About the historical figures in Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree

Last updated Aug. 5, 2020 




Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree is the penultimate novel of the Sultana series, set in Granada’s beautiful Alhambra Palace during the fifteenth-century reign of the Nasrid Dynasty. In Arabic, the language spoken by Moors throughout Spain, the name of the capital city meant pomegranate and the fruit symbolized Granada. This book chronicles the death throes of Moorish Spain, as likely witnessed by the real-life heroine, Sultana Aisha, a daughter, wife, and mother of Sultans of Granada. Aisha inherited the glorious legacy of her family but bore its tragedies as well. Concerns about her country’s shrinking frontiers and the plots of the monarchs of Castile and Aragon to annihilate the last Moorish kingdom dominated her life. 


From the histories and legends that have sprung up around Aisha, I doubt she would have idly stood by and awaited Granada’s destruction. I wrote Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree as Aisha’s tale, as well as the story of the final generation of Moorish rulers, including Sultan Muhammad IX al-Aysar, his chosen successor Muhammad X al-Sagir, and their adversaries, Sultan Abu Nasr Sa’d along with his heir, Abu’l-Hasan Ali. Although each man strove for the throne in violent contests, the blood of their Nasrid ancestors united them with each other and Aisha. She was the daughter of Sultan Muhammad IX al-Aysar, cousin to Sultan Abu Nasr Sa’d, and the heart’s desire of Muhammad X al-Sagir and Abu’l-Hasan Ali. 


This is also an account of Isabel de Solis; a Castilian girl caught up in the drama of the harem. She surrendered her freedom and religion to the Moors but gained Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s love. As his Soraya or ‘star’ she became more than a rival to Aisha for their shared husband’s affections. The turbulent reign of Abu’l-Hasan Ali and the opposing interests of his two wives also decided Granada’s fate. 



Sultan Muhammad IX al-Aysar 


As a grandson of the Nasrid Sultan Muhammad V, Sultan Muhammad IX al-Aysar (meaning the Left-Handed) so-called in Arabic sources or El Zurdo by Christian historians (to differentiate from the many Nasrid family members with the name Muhammad), traveled an uneven path to the throne. For clarity, I will refer to him hereafter as Al-Aysar. I don’t know if the reference to “left-handed” meant he had that physical characteristic. As with many other Sultans from this latter period of the Nasrid family history, his date of birth remains unknown as does his age at death consequently. After he had first attained power, he lost control of the kingdom in Granada no less than three times. 


The father of Al-Aysar, Nasr, became a victim along with his brothers Muhammad and Sa’d of their elder brother Sultan Yusuf II’s two-year reign sometime before Yusuf II’s premature death by a poisoned robe in AD 1392. Nasr left his son Al-Aysar and a daughter Fatima behind; she would have an impact on Granada’s future as well. Based on the timing of their father’s demise I can speculate that both children would have been born at least by AD 1393. Prior to Al-Aysar’s reign, the sources indicate little about him except the backing he enjoyed from the Abencerrage family. This clan, whose Arabic name meant ‘the saddler’ had served among royal courts since the eleventh century. They would have an influence on the political events of Moorish Spain up until the end of the period. Al-Aysar reigned for a total of thirty years, which would have been a remarkable duration for any Nasrid Sultan of the time, except there were several interruptions of his government. Only his grandfather Muhammad V ruled for a similar length of time. 


Al-Aysar married twice. His first wife was also his paternal cousin and the daughter of his uncle Yusuf II, a Sultana who was sister to the warring brothers, Sultans Muhammad VII and Yusuf III, the latter of whom had been elder but suffered usurpation and imprisonment at Salobreña on the Spanish coast by the command of the former for several years. Moorish historians gave no personal name for the Sultana, only the usual title Umm al-Fath, which means ‘Mother of Victory’ as occurred with other unknown royal women. I called her Nuzha in the novel.  


She bore Al-Aysar's two daughters, Fatima and Aisha, but the marriage also appeared uncommon among the dynastic union Nasrids pursued with their cousins. A match in which he depended on her advice, with hints of deep love and admiration between them. Later Al-Aysar also married a woman of the Abencerrage family, Zahr al-Riyad. Her name meant ‘flower of the gardens,’ and she descended from the court minister Abu l-Surur Mufarrij of the Abencerrages and Gayat al-Muna or conversely, Zaida, both indicated as daughters of Yusuf III. If true, it would have meant Zahr al-Riyad had Nasrid blood like her eventual husband and was a second cousin to him, with Yusuf III as her grandfather and her husband’s cousin. With Zahr al-Riyad, Al-Aysar had a third daughter, again called by the title Umm al-Fath. The birth order of Al-Aysar’s three children remains unknown. More on the impact of those Sultanas on Nasrid history later. 


