival from an infected land [and] by the immunity of isolated individuals.” This was the basis for his theory of contagion; the idea that persons could spread the disease to each other by their actions.

But the following line may have led to his brutal demise many years later, because he also wrote contradicting Muslim traditions as passed down by Prophet Muhammad regarding plague. “…A proof taken from the traditions has to undergo modification when in manifest contradiction with the evidence of the perception of the senses.” This line alone would have damned him in the view of the Islamic clerics and jurists who deemed the words of the Prophet as irrefutable.

Would Ibn al-Khatib have dared question any precept of his religion if he had not thought himself untouchable? He certainly had reason to believe no one could rival him.

Ibn al-Khatib ascends to the pinnacle of power, but the Black Death intrudes

After the death of his mentor, foster father and former tutor Ibn al-Jayyab, Ibn al-Khatib attained all the honors that man had held. Within Islamic Spain, the viziers who served the monarchs possessed power superseded only by the sovereigns. Ibn al-Khatib became the vizier or chief minister of the Nasrid Dynasty’s Sultan Yusuf I in January 1349 and would hold the position into the reign of Yusuf’s eldest son and successor, Muhammad V.

Among his responsibilities, Ibn al-Khatib oversaw the completion of the new religious school at the capital of Granada in April 1439. Some weeks earlier, he had received the great honor of composing an elegy to the family matriarch, Yusuf’s grandmother Fatima when she died in her nineties. During the autumn of the same year, the plague ravaged Morocco and claimed Ibn al-Khatib’s mother at Taza. However he might have felt about the loss, his responsibilities remained. He kept up correspondence with foreign potentates and dignitaries, writing to the Sultan of Morocco Abu Inan, requesting military assistance against the Nasrids foes in Castile on March 13, 1350. Fifteen months later he served as an ambassador to the Moroccan court, departing and returning in July 1351.

The assassination of Yusuf I occurred on October 19, 1354, cutting short the life of the ruler whom Ibn al-Khatib had served for 21 years. The enthronement of Yusuf’s firstborn as Muhammad V at the age of 16 allowed Ibn al-Khatib to exercise influence over the youngster’s policies and understanding of government. Alongside his fellow ministers, the courtiers, and nobles, Ibn al-Khatib publicly swore his oath of allegiance to his new master on November 9 and also secured the appointment of the Moroccan garrison commander. A month later, he visited Sultan Abu Inan at Fez, arriving to great pomp and an audience on December 14.

There he had an opportunity to meet with a man of similar age who would become a good companion and later, a rival. Ibn Khaldun’s family hailed from Yemen and like Ibn al-Khatib, he held a prestigious position among the Moroccan ministers, serving as Abu Inan’s private secretary. Ibn al-Khatib and Ibn Khaldun established and maintained a friendship after the former returned to Granada on January 30, 1355.

Ibn al-Khatib dabbles in Sufi mysticism and life becomes precarious

According to his enemies, Ibn al-Khatib made another misstep that put him on the path to charges of heresy. On May 1, 1356, he and his three sons arrived at a Sufi lodge outside Granada. Sufism is defined as Islamic mysticism, characterized in Ibn al-Khatib’s time by asceticism and rejection of the worldliness of Muslim regions. The orthodox, Maliki school of Sharia law held sway over Islamic Spain and saw Sufism as a direct threat. For his adherence to Sufi doctrine, the majority of Ibn al-Khatib’s writings went up in flames just before his death.

The monarchs of Granada’s Nasrid dynasty had known for several generations since the time of Muhammad V’s great-great-grandfather Muhammad II that at any moment, their fortunes could change. Ibn al-Khatib’s young master soon learned this lesson. During the month of holy fasting on August 21, 1359, over 100 conspirators scaled the walls. At night, they drove Muhammad V from Alhambra Palace, alongside his mother and toddler son, before installing Muhammad’s younger brother Ismail as the new sovereign.

The conspiracy between Muhammad's stepmother and his cousin / brother-in-law jeopardized Ibn al-Khatib, too. Dragged from his house, he endured his first bout of torture and imprisonment. A sister of his in their birthplace of Loja offered to pay a hefty ransom. But without the intercession of Moroccan Sultan Abu Inan’s son, Abu Salim, Ibn al-Khatib might have remained locked away forever. He rejoined his young master at Guadix and together with their families, they departed for Morocco. The exiles arrived at Fez on November 28.

