About the historical figures in Sultana: Two Sisters

When I first wrote about the Nasrid Dynasty, I had not planned further books beyond the stories told in Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy. As I delved into the history of the protagonists in those two books, the lives of their descendants captured my imagination. For the next novel, I knew the story of the Nasrid Dynasty was not enough. The plight of millions of captives stolen from their homes across the Mediterranean, as represented by the experiences of the slaves Butayna and Maryam, became the subject of Sultana: Two Sisters.

Inspiration for this novel also came from the relationship that Sultan Muhammad V, Yusuf and Butayna’s son, fostered with the Jews. The Jewish community of Granada gave Muhammad V a spectacular gift in the twelve marble lions whose figures now adorn the Patio de Leones in the Alhambra. Each of the lions represented a tribe of Israel and came from the house of a Jewish vizier, Samuel ha-Levi Ben-Yusef ibn Nagrela, who served the 11th century rulers of Granada. Today, the lion figures still surround the same 14th century basin installed during the reign of Muhammad V. While Spanish Christians throughout Castile and Aragon persecuted the Jews, Muhammad V offered the beleaguered Sephardic people Granada as their haven. I wondered whether a personal connection could explain his behavior. My speculation about his having had a mother of hidden Jewish origins is pure conjecture, but not outside the realm of possibility.

The Jews in Spain

The Jews of Sephardic Spain had various names for their language, known today as Ladino; Judezmo, Judyo or Spanyol. Jews inhabited Spain for millennia. They lived varied, but oftentimes marginalized lives in the Christian kingdom as gold and silversmiths, artisans and moneylenders. Islamic rulers considered them like Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists as dhimmis, non-Muslim citizens of Islamic states and as People of the Book, one of the groups who received the word of God.

Still, Jews faced persecution throughout Spain’s Christian and Muslim kingdoms. Jewish people worked in the trades the Catholic and Muslim rulers of Spain permitted them to engage in, such as the work of silver and goldsmiths, and as moneylenders. Others became trusted physicians and court officials. Some even developed deep personal relationships with rulers, such as Rachel Esra, better known as Rahel la Fermosa, who became a king’s mistress until a violent purge brought about her death.

Hebrew calendar dates in this novel approximate the equivalent periods of the Hebrew and Julian calendars. The Hebrew calendar, like the Hijri, is based on lunar sightings.

Sultan Abdul Hajjaj Yusuf I

Yusuf I entered the world on June 29, AD 1318 or 28 Rabi al-Awwal 718 AH, likely as the second son of Sultan Abu’l-Walid Ismail I, and Ismail’s concubine Bahar. Yusuf’s father died after his cousins murdered him in a dispute over a slave girl when Yusuf was seven years old. His elder brother Sultan Abu Abdallah Muhammad IV succeeded Ismail. Both boys and their two younger brothers submitted to the tutelage and care of their grandmother the Sultana Fatima; reputedly, the four princes exercised only the power to choose the dishes they ate during meals. Muhammad IV died on August 25, AD 1338 or 7 Safar 739 AH at eighteen, purportedly at the hands of Uthman ibn Abi’l-Ula. As one of many Marinid princes from Morocco living in Muslim Spain and the commander of the Volunteers of the Faith, Uthman had allegedly conspired in the death of Ismail. After Muhammad’s men interred his body at Malaga, Yusuf ascended the throne at the age of fifteen.

Chronicles of the period left a detailed description of Yusuf as ‘dark-skinned and naturally strong’ with ‘large eyes and dark straight hair, a thick beard, a handsome face and a clear voice that was a pleasure to hear.’ Yusuf became an enlightened ruler and a warrior. Chroniclers also claimed he could perceive the future. He had two constant companions, considered alternatively as concubines or wives by historians. The women Butayna and Maryam were the mothers of Yusuf’s three sons and six daughters. Butayna and Maryam existed as slaves in the harem before they became Yusuf’s companions. By all accounts, he favored Maryam and her children more than he did Butayna and hers. He might have considered his second son Ismail as the favorite and a possible heir for a time.

