From the Moorish era, there are the best-known examples of Subh who lived in 10th-century Cordoba, and the bitter rivals, Butayna and Maryem in 14th-century Granada. But how did women become concubines in the Islamic world? Religious customs allowed the conquerors to makes slaves of any person captured in warfare so that by the first century of the Moorish period in Spain at least 20% of the population lived in bondage. Slavery did not bar these women from conversion to Islam or manumission in the future. As the Arabs and Berbers went westward across North Africa and into Spain, they seized captives of every age. Pirates, particularly from the North African coast known as the Barbary also raided across the Mediterranean Sea, attacking France and Italy, and as far north as the English and Irish coastlines up through the 17th-century. Black slaves came from eastern and Western Africa across the Sahara. In 14th-century Morocco the ruler Abu Inan Faris, whose mother was described as a black woman, supposedly had a favored concubine, an English woman renamed Shams ed-Duna.
Women became part of the tribute demanded by Moorish rulers, slaves prized for more than their beauty or potential sexual partners, as singers, dancers, and poets. The base price for most of the Islamic world seems to have been 1,000 gold coins or dinars for European slaves; very beautiful or skilled women commanded much higher prices. Most importantly for such concubines, the children they bore for their masters were considered free from their birth and the legitimate heirs of their fathers, or in the case of royal concubines, their sons might become future rulers. In the 10th-century, Ramiro II of Leon, Garcia Sanchez I of Navarre and Count Fernan Gozalez of Castile each had the obligation to provide the first caliph of Cordoba Abd ar-Rahman III with sixty young women as tribute. Perhaps that means allowed Subh's entry into the harem of Abd ar-Rahman's son and successor, Al-Hakam.
Although no one knows her Christian birth name, Subh received her new name, which meant 'dawn' in Arabic, after her abduction from Navarre. She must have became part of the household of Al-Hakam by at least 965 based on the birth of her child. Sources indicate that it's almost a miracle she attracted the caliph's interest because he had been a homosexual for most of his life and had a male harem. Supposedly, Subh overcame this difficulty because her hair had been cut short like a young man's and she wore trousers. Subh bore Al-Hakam's son Hisham in 966. Ten years later, he ascended the throne as the third caliph after his father's illness, despite the attempts of one of Al-Hakam's brothers to rule. One of two official regents, Subh advanced the career of a minister from Algeciras, Al-Mansur ibn Abi Amir, who dominated Hisham's rule. There is also speculation that Subh took Al-Mansur as her lover. She might have come to regret this choice when Al-Mansur effectively robbed Hisham of power in 997 for the next five years. Nothing is certain about Subh's eventual fate afterward.
All images are public domain, royalty-free. 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 Sisters, Sultana: 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.