Ibn al-Khatib travels preceded the return of the Black Death

Two and a half years followed, during which Ibn al-Khatib saw much of his new host country. While he served Sultan Muhammad diligently, writing letters on his behalf to the king of Castile who favored the legitimate ruler, Ibn al-Khatib earned a living at the behest of the Moroccan ruler. On March 11, 1360, he gave permission for the Nasrid minister to tour the kingdom. Ibn al-Khatib visited the Atlas Mountains that month and then went on to Marrakesh. The port of Salé seems to have suited him well, for he settled there in May and wrote a history of the Nasrid dynasty, poetry, and his plague treatise.

The Black Death returned later that year and might have cast its long shadow again. In The Heretic, I’ve speculated about the next victim it claimed, one whom Ibn al-Khatib held dear. His wife Iqbal died suddenly on September 7, 1361. I’ve found no indication of the cause for her demise, but given the prevalence of the disease from 1360 to 1364 in the region, plague seemed a possibility to me.

Although widowed with three sons, Ibn al-Khatib would have had little time for grief. Muhammad V gave him direct charge of his household, the mother, wife, and children he had left behind before returning to Spain in the quest for the throne. Ibn al-Khatib would have secured the Nasrid royal family from upheaval, as their Moroccan hosts fell at the command of a local minister, who placed three rulers upon the throne at Fez during the Nasrid exile.

Ibn al-Khatib’s return to Spain

On April 20, 1362, Muhammad wrote to Ibn al-Khatib with instructions to bring the royal family home to Granada. They departed on May 18 and arrived at Alhambra Palace on June 15. Ten days later, Ibn al-Khatib again ascended to the highest office in the land. With the power of his pen, he saw to the appointments of two men, Al-Bunnahi as the chief judge of Granada and Ibn al-Khatib’s young apprentice within the council of ministers, Ibn Zamrak, both in October 1362. Ibn al-Khatib would soon come to regret those choices.

Jubilant, he completed his treatise on the Black Death before celebrating the arrival of his friend from Morocco, Ibn Khaldun, along with the observation of the Prophet’s birthday at a great feast. But he also engaged in intrigue, seeing to the removal of the Moroccan garrison commander whom he had appointed in November 1354 from Almuñécar and the exile of the man and his entire family back to North Africa. The reason for a rivalry between the two men is unclear. Even Ibn Khaldun seemed a threat to Ibn al-Khatib and at his suggestion, Muhammad V sent Ibn Khaldun on a diplomatic mission to the kingdom of Castile, in February 1365.

The next four years indicated that Ibn al-Khatib spent much time devoted to his duties, but somehow, he had run afoul of the chief judge Al-Bunnahi and even Muhammad V. Was it because of the plague treatise, or the indulgence in Sufism, or something else history has not recorded? Regardless of the reasons, Ibn al-Khatib may not have had much time to reflect on them. Muhammad V had enjoyed friendly relations with King Pedro of Castile, but that all changed when the king’s bastard brother, the count of Trastamara called Enrique, murdered Pedro and took the crown. His line would eventually sire the first Queen Isabella of Spain. The Nasrid dynasty went to war with Castile once more, but soon, Ibn al-Khatib found himself embroiled in conflict with his master Muhammad.

Outskirts of Bab al-Mahruq cemetery, Fez, Morocco
Ibn al-Khatib’s story comes to a tragic end

Aggrieved by growing accusations of heresy and malfeasance against him, Ibn al-Khatib then lived in fear of his life. On December 10, 1370, with his youngest son Ali, he fled the kingdom of Granada forever. He sailed for the court of yet another Moroccan ruler, but not before writing Muhammad V a terse letter in which he laid bare all of his grievances against those whom he saw as conspirators against him. Had his former master threatened his life, too?

Ibn al-Khatib still had friends. The Moroccan sovereign welcomed him to court in February 1371 and even Ibn Khaldun forgave his old friend’s jealousy and pleaded with Muhammad V to send Ibn al-Khatib’s movable property and family across the sea, in a letter dated April 18, 1371. The rest of the family did arrive on the North African shore eight months later. But for Ibn al-Khatib, the worse remained.

