Saturday, January 13, 2018

Meet the characters: Sultan Muhammad al-Zaghal

Muhammad al-Zaghal, whose sobriquet meant 'the brave' or 'the valiant' lived in the shadow of his elder brother, Sultan Abu'l-Hasan Ali for years. Then, palace intrigue and poor circumstances gave access to the power the younger man may have dreamt of all his life. Readers of Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree will discover more about his fate in Sultana: The White Mountains; if you don't want to know before you've read either book, this is your last warning - stop reading now. Spoilers for the last novel in the Sultana series lie ahead. 

Still with me? Prince Muhammad al-Zaghal was the second son of the Nasrid Sultan Abu Nasr Sa'd, who ruled Moorish Granada from summer 1454 to January 1455, then from late summer 1455 to 1464, when Abu'l-Hasan Ali usurped the throne. The prince has been portrayed most recently onscreen in the Spanish TV series, Isabel. It's uncertain where Muhammad al-Zaghal's birth occurred or when but he would have been born between 1437 and 1450, the respective dates at which his elder brother Abu'l-Hasan Ali and their younger sibling Yusuf entered the world. Whether the brothers had the same mother is also unknown, but their paternal heritage is clear. The links from their father and his father Prince Ali, a son of Sultan Abdul Hajjaj Yusuf connected them to Sultan Muhammad V and even beyond to the first Nasrid ruler. While Abu Nasr Sa'd did not have a legitimate claim to the throne, his family had founded a royal dynasty on the idea of usurpation.

From the beginning of their father's reign, there is some evidence of closeness between the two eldest sons. In late summer 1455, both chased the Sultan's rival for the throne into the region of Las Alpujarras, where they captured him along with his betrothed bride and cousin to all of the men, Sultana Aisha, whom Abu'l-Hasan Ali would later marry. As for Muhammad al-Zaghal, he also married a kinswoman whose name has come down through Spanish history transcribed as Esquivilia - certainly a non-Moorish name. Readers of Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree will recall her as Ashiqa, who had her own impressive lineage with links to her husband's clan.

She was the daughter of Abu Salim Ibrahim al-Nayyar, the governor of Almeria and Maryam bint Bannigash, one of the daughters of Granada's famed minister Ridwan ibn Bannigash who was born and ended his life as a Christian named Pedro Venegas. He once served as a slave before he converted to Islam and married the daughter of his former master. Abu Salim Ibrahim al-Nayyar's mother Fatima claimed descent from the murdered Sultan Ismail II, a brother of Muhammad V, and a concubine who might have been called Cirila. Like many things about the Nasrids, the true connection of his mother is uncertain, but Abu Salim Ibrahim al-Nayyar's father was definitely Sultan Yusuf IV, another usurper whose claim to the throne derived from a more precise maternal connection to an unnamed daughter of Sultan Muhammad VI, who seized the throne of his brother-in-law Ismail II in 1361.
Muhammad al-Zaghal may have had up to three daughters with his wife, but no sons. He supported his brother Abu'l-Hasan Ali's ouster of their father in 1464 and at some point, became the governor of the all-important coastal bastion at Malaka, seen above. In 1467, their brother Yusuf died of the plague, which some historians have concluded could have been a welcome boon to Abu'l-Hasan Ali. His foes in the clan of Abencerrage, whose chieftains his father had murdered in 1462, might have supported Yusuf as a claimant to rule. Even if they did not, they later approached Muhammad al-Zaghal with the same idea in 1470. He rebelled against his brother for a brief period until Abu'l-Hasan Ali brought him to heel. Thereafter, the brothers remained inseparable. Muhammad al-Zaghal even brought his brother's eventual second wife and beloved companion Sultana Soraya into his life with a raid on her Christian homeland.

It's believed Muhammad al-Zaghal earned his appellation for bravery and valor because of events that took place after summer 1482 when the overthrow of his brother occurred because of a conspiracy between Sultana Aisha and her Abencerrage supporters. But I'll admit some of the actions the prince undertook were infamous and destabilized a fragile territory, which left it vulnerable to invasions by the armies of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Muhammad al-Zaghal hosted Abu'l-Hasan Ali in his short exile at Malaga and the Sultan's son Muhammad XI claimed the throne, from where the siblings fought off Christian invaders in the Ajarquía region of Malaga, taking thousands of heads as trophies and even more captives. But the pair's marauding ways also undermined the kingdom as they attacked the homes of Moorish people who supported the rebellion in Granada. After his brother reclaimed the throne, Muhammad al-Zaghal went to his wife's birthplace at Almeria and tried to take the city from his younger nephew, Abu'l-Hasan Ali and Aisha's second son, Yusuf.