  While another son occurs in one primary source, a prince named Ahmad, I have found nothing beyond a poetic reference in AD 1343 to him along with Muhammad and Ismail as the sons of Yusuf. The author of the poem, the chief minister Ibn al-Jayyab incidentally does not mention Yusuf’s third son, Qays, in his verses. All other sources have specified Yusuf as the father of one named son and daughter by Butayna, and two named sons and five daughters by Maryam, without mention of Ahmad as a possible son of either woman. Therefore, I have not included Ahmad in the narrative. If he existed, his mother also remains a mystery. While there are no other named partners indicated for Yusuf, there is a brief mention of another unnamed wife of Yusuf from within his own family, likely a cousin of his as the Nasrids often married their cousins. Perhaps this anonymous woman mothered the equally mysterious Ahmad, but lacking more details, I did not make her a part of this story.

Throughout Yusuf’s life, troubles within his family also plagued him. He jailed his brother Ismail on suspicion of treason. In addition, Yusuf’s brother Faraj died on the orders of either Muhammad IV or Yusuf, but not before Faraj’s son, another Ismail, escaped to live in Morocco. Without further knowledge of Faraj or the circumstances of his death, I chose to exclude him and his son from the narrative as well. Among Yusuf’s named sisters, there were Fatima and Maryam, whom I have omitted to avoid confusion with other important characters. Leila is a fictionalized character. Yusuf’s mother Bahar lived for some years during his reign. A former captive according to one primary source, she converted to Islam and became noted for her piety. Historians, like the famous Ibn Battuta who visited Granada during the time of the Black Death, thought she was a charitable woman. Apparently, she provided some financial support for Ibn Battuta’s extended stay, for which he was very grateful.

In AD 1340, Yusuf allied with Sultan Abu’l-Hasan Ali of Morocco in armed conflict against Castile and Portugal, which the Muslims lost on October 30, AD 1340 or 8 Jumada al-Ula 741 AH at the Battle of Rio Salado. Abu’l-Hasan Ali suffered great personal tragedies as a result, when his first and favorite wife Fatima, the daughter of the caliph of Tunisia, along with other wives, children, and at least one of his sisters suffered attacks from the soldiers of Castile and Portugal. Many of the women and children in the encampment died. The Christian warriors confiscated gold, silver, and luxurious silk banners, the latter of which still exist in Lisbon’s museums. The surviving captives endured confinement in Seville until AD 1346.

After the battle, Yusuf returned to Granada and the comforts of his home. He made occasional raids through Christian Spain and interfered in the turbulent politics of Morocco. He maintained the rebel princes Abu Salim and Abu’l-Fadl in Andalusia, despite demands for their return from Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s successor, Abu Inan Faris. Yusuf later provided passage for the princes to Sous in southern Morocco, where they fueled rebellion against Abu Inan Faris into the reign of Yusuf’s heir.

The kingdom of Castile considered Yusuf a vassal like many of his ancestors and demanded a yearly payment of between thirty and forty thousand gold coins from him, which Yusuf did not always pay, for example after the defeat at Salado. Still, in a magnanimous gesture, Yusuf allowed the cortege of his lifelong enemy, King Alfonso XI of Castile, to depart from the siege of Gibraltar in March AD 1350 and gave orders that none in his kingdom should attack the king’s men.

Yusuf made additions to the Alhambra, his family’s palace. He enlarged the Comares tower, which served as the throne room of the Sultan, and built the  Bab al-Sharia (incorrectly known today as the Alhambra’s Gate of Justice). He also built a religious school, the Madrasa Yusufiyya in Granada in AD 1349. If you're in Granada and want to see the remnants of the Madrasa Yusufiyya, travel along the Calle Oficio to the Baroque facade of the University of Granada building, right across from the Cathedral. If you reach the entrance of the Alcaiceria or marketplace, you've gone too far. Yusuf's school is on the first floor; you can see a portion of the original flooring as well as a prayer room. Yusuf also worked on the gates, towers, and walls at Malaga, including the citadel at the Gibralfaro. His ministers Ridwan (a Christian convert), Ibn al-Khatib and the elderly public official Ibn Ali ibn al-Jayyab (who served from the time of Yusuf’s paternal great-grandfather Sultan Muhammad II) created literary works and poems, which still decorate the walls of the Alhambra today. Yusuf benefited from the treatment of his personal physician Muhammad al-Shaquri, a wise man despite being nine years younger than the Sultan. Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Qaysi, another doctor from Malaga developed new antidotes for poisons in AD 1352.

