06 May 2016

My Characters Lived In Moorish Spain

By Lisa J. Yarde

Would you believe that during the 700 hundred years of the Moorish period in Spain, Arabic was the predominant language of political courts and literature, Cordoba had paved streets and lighting at night, and trade with eastern Islamic societies brought the wealth of gold and spices into the country?  Just some of the aspects of a fascinating history, which took place  between 711 and 1492, and inspired my writing of the Sultana series, set in the 12th through 15th century in the last Moorish kingdom of Spain at Granada. Moorish Spain was a diverse society along ethnic and religious lines in which families descended from the Christian Visigoths, who originally held control, intermarried with the new Muslim Arab and North African Berber monarchs, who  also sometimes choose Jewish brides from influential families. The Moors influenced culture and society, which is expressed today in almost every word of the Spanish language prefixed by 'al' and by some of the finest examples of their architecture at La Mezquita in Cordoba, the palace of Alhambra in Granada, and the tower of Giralda in Seville.  

The period began with the conquest under the general Tariq ibn Ziyad, who served Abu Walid, the eastern ruler of the Ummayad caliphate established in Damascus, Syria within 30 years of the spread of Islam out of Arabia. In April of 711, while in the command of less than 15,000 warriors landed at Gibraltar and began the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. From Gibraltar, Tariq moved on to capture Algeciras on Spain's coast, then north up to Seville. When Tariq met the army of the unpopular Visigothic King Roderic at the Battle of Guadalete on July 11 in 711 or 712 (chroniclers disagree), supposedly the defenders outnumbered the Muslims by eight to one. Roderic's subsequent death in the battle along with the demise of several noble families paved the way for the conquests of Toledo, Cordoba, and Granada. Roderic's widow became the wife of the first Muslim governor of Spain within four years after the death of her first husband. Eventually, the conquered lands of the peninsula stretched as far north as Zaragoza  and encompassed the whole of Portugal, forming the basis of the Ummayad caliphate of Cordoba. 

Within twenty years of Tariq's invasion, Europe managed to halt the spread of the Moors further north when the Franks under Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne, defeated the Moors at the Battle of Tours in 732. Almost as soon as the Moors invaded, northern Christian kingdoms resisted. The Reconquista gave birth to the monarchies of Asturias, Leon, Castile, Navarre and Aragon once the descendants of the Visigoths fought against their Moorish masters to regain autonomy and relief from the poll tax the Muslims had instituted upon arrival. Women taken as captives from conquered territories, like the Navarran slave Subh in the 10th-century and the Christian Maryem as late as the 14th-century became the ancestors of generations of Muslim rulers. The caliphate later fractured in the 11th-century into several states called taifas, the largest of these formed at Zaragoza in the north, Cordoba, Toledo, Granada, and Valencia. During this tumultuous time, Christian armies supported and defended Muslim rulers as exemplified by the role of the Castilian warrior El Cid under the Muslim sovereigns of Zaragoza in the 11th-century and the 14th-century Christian guards of Muhammad V of Granada, 200 of whom went with him into exile in Morocco after a coup orchestrated by his stepmother Maryem. While many historians have portrayed Moorish Spain as the epitome of religious cooperation and toleration, persecution of Christians and Jews, as well as forced conversions to Islam often occurred, especially during the Almoravid and Almohade invasions from North Africa during the 12th-century.   

Moorish Spain officially ended on January 2, 1492 when the last Sultan of Granada Muhammad XI surrendered to the Catholic monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. The final Muslim ruler and his ancestors have been the source of my primary characters and the narrative of the Sultana series. Beginning with the 13th-century monarch Muhammad I, the series explores the turbulent epoch of the Nasrid dynasty. Christian kings and queens viewed the Nasrids as their vassals and while some of the Sultans paid tribute like Muhammad III or even formed genuine friendships with Christian leaders, such as the amicability between Muhammad V and Pedro the Cruel of Castile in the 14th-century, the last Moors of Spain would have been conscious of their fading glory and a vastly shrinking territory. The novels are as much a chronicle of Moorish Spain's political demise as they are a window into the private lives of the Nasrids, where their women had as much influence on the destiny of the kingdom as their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons who held power. The 13th-century queen Fatima is remembered by Moorish chroniclers as the well-educated daughter of Sultan Muhammad II, sister to the warring siblings Muhammad III and Nasr, and mother to the murdered Ismail I, as well as nurturer and protector of her grandsons Muhammad IV and Yusuf I. The mother of Muhammad XI, Aisha, descended from Muhammad V like her eventual husband Abu'l-Hasan Ali wanted her son and people to retain power over their small kingdom so much that she supposedly wished Muhammad XI to arm the women and children against the armies of Isabella and Ferdinand. At the demise of his reign, she allegedly rebuked her son with, "You weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man." How could I not write about such amazing characters?

For me, Moorish Spain will always remain a fascinating part of history.


Images from Wiki Commons; the map of Moorish Spain's borders and Muslims before the Battle of Tours. Other royalty-free images purchased and licensed from Fotolia; The Giralda tower in Seville and Granada's Alhambra. All data from numerous sources researched during the writing of the Sultana series.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written five novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price and Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.