Readers of Sultana: The White Mountains will know how I portrayed the younger Nasrid siblings Muhammad XI and Yusuf as close relations, which parallels the bond between their father and uncle - the evident proof of loyalty between the elder men inspired me. But when Yusuf died at Almeria, likely murdered, his death possibly occurred at the command of Muhammad al-Zaghal. I've speculated in the novel that this was the first sign that he was not always a faithful adherent to his brother, because of later circumstances. In 1485, Abu'l-Hasan Ali either abdicated or lost power to his younger brother, who became Sultan Muhammad XII in his stead. At the death of his sibling, he expressed the desire to marry his sister-in-law Soraya; presumably, his first wife had not died and nothing in the Maliki interpretation of Sharia law seems to have prohibited the union. Had the new monarch long-coveted more than his brother's throne, but also his wife? More likely, the move would have allowed for greater control of Soraya's sons. But they escaped with their mother into Castile.

As the united Catholic sovereigns forced the surrender of several Moorish cities, uncle and nephew for control of Granada. In spring 1487 when the Christians threatened to take Malaga, the Sultan rallied to its defense, but the area fell after a bitter siege of several months. Muhammad al-Zaghal accepted the loss of Granada, too, and maintained control of key areas at Guadix and Almeria until December of 1489, when his wife's brother Yahya surrendered the city of Baza and took a Christian name, Pedro de Granada. By the following year, Muhammad al-Zaghal departed the Iberian Peninsula for the kingdom of Tlemcen, based at Oran, in modern-day northern Algeria. The record indicates at least one daughter and her husband remained in Spain whereas her father presumably died in Tlemcen around 1494.

Muhammad al-Zaghal is one of my favorite characters in Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree and Sultana: The White Mountains, because of his moral ambiguity. His devotion to family paired with personal ambitions makes him an intriguing figure. In studying him for years so that I could write both novels, I discovered a historical figure who was as strong a defender of Granada as his elder brother, but through his participation in the civil war, helped weaken his beloved Sultanate. I tried to be as true as possible to his history but am still uncertain about a few parts. For instance, was he in Granada as regent early in his brother's reign or did he spend his time predominantly at Malaga? Was the death of his nephew Yusuf planned or an unfortunate happenstance that occurred in Almeria? What explanation, if any, did he provide Abu'l-Hasan Ali for the murder, especially since they had long been so close? What would Muhammad al-Zaghal have done to Soraya's sons if he had married their mother - would he have supported the eventual reign of the eldest in his stead or would the boys have disappeared like the nephews of King Richard III, medieval Britain's princes in the tower? I hope readers will enjoy my portrayal of Muhammad al-Zaghal in both novels, available now.   

If you've missed any of the Meet the characters posts about this novel, find them HERE.   

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Meet the characters: Sultana Soraya

The slave who became a queen.

Most of the details that have come down through history about the Sultana Soraya bears the taint of Moorish propaganda. After all, as a Christian, she did enchant Sultan Abu’l-Hasan Ali and become his wife sometime after she had entered Alhambra Palace as a captive. Historians have said that for love of her husband, she converted to Islam, and abandoned the faith of her birth. Unfortunately for her, she faced a powerful rival in Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s first wife and kinswoman, Sultana Aisha, descended from the first Nasrid Sultans of Granada. Legend has it that Soraya so enthralled her husband that he invited his courtiers to smell her fragrant bathwater after she had finished her daily cleansing ritual. As fanciful and somewhat ridiculous as such lore seems, the truth of his devotion allowed us to know much about Soraya. Who was she and how did she attain a position beside Granada’s powerful ruler? What was her final fate? Major spoilers for Sultana: The White Mountains follow. Read on at your peril.

More importantly, how has she remained such an enduring figure of the Moorish period in its rapid decline? Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra mentions her. Francisco Martínez de la Rosa published Doña Isabel de Solís, Reyna de Granada in 1837. Then in 1931, director José Buchs made the film Isabel de Solís, Reina de Granada. The Spanish TV series Isabel portrayed her as a young woman around the age of seventeen. Born Isabel de Solis, she came from a town called Martos on the Christian-Moorish border, within the province of Jaén. Her date of birth remains uncertain; I’ve seen reference to her having been as young as eight years old when she became a captive. Readers of Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree may remember that I introduced her as a girl of ten in 1468. One of the contemporary sources on the period, Hernando de Baeza (who had been a regular fixture of the Granadan court during the latter years) influenced my choice. He wrote about Isabel after 1505, stating that in 1475, she was a girl of ten or twelve. Her heritage is more certain. Her father Sancho Jimenez de Solis served as the adelantado mayor or warden of the castle at Martos. He had taken a second wife during Isabel’s girlhood, a Moorish slave called Arlaja. At some point, he had arranged Isabel’s marriage to Pedro Venegas, a relative of the lords of Luque, another town near Martos. But the union never occurred.