Ambitious to gain the throne of his ancestors, Al-Aysar pursued his goal with the usual belligerence common among his relatives. From the sources, it appears for some time Al-Aysar had lived at Salobreña; during the reign of Muhammad VIII, the Sultan ordered the arrest and detainment of Al-Aysar in the castle there for fear that he would dethrone him, although I haven’t found any precipitating event that made Muhammad VIII take this action. The Abencerrages could not withstand the excessive power wielded by the chief minister of Muhammad VIII, Ali al-Amin. But two of the Abencerrage clan’s principals, who were lords or commanders of Guadix and Íllora, released Al-Aysar from jail in Salobreña and declared their support for him. Together they went to the capital, but the people resisted his entry. Thereafter he sought a fatwa, a religious decree that the current occupant was not a valid ruler because of his youth. Muhammad VIII, son of Yusuf III and also Al-Aysar’s second cousin had come to the throne at the age of eight in AD 1417. With the decree issued in Al-Aysar’s favor, he sent his young rival to Salobreña. 


Al-Aysar’s first reign of eight years arose in AD 1419 – 1427 or 823 - 831 AH. He gave assurances that Muhammad VIII’s chief minister Ali al-Amin would survive, but Abencerrage men working for Al-Aysar’s second wife Zahr al-Riyad executed the minister. Among the first supporters, Abu'l Hajjaj Yusuf ibn Sarray served as Al-Aysar's chief minister. In April AD 1421, Al-Aysar signed a new three-year peace treaty with Castile to ensure peace until July 13, AD 1424 or 15 Sha`ban 827 AH. The agreement required Granada to provide a comparable amount of thirteen thousand gold Castilian coins, called doblas. The new monarch also made peace with the Western Islamic world, especially the Tunisian Hafsid Sultan Abu Faris (AD 1394-1434), who in AD 1421 received an unspecified ambassador from Granada. 


Troubles for Al-Aysar began when a Sufi mystic named Yusuf al-Mudayyan and his followers approached the monarch with the plan that the Muslims of the north and south of the Mediterranean should undertake a crusade against the Christians. Al-Aysar gave him money to build the ships that the troops of Islam might use to cross the Straits of Gibraltar, but the mystic expended the money to proclaim himself king in the Albaicin of Granada. Later Al-Aysar’s Abencerrage cohorts killed him. Then in AD 1425, a currency devaluation happened. The coffers were empty, and the Granadan kingdom impoverished. No extension of the truce with Castile had happened; sources guess that people feared increased taxes, so they revolted against Al-Aysar. Widespread discontent spurred a mob’s actions in AD 1427. They entered the palace and could have killed the Sultan, but he escaped by climbing a wall. He disguised himself as a villager to reach the coast and took refuge in Almeria where he pretended to be a fisherman. Afterward, Al-Aysar sailed to Tunisia where he received military support from Sultan Abu Faris to retake the throne. The Abencerrages went to Lorca and asked for aid for their patron from King Juan II of Castile, who did not have an immediate response. Meanwhile, an 18-year old Muhammad VIII returned to power, aided by his chief minister, a Christian convert who had taken the name Ridwan ibn Bannigash. The Bannigash or Venegas among their Christian relatives would also remain powerful political forces for the rest of the sultanate, vying with the Abencerrage family for influence in Moorish Spain. 

Late in AD 1428, Al-Aysar sailed from North Africa to Spain, and traveled on to Vera, northeast of Almeria. When Muhammad VIII heard of his enemy’s return, he sent his brother Abu l-Hasan Ali at the head of 600 cavalrymen to confront Al-Aysar. Two-thirds of the warriors from Granada defected to Al-Aysar on the spot while the remaining 200 fled for Granada presumably under Abu l-Hasan Ali’s command. Muhammad VIII pleaded for help from Juan II of Castile. Six Nasrid knights who supported Muhammad VIII went to Astudillo where the Castilian king resided and sought his assistance. Juan II promised them help, but Al-Aysar also sought Christian backing too. In May AD 1429 at Burgo de Osma, Juan II received an embassy of Al-Aysar headed by his Abencerrage chief minister. The man requested a truce with Castile, but he received no commitment. On or before October 18, AD 1429 or 19 Muharram 833 AH, Al-Aysar went to Almeria and then Guadix. While there, the governors of Malaga and Ronda declared their support for him. 