Under Yusuf’s regime, the Marinid Volunteers of the Faith, which had controlled parts of Andalusia since the time of Sultan Muhammad I in the 1260’s, began their withdrawal, and later allowed Yusuf’s heir to begin the reclamation of territories at Ronda, Marbella, and Gibraltar. Yusuf was a remarkable man, whose life ended too soon in tragedy. He died at the age of thirty-six on October 19, AD 1354 or 1 Shawwal 755 AH, on the morning of the feast to celebrate the end of fasting during Ramadan. A demented black slave from his stable stabbed him to death with a dagger, as Yusuf made the last prostration in his mosque. Yusuf’s servants carried him into his palace, where he died almost immediately. He was buried the same afternoon in the graveyard next to his father Ismail. After the fall of the Nasrids in AD 1492, Yusuf’s bones along with the relics of his family left the Alhambra forever.

Facts versus fiction about Yusuf I

Yusuf’s personal interactions with his family members, particularly his mother Bahar, his grandmother Fatima, his sisters, wives, and children are uncertain. Speculations about his mother’s fanatical adherence to Islam derives from my belief that sometimes converts are the most devoted to their new religion, even above those born into the faith. The words of the famed traveler Ibn Battuta who described Yusuf’s mother as being a pious woman also support my characterization. While Yusuf never met Ibn Battuta during his visit to Granada during the plague period, Yusuf’s mother did provide from her personal funds for the traveler’s sojourn in Muslim Spain. Yusuf particularly favored Maryam and her children over Butayna and hers.

Sultan Abu Abdallah Muhammad V

Sultan Abu Abdallah Muhammad V, the eldest son of the then twenty-year-old Sultan Abdul Hajjaj Yusuf I and the Sultan’s concubine / wife Butayna, was born on January 4, AD 1338 or 11 Jumada al-Thani 738 AH. Muhammad had a younger, full-blood sister, Aisha, and seven siblings of half-blood. He became the eighth ruler of the Nasrid Dynasty, ascending to the throne in October AD 1354 when he was just sixteen upon the violent murder of his father Yusuf. The former Sultan’s ministers proclaimed him the heir; Yusuf never publicly designated one. The minister Ibn al-Khatib composed the oath of loyalty, which the nobility, court dignitaries, Muhammad’s family, and the governors swore on the new Sultan’s ascension. Muhammad assigned his half-siblings and their mother Maryam to a palace within the Alhambra complex. He depended on the Christian convert Ridwan, who became his prime minister as in the days of his father Yusuf.

Learned like his father, Muhammad established treaties and a personal relationship with King Pedro I of Castile, who was four years Muhammad’s senior. He even renewed the tribute his forefathers had paid. Because of their friendship, both rulers had a great deal of influence on the policies and cultural flowering of their two kingdoms. Muhammad retained a corps of two hundred Christian guardsmen, derived from former captives, throughout his lifetime.

Facts versus fiction about Muhammad V

The personal interaction of Yusuf I and Muhammad V, and Muhammad’s ill feelings toward his younger siblings and their mothers for the favoritism Yusuf showed are uncertain. I also don’t know if Muhammad’s Christian mother or the sisters of Yusuf I had the most influence in the future monarch’s upbringing.

Sultana Butayna

Butayna, the Christian mother of Sultan Muhammad V and the concubine / first wife of Sultan Abdul Hajjaj Yusuf I, left no record of her life in the Alhambra. I do not know her original name, the date, or location of her birth, or her age when she bore Yusuf his heir. The only certainties are her harem name Butayna, which meant ‘one who possesses a young and tender body;’ her status as a slave in Yusuf’s harem by at least AD 1337 prior to her first pregnancy; and her belief in the Christian faith. She was one of apparently five Christian women who became mothers of the Sultans of Granada. Chroniclers of the period learned minuscule details of her life through the deep-seated rivalry she and Maryam shared. Both women sought the throne of Granada for their sons after Yusuf’s death. Butayna became the mother of two of Yusuf’s children, including a younger daughter Aisha.