In November 1371, the chief judge of Granada Al-Bunnahi condemned Ibn al-Khatib as a Sufi heretic and disbeliever. The judgment could not have come without the assent of Muhammad V. That month, Ibn al-Khatib’s manuscripts written on philosophy and Sufi mysticism became ashes among the pyres of Granada's central square. By the following summer, Muhammad V demanded his extradition from Morocco and received its ruler’s refusal, but at the start of fall that year, that same sovereign died. In November 1372, Ibn Khaldun spent some time with his beleaguered companion. Perhaps the last occasion in which the old friends would see each other alive.

The new Moroccan Sultan Abu al-Abbas Ahmad came to the throne in September 1373. He established good relations with Muhammad V of Granada and depended on him militarily. Their alliance sealed Ibn al-Khatib’s fate. In June 1374, he suffered arrest and imprisonment again. He sought help from other North African rulers, but to no avail. Two months later, men working on behalf of his enemies, Al-Bunnahi and Ibn Zamrak, whose career he had nurtured, entered Ibn al-Khatib’s cell where he awaited trial. They strangled him at the age of nearly 61. Dumped into an unmarked grave at first, his remains became disinterred and burnt to ashes, like so many of his manuscripts. Sometime afterward the ashes went into a grave at the Bab al-Mahruq cemetery in Fez.

So ended the life and story of Ibn al-Khatib, who once rose to the heights of power, only to have charges of heresy bring about his demise.
Ibn al-Khatib's monument at Loja

Read a fictionalized account of his years during the Black Death in We All Fall Down, available now.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Heretical Doctor, Ibn al-Khatib (Part 2)

We All Fall Down, my latest release, features the central character Ibn al-Khatib in The Heretic. As revealed in my previous post, he suffered a great tragedy just when his star seemed poised to rise. But luckily for him, Ibn al-Khatib had a mentor on whom he could rely.

Ibn al-Khatib overcomes his first great adversity

Were it not for the aid of his former teacher Ibn al-Jayyab, a young Ibn al-Khatib might not have achieved his goals. Born approximately in November 1274, Ibn al-Jayyab came from a prominent family of Granada, the capital of the Nasrid Dynasty. He served among the ministerial body which advised the sultans through the reigns of Muhammad II, his sons Muhammad III and Abu'l-Juyush Nasr, their maternal nephew Ismail I and his sons Muhammad IV and Yusuf IV.

The Nasrid council chamber
Having been one of Ibn al-Khatib's tutors, Ibn al-Jayyab then became a comfort to his disciple. Ibn al-Jayyab had also endured his own terrible loss at some indeterminate time; the death of his son Abu'-l-Qasim. The pair bereft of beloved family members relied upon each other, the mutual, spiritual adoption of a foster father and son. With the aid of Ibn al-Jayyab, Ibn al-Khatib ascended to his first important role. He became the personal secretary of Sultan Yusuf I, responsible for the monarch's correspondence. Alongside his duties, Ibn al-Khatib wrote about the origins of the royal family based at Granada's Alhambra Palace; he completed the work around August 1341. He also continued recitations of poetry in honor of Yusuf on special occasions.

Ibn al-Khatib's family

While the life of a courtier and ministerial responsibilities must have kept him busy, Ibn al-Khatib had another personal important role; ensuring the continuation of his family line. With the loss of his elder brother in battle, he needed a wife. Unfortunately, he could not rely on the proposed match between his foster father and that man's daughter. Instead, Ibn al-Khatib married a woman named Iqbal.

Little is known of her except the sons she provided her husband and her likely date of death. Since his contrivance to marry into the families of Granada's ruling elite had failed, we can assume Iqbal did not number among their ranks. The union must have occurred at least by the autumn of 1342, because on July 22 of the following year, Iqbal gave birth to Ibn al-Khatib's first son, Abd Allah. Two other boys followed, Muhammad and Ali. Records of their names survive because of their circumcisions, an important ritual for medieval Muslim boys, which took place on November 8, 1348. No doubt, Ibn al-Khatib would have made certain each of his sons pursued the same scholarly path he had taken.

Ibn al-Khatib's evolving role at court

While in service to the sultan, Ibn al-Khatib became closer to Yusuf I. At his side for two major Nasrid military campaigns against Christians forces southeast of Sevilla, Ibn al-Khatib celebrated the ruler's victory during April 1343. In the spring of 1347, from April 29 until May 20, he accompanied the monarch on a tour of the eastern portion of the Nasrid kingdom and wrote of their travels. He gave vivid descriptions of the Moors in his land.

