05 May 2017

Mad Mothers: Sultana Aisha of Moorish Granada

By Lisa J. Yarde

On January 2, 1492, when the Moors of Granada under Sultan Muhammad XI (commonly known as Boabdil) left their home of two centuries past at Alhambra Palace, legend has it that the monarch's mother Aisha upbraided him. "Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man." The place where this chastisement supposedly occurred in the Sierra Nevada mountains is called Puerto del Suspiro del Moro, the Pass of the Moor's Sigh.

El ultimo suspiro del Moro by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz (1892) - Public domain

Over twenty years of research into Granada's last Muslim dynasty has revealed how much unreliable myth and anecdote tainted the available history. As with many personal interactions of the past, it's difficult to prove the event did nor did not occur. Of those who traveled with Muhammad and his mother into eventual exile in Fez, none included any chroniclers from the court of the Catholic monarchs, King Fernando and Queen Isabella. No Moors in the company who left Granada could have relayed the occurrence. Also, given Aisha's actions during her husband and son's reigns, it's hard to believe she considered women weak -- after all, she knew exactly what a woman with purpose could do. Through her influence, she had secured the throne for her son in a rebellion against his father. Perhaps disappointment over the loss of her heritage left her furious with her child, a mad mother.

Aisha's life began in turmoil as the daughter of Sultan Muhammad IX and an unnamed paternal cousin, one of three known children of the sovereign, who had no sons. He had lost and regained the kingdom of Granada no less than four times in clashes with his cousins over their legacy. Without a natural heir, he wed Aisha's elder half-sister to his paternal second cousin and successor Muhammad X, whose father had once been among the rivals for the throne. The marriage cannot have lasted because later Aisha found herself betrothed to Muhammad X. Fate denied them a future together when yet another cousin, Abu Nasr Saad invaded Granada. His son the future Sultan Abu'l-Hasan Ali (commonly known as Muley Hacen) killed Muhammad X along with his two young heirs and took Aisha for a wife. Abu'l-Hasan Ali likely regretted the choice for the rest of his life. Vengeance motivated Aisha's subsequent behavior.

Before she gained retribution, Aisha performed her duty and bore two sons for Abu'l-Hasan Ali, the eventual Muhammad XI, and Yusuf, as well as a daughter who shared Aisha's name. The Moorish queen bided her time while her husband refused to submit to demands for tribute from Fernando and Isabella. Aisha even endured the presence of her husband's beloved second wife, a former Christian slaved named Isabella de Solis, who converted to Islam and took the name Soraya. 

In the summer of 1482, Aisha's eldest son rebelled against Abu'l-Hasan Ali, who went into exile in Malaga and formed an alliance with the Catholic monarchs against Aisha and their child. The family Abencerrage supported the coup and Aisha. The clan had long reviled Abu'l-Hasan Ali after he and his father murdered many of their chieftains within Alhambra Palace. When young Muhammad became a prisoner of Fernando and Isabella after an ill-advised attack on the frontier during April 1483, Aisha helped negotiate the eventual release of Muhammad. As the enemy took city after city in a bid to destroy Moorish Spain forever, Aisha wanted even the women and children to fight in the defense of their homeland. But could she have also been desperate, maddened by the failures that bedeviled the kingdom? No one can know. 

History has relegated her to the role of a vengeful wife, a scheming mother, and a cunning rival for her husband's second wife. But for me, Aisha remains a true patriot of Moorish Granada. 

** An Excerpt from Sultana: The White Mountains**

Chapter 2

Prince Muhammad

Gharnatah, Al-Andalus or Granada, Andalusia
8 Rajab 887 AH / Friday, August 23, AD 1482

An unbearable, dry heat hung over the vega of Gharnatah in the late afternoon. Despite the warmth, several dozen courtiers and a handful of advisors from the Diwan al-Insha gathered outside the courtyard of the council chamber. Ibn Kumasha stood among them, but not Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s secretary, Ibn Bannigash. With Abdul Wahid at his side, Muhammad stood apart from the ministers, wearied of the silent questions emanating from their intent gazes. They desired the answer to one inquiry. How could he respond?

Yusuf and his men mounted their horses and departed through the Bab al-Sharia. The gate remained open afterward. The Sarraj chieftains and their men waited along the wooded slopes of the Sabika hill.

The lone woman amid the crowd lowered her small hand and rested it on Muhammad’s forearm. Her fingernails, sharp and curved like the talons of a hunting hawk, pressed against the silk. She had remained at his side with her faithful eunuch Al-Siddiq since Yusuf gave his formal farewell, knelt at Muhammad’s feet, and kissed their mother’s hands. A fine display for the courtiers, some semblance of unity within their fractured family, and a son’s reverence for his honored mother. Lies but Muhammad would have none of them. His stare traveled up the length of her limb until at last, he saw the mirror of himself in her eyes. He blinked twice and turned away.

Her nails dug deeper. “You cannot relent now.”

“Unlike you, I don’t withdraw my pledges once given.”

She reached for his cheek and turned his face to hers. “You despise me now, so you speak petty cruelties. You will perceive the truth when your anger has faded. This is the correct choice for our futures and for Gharnatah.”

“Eight years ago, you would have plunged the khanjar of our illustrious ancestor, my namesake, into Father’s heart. For your folly with the dagger, he imprisoned you.”

When she would have withdrawn her touch, his hand covered hers. Although she gasped and pulled away, his hold tightened on her thin wrist. Bones so fragile he might have snapped them if he wished.

“After your release six months later, you made a promise. Do you remember, Ummi?”

“Muhammad, this time is different. Back then, your father had wronged me and taken the lives of two trusted companions. I struck out at him for vengeance’s sake, but today, I look to the future. Your destiny.”

“Lie to yourself if you wish. But your falsehoods will not sway me. I know you, likely better than my father did. Eight years past, I warned you not to make us, your children by Abu’l-Hasan Ali, choose between our parents. Now you have forced the decision on me. I will never forgive you. Keep far from me and my family. I forbid your presence wherever I am or may reside. Furthermore—”

Her fingers shook. “Muhammad, don’t….”

“You will not see my wife for any reason. You shall never hold my son again. You’ve deceived more than my father. You’ve betrayed every principle of family and love, which you taught my brother, sister and me in our childhood.”

Tears spilled down her cheeks. “My son, don’t hate me. Please.”

He pressed his lips to her lined brow, just below her veil. He whispered against her flesh, “I could never. But I won’t rely on you again. You’re a viper, vicious and ruthless. I’ve learned the lesson of your true nature, which my father would not accept. Stay away from me and those whom I love. I won’t let you destroy them, as you’ve ruined my father and our fates.”

As they drew apart, he caught the intent scrutiny of several courtiers and the ministers. He smiled and caressed Aisha's damp cheeks. “These tears. Beautiful. Purposeful. Those who observe would think you a loving mother, comforted by one dutiful son in the absence of another. The deception is complete. Well done, Ummi.”  

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.