Period sources referred to Butayna as either a concubine or wife of the ruler Yusuf. As a Christian concubine, she became the first in his harem to bear him a son. Since history most often refers to her as a slave, it is unlikely she ever converted to Islam. Muslim law sanctioned the freedom of all persons who converted. It also recognized the concept of freedom for the slave mothers of children born to Islamic rulers, but the practice was not universal. Most of the Christian West relied on primogeniture (the inheritance by the firstborn). The Muslim West never followed such strict rules. Sons vied with each other for their inheritances, even the throne of Granada. Yusuf’s apparently favorable disposition toward Maryam and her children meant Butayna’s son, even as Yusuf’s firstborn, should not have expected to inherit the throne automatically.

Life altered forever for Butayna on October 19, AD 1354, when Yusuf died. Records indicate she was still alive at this time. Then, Butayna set aside the label of slave forever and became a queen; the mother of the Sultan Abu Abdallah Muhammad V. Islamic law recognized the manumission of slaves upon the deaths of their masters. Butayna’s role in the harem would have changed. She might have influenced her son’s decision-making and perhaps, the course of Spanish history. I often wonder whether her gains at Muhammad’s side compensated for the trials she must have endured as Yusuf’s slave.

Facts versus fiction about Butayna

Like her counterpart Maryam, Butayna could have hailed from any European country when she entered the harem of Yusuf I. I don’t know about her personal interactions with his sisters or his grandmother, the venerated Sultana Fatima, or Yusuf’s mother Bahar. Also uncertain is whether Butayna would not have raised her son by Yusuf without interference. Yusuf also favored Maryam and her children more than he did Butayna, and might have considered Maryam’s eldest son Ismail as his successor rather than Butayna’s son Muhammad.

Sultana Maryam

Maryam, the concubine / second wife of Sultan Abdul Hajjaj Yusuf I, and the mother of two of his sons, Ismail and Qays, and five of his daughters, Fatima, Mumina, Khadija, Shams, and Zaynab, also left no record of her life. One secondary source indicates the modern day understanding of her name as Maryam might be an error in transcribing the original Arabic; instead, the name might have been Rim. Her origins and date of birth are uncertain. A slave like Butayna, she seems to have enjoyed greater influence over Yusuf than her rival did. Maryam gave Yusuf his second son, a boy named after his grandfather Ismail, born on October 2, AD 1338 or 16 Rabi al-Awwal 739 AH. His elder brother Muhammad preceded him by ten months. It is highly likely Maryam conceived Ismail within a short span of time around the birth of Butayna’s first child. Maryam would have enjoyed the same luxuries as her rival in the Alhambra, including close access to the Sultan. In time, her eldest daughter married a red-haired cousin, Muhammad, more commonly known in Castilian Spanish history as El Bermejo. He descended from Yusuf’s grandmother Sultana Fatima through her second son, also named Muhammad, the father of Ismail, who became El Bermejo’s father.

When Yusuf died, Maryam and her children lived under the dominion of Sultan Muhammad V and his mother Butayna would have controlled Muhammad’s harem. Muhammad gave his stepmother and her family quarters in another part of the Alhambra complex. What was life like for Maryam at this time? She went from having influence over one Sultan, her husband, to likely none with her stepson Muhammad V. A step down, just when her star seemed to be rising. It is interesting to consider the possibilities and problems faced by a woman in Maryam’s position. I have portrayed her as greedy and ambitious, just as the sources indicate, but one detail in my characterization is different from the historical record. For dramatic purposes, I have described Maryam as a Jewish woman, but chroniclers of the period indicate she began life as a Christian like Butayna. Whatever the truth of their circumstances may have been, Maryam and Butayna were sisters in faith, through their belief in the same God, as well as sisters in bondage within the palace of Alhambra. Each played her part in shaping the future of Muslim Spain.

Facts versus fiction about  Maryam

Maryam was a Christian, not a Jewish slave of the harem of Yusuf I. Her origin remains uncertain; she could have come from any European country. Whether infighting between her and Butayna followed a previous generation of clashes in the harem is dramatic speculation I’ve chosen. Maryam also received Yusuf’s attention more than Butayna did.