Alhambra Palace's southern gate
Ibn al-Khatib and his fellow council members would have ensured the planning for Alhambra Palace's great southernmost gate, known erroneously now as the Gate of Justice, which later opened in June 1348. The ministers also knew of construction of the sultan's new religious school, which would end April 1349. The relic still stands near the entrance of what was once Muslim Granada's silk marketplace, Alcaiceria.

The arrival of the Black Death

Something happened that likely interfered with the plans of Yusuf I. Whether or not the Moors anticipated, an invasion of their land would soon begin, which would terrify them and their Christian adversaries. Off Spain's southeastern coast in December 1347, the Balearic island of Mallorca witnessed the first ravages of a new virulent plague that had spread eastward. By May 1348, Barcelona and Tarragona became affected, before the disease entered Valencia. Nobles, clergy, and ordinary citizens died.

The Muslims of Granada must have heard of these incidents of the Black Death, but what did they think of them? They were familiar with earlier instances of plague. By March and April, there were also deaths in places where seaborne trade occurred with Morocco. It seemed the Moorish people would be resigned to their fates if the Black Death encroached on them because of their religious beliefs, which included the following about plague, "It is a punishment that Allah sends upon whoever he wills, but Allah has made it a mercy for the believers. Any servant who resides in a land afflicted by plague, remaining patient and hoping for reward from Allah, knowing that nothing will befall him but what Allah has decreed, he will be given the reward of a martyr.”

The summer of 1348 showed the Muslims of Spain were as unprepared as anyone else for the horrific toll the epidemic took. The Black Death arrived on the eastern coast of the Iberian peninsula at the town of Almería. There, a native of the town and another disciple of Ibn al-Jayyab, called Ibn Khatima, observed the first deaths and wrote about the occurrence in a treatise, which also survives in Spain's Escorial library. Ten years younger than Ibn al-Khatib, Ibn Khatima had been born in 1324 at Almería, where he practiced as a medical doctor. He indicated that on May 30, 1348, the Black Death claimed victims in a poor section of his birthplace. Eventually in his city alone, at least 70 persons died daily. At the time, the kingdom of Granada's inhabitants numbered 1.5 million.

In his subsequent treatise, Ibn Khatima wrote about the causes and symptoms of the plague. He also proposed some methods of treatment. Like many of their medieval counterparts, Islamic doctors believed in the theory of humors that could alter a person's physical condition. Ibn Khatima described the Black Death origins as "a consequence of a corruption of the humor or cardiac temperament, caused by the air alteration from its natural and innate state to heat and humidity...."

Ibn al-Khatib suffers a second personal loss

Whatever the source of the plague, its consequences would soon devastate Ibn Khatima and Ibn al-Khatib. From Almería, the Black Death cut across the peninsula, striking at Málaga in full through April to July 1439 and later Algeciras. Before the disease spread to those places, it may have claimed a victim in Granada, Ibn al-Khatib's beloved foster father and mentor, Ibn al-Jayyab. He died around January 15, 1349, in his 70's. Historians remain divided on whether he passed away because of the Black Death or during the time in which it befell the population of Spain.

The demise of the man who had nurtured his intellect, brought him into prominence at the side of Sultan Yusuf I, and treated him like a son must have burdened Ibn al-Khatib. In his grief, he composed an elegy for the master to whom he had devoted years of his life, which he recited at the grave side.

Yet, this incident would also not mean the end of Ibn al-Khatib's story.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Heretical Doctor, Ibn al-Khatib

Readers of my Moorish Spain series may recall the secondary character, Ibn al-Khatib. In my most recent publication, the anthology We All Fall Down, he plays a prominent role in The Heretic. Ibn al-Khatib was a natural choice as the central figure in a tale about 14th century medieval Spain's struggle with the Black Death. 

In the novels Sultana: The Bride Price and Sultana: The Pomegranate TreeIbn al-Khatib served as a court minister and close confidante of the father and son duo, the Nasrid Dynasty's most celebrated Sultans Yusuf I and Muhammad V of Granada. But with the series focused on machinations within the royal family, I never had the opportunity to explore one important aspect of Ibn al-Khatib's life: his treatise on the Black Death. 