Juan II gave neither of the supplicants the desired pledges. Meanwhile, Muhammad VIII surrendered before he and his brother Abu l-Hasan Ali returned to Salobreña. Al-Aysar’s second reign ensued, the shortest tenure in his lifetime of only three years, AD 1430 – 1432 or 833 - 836 AH. One of his first acts saw the arrival of the minister Ibrahim Abd al-Barr in Castile, where he sought a truce with the Castilian king in April AD 1430. Exactly a year later, Al-Aysar’s old enemy Muhammad VIII died at Salobreña. Regardless of the truth in reports that the Sultana Zahr al-Riyad actually directed the execution of the former Sultan, his murder could not have happened without Al-Aysar’s knowledge and approval. Juan II demanded Al-Aysar concede the role of a vassal in exchange for a year’s truce with the required tribute and freedom of Castilian prisoners, actions which Sultans had undertaken throughout history. The Moorish sovereign refused. Juan II forestalled the Tunisian allies of Al-Aysar with gifts and then decided to fight Granada’s monarch because he had his own candidate in mind. Yusuf ibn al-Mawl, known as Abenalmao among Christians, grandson of Muhammad VI El Bermejo by that monarch’s daughter. The Castilian king moved against Al-Aysar by backing Yusuf ibn al-Mawl, who also had the support of the Abencerrages’ rivals the Bannigash clan.  


One of the sources indicates Yusuf ibn al-Mawl had also married a daughter of the minister Ridwan ibn Bannigash, who had gone to Castile in May AD 1431 seeking the support of Juan II in exchange for Yusuf ibn al-Mawl’s fealty. But this is somewhat strange considering that another source indicates Yusuf ibn al-Mawl's sister Maryam was the wife of  Ridwan ibn Bannigash - so, either Yusuf ibn al-Mawl married his own maternal niece OR he married his brother-in-law's daughter from another woman. The wife of Yusuf ibn al-Mawl is noted as being named Fatima. Her heritage is unclear. Another potential father for her was Sultan Ismail II, who died on July 13, AD 1360 or 25 Sha`ban 761 AH. A victim of his ambitious one-time brother-in-law and cousin Muhammad VI el-Bermejo, historians have not identified any other children of Ismail II. Supposedly he had this daughter Fatima with a concubine called Cirila. Was Fatima truly a daughter of Ismail II? Was her lineage created to help bolster the claim her husband made to the Nasrid throne, despite him having Nasrid blood on his mother's side? How strange and fascinating it would be if the daughter of Ismail II had married the grandson of Muhammad VI el Bermejo, the man who murdered Ismail II! 


Yusuf ibn al-Mawl in conjunction with Castile’s Constable Álvaro de Luna and the knights of Calatrava came to the vega of Granada, where the Battle of Higueruela took place on July 1, AD 1431 or 20 Shawwal 834 AH, during which Al-Aysar’s Abencerrage chief minister Yusuf suffered a fatal injury with a spear. The capital’s environs suffered great devastation and Al-Aysar lost the conflict. Some Nasrid commanders and governors of castles began to declare themselves in favor of Yusuf ibn al-Mawl and the Bannigash family. The Abencerrages retreated into Loja but the knights of Calatrava met them there and emerged victoriously. In Granada, denizens of the Albaicin neighborhood rebelled against Al-Aysar. He received a commission of merchants from Granada who recommended he should flee. He went with his family to Almeria and then on to Malaga where he had a good reception from loyal citizens. From there, he governed a part of the kingdom; Malaga, Ronda, Gibraltar, and Almeria the most important among his domain. Meanwhile, his newest enemy reigned as Yusuf IV ibn al-Mawl beginning on January 1, AD 1432 or 26 Rabi ath-Thani 835 AH, when an escort of six hundred supporters and Christian troops under the command of the Castilian Doñ Diego Gomez de Rivera brought the newest usurper into Granada. 