Sultana Fatima

Until the near completion of this novel, I had once believed Fatima, the heroine of Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy died in the early years of Yusuf’s rule. It was a pleasurable shock to discover that she lived throughout most of her grandson’s reign, dying on February 26, AD 1349 at more than ninety years old. Fatima was the matriarch of the Nasrid Dynasty and as one of the sources put it, “Of all the descendants of Muhammad II, Fatima was the most prominent, not only for being the mother of his grandson Sultan Ismail but also for her unusual participation in Nasrid politics for generations of rulers. It is, therefore, possible to say that she was one of the most significant women with historical repercussions for the entire dynasty.”

As Yusuf’s grandmother, Fatima not only reared him after the premature death of his father; she tutored and nurtured his love of the arts and sciences. Their bond influenced the course of Yusuf’s life. I do not know the nature of her relationship with her son’s chosen companions Butayna and Maryam, or with Yusuf’s children. The end of her remarkable life inspired Yusuf’s minister Ibn al-Khatib to write of her, “… she was Fatima, daughter of Muhammad II. She was the cream of the kingdom, the central pearl of the dynasty, the pride of the harem women, the height of honor and respect, the link that gave the people the protection of the kings and her life was a reminder of the legacy of the royal family.”

In 1892 during an excavation of the royal gravesites in which Fatimas father and her husband were buried, 30 empty tombs were found. Eight belonged to children. One held the remains of a woman; could this be the location of Fatimas grave? Although there are multiple references to the elegy composed for her, Fatimas tombstone is not preserved among those displayed in Hall 6 of the Museum of Alhambra located in the Palace of Carlos V.    

Facts versus fiction about Fatima

In Sultana: Two Sisters, Fatima is in her late eighties to nineties and has retired from the dominant role in the harem. While that scenario is likely, given the presence of Yusuf’s mother Bahar, I don’t doubt Fatima’s influence would have remained up until her death. I speculate on her death in the Partal houses of the Alhambra, but the place is not recorded, nor is the presence of her relatives.

The Black Death

An epidemic of bubonic plague arrived in the shipping ports of Moorish Spain by late December AD 1347. Rats in European towns and ports, aided by general filth and poor sanitation, advanced the spread of the disease through the fleas gathered on their dying bodies. The rats and fleas encountered people. After a fleabite, lymph nodes developed into painful buboes, which turned the skin black and appeared on the groin, thigh, armpit, or neck of the infected person. Within three to five days in which these signs of infection manifested, victims spat blood, had seizures and terrible coughs, or watched their limbs turn black with rot. Eighty percent of them died within a week. The Catholic Church interpreted the spread of plague as a curse from God, spurred by the presence of heretics. Jews suffered particular persecution.

On the eve of this great pestilence, there were 7.5 million persons living in the Iberian Peninsula, throughout the Christian kingdom of Portugal, Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Granada to the south. Beginning in May AD 1348, the Black Death claimed the lives of at least seventy persons per day in the Muslim city of Almeria, until the epidemic died down in February AD 1349. The first death in Malaga, further down the coast, occurred during April AD 1349. A month later, the plague began ravaging Granada. It crossed into Spain’s northern territories, reaching Toledo in June AD 1349 and Seville in September AD 1349. It claimed old and young, peasants and kings, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It devastated the population. King Alfonso XI of Castile died from the Black Death on March 22, AD 1350, during the siege of the fortress at Gibraltar. I have no information on how plague affected members of Yusuf’s family personally, but the dynasty’s rulers and their dependents would not have been immune to the effects. Arab doctors in the Middle East advanced the methods discussed for dealing with the plague in the narrative. There is a current theory that the descendants of Europe’s plague survivors have a gene that enables their resistance to virulent diseases like HIV. The Black Death may have claimed thirty to forty percent of the population of Spain before it ran its course in AD 1350. Ibn al-Khatib would later write a treatise on the course of the plague in AD 1374. The plague reoccurred in Spain in later years, most notably in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Note: All images are mine or derived from public domain artwork.