That his work has survived for almost 700 years and may be found in Spain's Biblioteca del Real Monasterio de El Escorial is a miracle. For when he began the treatise, he also promulgated what was then thought to be a radical, even dangerous idea, in the Islamic world: the transmission of disease through contagion. This occurred five centuries before Louis Pasteur's experiments in which he proved that a cell's environment could increase the likelihood of contagion, leading to the creation of sterilization methods in hospitals. 

Ibn al-Khatib was not the first Muslim doctor to propose the theory of contagion. In 1025, the Persian physician Ibn Sina, known in the west as Avicenna, had suggested that people could transmit diseases to each other through the air. But unlike him, Ibn al-Khatib's thoughts would ultimately cause his downfall. 

The origins of Ibn al-Khatib's family

When little Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Abd Allah ibn Said al-Salamani, the man we know as Ibn al-Khatib, entered the world on the night of November 14 /15 in 1313, his family might not have imagined his spectacular rise to prominence or the tragic fall that would ensue. But they may have had reason to expect greatness from him. 

Like many Islamic families across the Iberian Peninsula, they traced their roots back to the conquest of then Visigothic Spain. Ibn al-Khatib's ancestors settled in Cordoba until the 9th century when they moved to Toledo. In 1085 when King Alfonso VI of Castile captured the region, the family's land passed into the hands of Christians. Thereafter, they moved to Loja. 
The Islamic citadel at Loja

Ibn al-Khatib's great-great-grandfather served as an Islamic preacher there; hence the name Ibn al-Khatib, which meant son or descendant of the preacher in Arabic. His grandfather Said married the daughter of a Muslim governor and moved to the Nasrid capital of Granada, where he became one of the tutors of Sultan Muhammad II's children until the summer of 1284, dying of heatstroke.

While I've found nothing but a brief mention of Ibn al-Khatib's mother at the occurrence of her death, incidentally because of plague, his 30-year old father Abd Allah ibn Said al-Salamani already enjoyed a good living that boded well for his new son. The family still lived in Loja when in 1314 the new Sultan Ismail I, the son of Muhammad II's notable daughter Fatima, invited Ibn al-Khatib's father to take a post among the ministerial body that advised Granada's monarchs. 

Ibn al-Khatib's entry into Granada's high society

The toddler accompanied his father to the capital and grew up with access to the finest education. Ibn al-Khatib's earliest studies would have included his native Arabic and the Islamic religion, then broadened to knowledge of history, poetry, Sharia law, and medicine. His most prominent teacher became Ibn al-Jayyab, Sultan Ismail's personal secretary.

Granada's Alhambra Palace
At the age of 18, Ibn al-Khatib officially gained notice within court circles when he recited a poem before Sultan Ismail's eldest son and successor Muhammad IV in the city of Málaga. Perhaps Ibn al-Khatib seemed destined even then to take a place among the sovereign's ministers. He certainly enjoyed the continued support of his former tutor Ibn al-Jayyab, who at some indeterminate time also offered his own daughter in marriage to Ibn al-Khatib. For some unknown reason, Ibn al-Jayyab's father objected and the union between the disciple and his mentor's daughter never occurred. 

This unfortunate circumstance did not stymie Ibn al-Khatib's hopes to make a good match. Frankly, familial and marital connections were key to advancement among Granada's ruling elite. And what would Ibn al-Khatib have considered the most important factor in his choice of a wife? Her father's status, of course. He needed a bride of noble birth, with a parent who supported the Nasrid Sultans. While monarchs held the highest authority, they depended on the nobles to maintain their seat of power at Granada's Alhambra Palace. Fickle politics and discontented nobles had driven Sultan Abu'l-Juyush Nasr, the maternal uncle of Sultan Ismail I from his throne in 1314. With an awareness of the importance of the ruling elite, Ibn al-Khatib naturally contrived to join them.      

Then tragedy struck. Due to their proximity with Granada's early rulers, Ibn al-Khatib and his family must have understood how sudden calamities could affect their fortunes and futures. His father would have known this when the assassinations of Sultan Ismail happened in 1325 and the murder of his son Sultan Muhammad IV occurred eight years later. 

