01 February 2017

Mistresses: Isabel de Solis / Sultana Soraya of Granada

By Lisa J. Yarde

Mistress. The word has many connotations but in history most often conjured the definition as in Merriam-Webster of, "a woman other than his wife with whom a married man has a continuing sexual relationship."

Nani Jimenez as Isabel de Solis /
Sultana Soraya of Granada
in Isabel series 
In medieval Moorish Spain, the concept of mistress didn't necessarily exist. Islam, the predominant religion of the region, gave men the right to have four wives and as many concubines as they chose. Importantly, any Christian or Jewish woman made a wife or captive could keep her faith under Islamic law, although the children with her husband or master would be raised as Muslims. Throughout my twenty-year study of Muslim rule in Spain, the stories of captives who became the wives and concubines of rulers have come to light. None fascinated me more than Isabel de Solis, later known as Soraya, the eventual second wife of the Nasrid Sultan Abu'l-Hasan Ali of Granada (Muley Hacén in Spanish sources). A true survivor, she's been portrayed in other novels, most recently Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book and onscreen by Nani Jimenez in season two of the Spanish dramatic series, Isabel, about the unification of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. 

Most of Isabel's history remains murky, but some facts are certain. Reputedly, she was the daughter of Sancho Jimenez de Solis, leader of Martos, which is a Castilian town on the border with Moorish Spain. There's no mention of whether Isabel had brothers or sisters in the sources. However, her father is noted as having a second wife whom people called Arlaja the Moor. During Isabel's youth, a Muslim prince Muhammad al-Zaghal, the brother of Sultan Abu'l-Hasan Ali, raided at Martos and captured Isabel in a church. By this time, Isabel had anticipated a different future, with her betrothal to Pedro de Venegas of Luque. Her father did not pay the usual ransom for Isabel became a slave in Granada's Alhambra palace.
Eastern view of the Torre de la Cautiva, taken during
my 2013 visit to Granada
Purportedly, she lived the palace's Torre de la Cautiva at some point. 

She attracted the attention of the Sultan, who eventually wed her, although he already had a first wife in his second cousin, Aisha. One somewhat strange legend of Isabel's life says that as she came to his bed as a virgin, Abu'l-Hasan Ali fell under her spell, ignored his spouse to his detriment, and once invited his subordinates to smell Isabel's bathwater! During her marriage, she had two sons Nasr and Saad. By then she also had a new name, Soraya, which means 'star' in Arabic and a new religion because she converted to Islam. Given that Muslim law would have allowed her to remain a Christian, why didn't Isabel do so? Had she abandoned her faith by choice or under some duress?

The enigmas of Isabel's life as a mistress and later wife of the Sultan begin with her age; some sources state she became a captive as a child while others indicate she was older. It's also impossible to judge how long she had been in the harem before the Sultan noticed her. No one can know when their sexual relationship began, the full circumstances in which it originated, or when she married him. Sources have also suggested that the union between Isabel and Abu'l-Hasan Ali caused the eventual end of Moorish Spain because supporters of his first wife Aisha rebelled against the idea.

Isabel pleads for her freedom with the Sultan's first wife, Aisha
in Isabel series
It's a simple, tidy approach to the reason for Moorish Spain's eventual demise on January 2, 1492, but there were other factors in play long before the Nasrids surrendered to the Catholic monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Another mystery is Isabel's final fate. After the death of her husband, she returned to the Christian faith and her sons were baptized. Nasr became Fernando de Granada and Saad took the name Juan de Granada. Both married wives from Spanish Christian nobility. But again, their mother's reversion to the faith of her birth is equally intriguing; considering that Castilian law gave the death penalty to apostates - did Isabel regret her life in Muslim Granada or was she a pragmatist who wanted to live at all costs?
Isabel de Solis / Sultana Soraya of Granada features as an antagonist in the last two novels of my series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, and Sultana: The White Mountains. In the earlier novel, she came to the harem as a slave of the Sultan's first wife Aisha at the age of ten and served for six years before she attracted attention, conceived her first son Nasr and became a rival. Here's an excerpt of her perspective on the title of "mistress" in the following scene from Sultana: The White Mountains.

Chapter 1

The House of God
Sultana Moraima

Gharnatah, Al-Andalus or Granada, Andalusia

29 Jumada al-Thani 887 AH / August 15, AD 1482
Soraya inhaled the hashish before she extended the pipe to Moraima, who declined.

“Ah. You don’t indulge. Another of your supposed virtues. Those which you must believe I lack because Abu’l-Hasan Ali desired me and made me his second wife.”

The queen’s swift return to the earlier topic made Moraima straighten. She gripped the edge of the table. “You promised to tell me truths about your love for the Sultan.”

“And I shall. It may surprise you, but I never sought my master’s heart. Among my former duties as a slave, I cared for his young daughter. A sweet and dutiful child. I escorted her daily from her mother’s apartment to the home of her governess or the Sultan’s chambers. At first, he ignored me, as any great man would have.”

Smoke billowed as she relaxed on her back and cast the water pipe to the waiting slave. With a faraway look in her eyes, her gaze traipsed over the extensive gardens, orange groves, and the forests bordering the Hadarro River to the hillside neighborhood of Al-Bayazin, sunbaked in the midafternoon heat.

Soon Moraima doubted the queen truly saw the landscape beneath her drooping stare. “You were speaking, Sultana.”

Roused from the stupor, Soraya rolled her head on the cushion. “Of what?” She swiped a hand across her brow and shooed a fly. “Ah, yes, about the Sultan. I will never forget the day he first spoke with me. I had come for Aisha’s daughter. She frolicked with her dolls, dancing beside her father’s table. Her happiness overwhelmed me, for I recalled having been such a little girl at play. Before the army of the Sultan’s father attacked my home at Martus. My father, the town leader, took me to the church and bid me remain quiet as a mouse. His new wife, whom people called Arlaja the Moor, hid with me. She was kind, had always given me sweetmeats from the kitchen when Father was not looking. She taught me Arabic in private, too. Father would have never approved, so she said it must remain our secret. And it did. When the marauders broke down the doors, she confronted them alone, while I hid beneath the altar cloth. She swore no one else remained with her. But they found me still. She died defending me, as they shoved a spear in her belly and dragged me away.

“While I sobbed at the memory in the corner, Abu’l-Hasan Ali came from his library with a book in hand. He approached me. I pretended not to understand the whispered consolation he offered. Still, when he took in his arms, I wept like a child. He patted my head and rubbed my shoulders, just as my father would have done. Then he sent me away. Each day afterward, he spoke with me about mundane matters, his favorite book or his success in the hunt. I believe he simply wanted someone to talk to, not a concubine with her cloying desperate attempts to gain a son or a wife who despised him. He seemed untroubled by my apparent lack of awareness. For I hid my knowledge of Arabic still.

“Until the day I could no longer pretend as he kissed my forehead and my cheeks. He begged me not to be so unhappy in his presence again, for the sight had almost broken his heart. Then I confessed I was never sad in his company. He cupped my chin and smiled at me. From such time, he knew my secret and kept it from his first wife, as I also buried my growing admiration and eventual love of him deep within my heart. Until those feelings shone brighter than the stars. That’s why he named me his ‘star’ on the night I gave myself to him and conceived our son Nasr. The night in which I confessed my eternal devotion. He showed me compassion, you see, and held no expectation. Not even of words. For him, I converted to the true faith of Islam, bore sons, and wed, because of our love. Gharnatah is a strange world, where one may enter the palace as a slave only to become a queen. A Sultana to rival her former mistress.”

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 completed a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price, Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, and Sultana: The White Mountains, 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.