In the 1470’s (Baeza specifically states 1475) the Sultan’s brother Muhammad who’s more commonly known as Al-Zaghal raided at Martos and his men captured Isabel. Her father may have died at the same time, either defending the town or her. The Spanish have said she endured her detention in Alhambra Palace’s Torre de la Cautiva, but no one truly knows. Baeza tells us she became a slave to the Sultan’s daughter and cleaned the young princess’ chamber, hence my portrayal of her early captivity in Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree. Of greater certainty is Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s notice of her. She became his concubine and then his wife. As a wedding present, she received the castle at Mondújar, the ruins of which remain visible. She bore him two sons Nasr and Saad. Purportedly, this brought her into conflict with Aisha, who also had two sons by her husband, Muhammad and Yusuf. Hernando de Baeza also suggested Isabel endured a brutal beating at the hands of Aisha and her servants, reminiscent of what the Ottoman Sultana Hurrem bore at the hands at her rival for Suleiman the Great’s heart, Mahidevran – again, of less surety but the story of Isabel’s suffering added to the idea of palace intrigue between the women. While the Sultan had not declared an heir and over time, delegated the powers of regent to his brother Muhammad Al-Zaghal, their enemies of the clan Abencerrage believed he would declare one of his children by Isabel as a successor. The offspring of a Christian woman became the rivals of Aisha, whose descent and adherence to the Muslim faith remained beyond reproach.

Historians tell us Isabel converted to Islam and the Sultan renamed her Soraya, which meant ‘morning star’ in Arabic. The name is certainly accurate, but what about the religious change? In my research, I haven't discovered any captive of the Moors who retained their original name so this was a common enough practice. Conversion had long held benefits, including freedom, for no new Muslim would endure the status of a slave. Did Soraya willingly convert? Was it a requirement of her marriage? No Arab chroniclers nor Baeza mention her abandonment of the Christian faith. Not until 1530 do we have the first reference from Lucius Marineus Siculus, who states that Soraya reverted to Christianity from Islam. So where does the truth lie? Somewhere in her murky history and that of Moorish Spain.

Two occurrences may have deeply affected her life as a Sultana. In the summer of 1482, a coup against her husband occurred. She escaped with him and their children, first to their castle at Mondújar and then to Malaga, which his brother governed. Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s eldest son by Aisha took control of Granada with the support of Abencerrage clan members, further fueling the supposed conflict between Aisha and Soraya. A year later, due to the missteps of his successor, Abu’l-Hasan Ali regained power. In 1485, Soraya’s life changed again. Her husband, who had suffered the effects of epilepsy and diabetes, either abdicated or surrendered the throne to his brother. He spent his exile in Salobreña and Almuñécar, where he allegedly died and lies buried at the summit of the highest Spain mountain named after him, Mulhacén. Afterward, Soraya’s saga becomes ambiguous again. Supposedly, her brother-in-law wanted to marry her, but he never did. She either stayed by his side with her children or extended her exile in the Lecrín area of the Alpujarras region of southern Spain. If you’ve read Sultana: The White Mountains, you’ll know I had her take a different path. Why?

At some point after the death of her husband, Soraya returned to her former life with her sons. She took up the name Isabel de Solis again. After the conquest of Granada occurred on January 2, 1492, on April 30, the bishop of Guadix baptized her children Nasr and Saad as Juan and Fernando de Granada respectively. They went on to marry; Fernando became the husband of Mencia de la Vega and had no known heirs, while Juan wed twice, to Beatriz de Sandoval who gave him Isabel, Geronimo Bernardino, Juan and Magdalena, and Maria de Toledo who mothered his Maria, Diego, Pedro, and Felipa. As a final anecdote, I’ve seen one intriguing reference to the former princes of Granada later abandoning the Christian faith and crossing over to Morocco as their eldest half-brother had done in 1493. But what of their mother?

After the first decade of the 16th century, she disappears from the historical record. Until then, she purportedly lived in a house in Seville. A letter dated 1494 from Queen Isabella of a united Spain refers to her as ‘Queen Soraya, Moor’ and from 1501 and 1506, she’s alternatively called ‘Doña Isabel, Madre de los infantes de Granada’ or ‘Queen Soraya’ in documents.

Throughout my novels that chronicle events of her life, I’ve portrayed many possible facets of the personality I believe Isabel de Solis/Soraya adopted. She is clever, hiding her knowledge of Arabic gained from her stepmother Arlaja the Moor during the subsequent captivity and enslavement. She is also dutiful to Sultana Aisha, whose servant she becomes and whose daughter she cares for and admires. She also shows genuine devotion to her eventual husband Abu’l-Hasan Ali and shrinks from the idea of becoming the wife of his brother, seeing the move as a probable end to the lives of her children. Most of all, she is a survivor because ultimately, the historical figure who inspired the character was nothing less. Learn more about her portrayal in Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree and Sultana: The White Mountains, both available now. 

If you've missed any of the Meet the characters posts about this novel, find them HERE.    

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...