17th-century depiction of the Battle of Salado
This time, Ibn al-Khatib personally suffered. A month before his twenty-seventh birthday would have taken place, he lost his father and an unnamed elder brother on October 30, 1340. They died in the Battle of Rio Salado near Tarifa. Castile's King Alfonso XI allied with Afonso IV of Portugal fought against Granada's master, Sultan Yusuf I, the second son of Sultan Ismail I and his cohort Abu al-Hasan Ali of Morocco's Marinid Dynasty. We can only guess at how Ibn al-Khatib internalized this great loss based on the funerary elegy he composed for his father, of which only four lines have survived.

But that would not be the end of Ibn al-Khatib's story.


Sunday, March 1, 2020

We All Fall Down launches today!

Two years in the making, but finally, We All Fall Down - Stories of Plague and Resilience is here. This new anthology includes stories by acclaimed writers of historical fiction; David Blixt, Jean Gill, Kristin Gleeson, Jessica Knauss, Laura Morelli, Katherine Pym, Deborah Swift, Melodie Winawer, and yours truly. 

The concept

I've always been intrigued by the Black Death. Not merely because my interests tend to border on the macabre, but because I'm fascinated by the human will. That resolute determination to ensure survive at all costs, even when it seems hopeless. Those who faced such a harrowing time as during the plague must have thought the world was at its end. How could they not while whole families died off and European towns lost so much of their populations?

When I first discussed the idea of writing about the plague, those who knew about the period responded almost universally, "What? Why would you want to write about something so horrifying?" But I knew within the truly terrible, dark moments of human history, there were always people whose actions provided a beacon of hope.

How the authors became involved

I also knew I couldn't do justice to the breadth and scale with which the Black Death impacted Europe. A single story from me would not do. So naturally, I sought other authors who might be interested in a partnership, a collection of short stories. And I'm so grateful to the authors who accepted and contributed their brilliant tales to the anthology. I'd met and admired David, Laura and Melodie through the Historical Novel Society. Jessica and I both write about Spain in the Middle Ages. I knew of Jean through her excellent Troubadours series and I had read Kristin's The Pursuit of the Unicorn. Katherine and Deborah are also well-known for their 17th century novels.With enthusiasm, each of them plunged into their stories. As I secretly hoped, common themes began to emerge, no matter how different each of our contributions ultimately would be. Among the themes, hope, love, and importantly, life after death.

Working together as a team 

At the outset, assembling a team of authors for a project like this can seem daunting. Unless, you already know you're dealing with professionals focused on the success of the story. For anyone else who is considering working with others on any collection of stories, I heartily recommend it and hope you'll be as fortunate to form connections with a talented group of writers. Teamwork has made this project so worthwhile and it's been an excellent opportunity to learn more about other unique skill sets each author brought to the anthology. 

Kristin, Melodie, David, Katherine, Jessica, Laura, Deborah, Jean, here's to us! Like you, I look forward to the success of our great work. 

About We All Fall Down - Stories of Plague and Resilience 

Plague has no favorites.

In this anthology, USA Today, international bestselling, and award-winning authors imagine a world where anyone—rich, poor, young, old—might be well in the morning and dead by sundown.
Readers will follow in the footsteps of those who fought to rebuild shattered lives as the plague left desolation in its wake.
* An Irish woman tends her dying father while the Normans threaten her life and property—
* A Hispano-Muslim doctor fights the authorities to stem the spread of the deadly pestilence at great personal cost—
* A Tuscan street hawker and a fresco painter watch citizens perish all around them even as they paint a better future—
* A Spanish noblewoman lives at the mercy of a jealous queen after plague kills the king—
* The Black Death leaves an uncertain legacy to Dante's son—
* In Venice, the artist Titian agonizes over a death in obscurity—
* A Scottish thief loses everything to plague and repents in the hope of preventing more losses—
* Two teenagers from 2020 time-travel to plague-stricken London and are forever changed—
* And when death rules in Ottoman-occupied Greece, a Turk decides his own fate. 
Nine tales bound together by humanity's fortitude in the face of despair: a powerful collection of stories for our own time.
In dark and deadly times, love and courage shine bright. 
Available Now

Time flies when you're having fun, or writing novels.

It's been a tremendous twelve months. A new job and health issues have impacted my writing time, but I'm still at it, trying to wrap...