Al-Aysar pursued the third bid for the throne successfully and enjoyed his longest tenure as Sultan for thirteen years, in AD 1432 – 1445 or 836 - 849 AH. As a prelude to his conquest, he wrote to the Sultan of Tunis and asking him to intercede with King Juan II of Castile to stay neutral in any future conflict. I’m unsure why Al-Aysar held any such expectation when the Christian monarch had backed Yusuf IV ibn al-Mawl all along. Meanwhile Yusuf IV ibn al-Mawl decided to organize an expedition against Malaga. In April AD 1432, Al-Aysar’s forces came to Granada, where they clashed with Yusuf IV ibn al-Mawl in Los Ogíjares until finally, the gates of Granada opened to Al-Aysar, who took possession of the Zirid Alcazaba Cadima in the Albaicin. His soldiers besieged the royal palace and took it. Yusuf IV ibn al-Mawl hid for days until discovery. He died alongside thirty of his supporters, including many of the Bannigash family after a reign of no more than three months. His chief minister, Ridwan ibn Bannigash survived the purge and fled into Castile, where he resumed life as a Christian. 
Interestingly, Al-Aysar spared the son of his enemy, Abu Salim Ibrahim al-Nayyar who governed Almeria. The governor may have had two siblings; a daughter with a non-Moorish name of Esquivilia, who had some property in Deifontes, and Abdallah, who controlled part of Las Alpujarras and Marchena. At some point, Al-Aysar appointed his nephew Yusuf, one of two sons of his sister Fatima and Ahmad the son of Sultan Yusuf II, a young man who had fought and lost at the Battle of Higueruela, to the wardenship of the castle at Almeria. A likely sign that Al-Aysar did not entirely trust Abu Salim Ibrahim al-Nayyar, but one source also indicated that there was a quarrel between Al-Aysar and Yusuf, requiring the mediation of his mother Fatima that resulted in Yusuf’s dispatch to Almeria.  


While secure on his throne again, the Sultan forged a two-year truce with the Castilians. His chief minister Ibrahim Abd al-Barr, whose wife and in-laws hailed from the Abencerrage family, assisted him as did the courtiers Yusuf ibn Faraj ibn Kumasha and Sayyid al-Amin. Granada’s economy improved. But once the truce ended without renewal, attacks from Castile befell the city. Then turmoil within Castile precipitated by two Trastámara nobles Enrique and Juan led to peace for the Nasrid kingdom. Finally, on April 11, AD 1439 or 26 Shawwal 842 AH in Jaén, the Moors and Castile reached another concord. 


Years later, Al-Aysar might have regretted his favorable disposition toward his family as personal turmoil embroiled the Nasrids. The Sultan’s sister Fatima and her husband Ahmad had a second son, Ismail. He wanted to marry an unnamed Nasrid kinswoman, but his uncle refused to permit the union for unspecified reasons. Ismail sought refuge in Castile and the court of Juan II. Then Ismail’s brother Yusuf marched against Al-Aysar with others and took the palace. In June AD 1445, Al-Aysar abdicated in favor of his eldest nephew who ascended the throne as Yusuf V. The Abencerrages withdrew to Montefrio and from Salobreña, Al-Aysar feigned support for his other nephew Ismail, pitting brothers against each other. Yusuf V lasted eight months on the throne, which he abandoned in February AD 1446 once a revolt arose in Guadix. He withdrew to Almeria, where he would later die in a dispute with one of his ministers during the first half of August AD 1447. In the interim, Ismail III ruled in Granada until he also fled into Castile before the might of Al-Aysar who became Sultan again on September 11, AD 1447 corresponding to 29 Jumada ath-Thani 851 AH. 


Ismail III plagued his uncle and affected Granada’s history still. With the support of King Juan II, Ismail invaded on Malaga April 2, AD 1450 or 18 Safar 854AH. He held the city for three months until June 26, AD 1450 or 15 Jumada al-Ula 854 AH when Al-Aysar and his new heir arrived and forced their enemy into submission. Ismail III died on July 1, AD 1450 or 20 Jumada al-Ula 854 AH, a likely victim of an execution. One source indicates Al-Aysar personally beheaded his younger nephew. Two of the sources I relied on have named Ismail III as a son of Sultan Yusuf III. Al-Aysar’s last major opponent also does not often occur among the listed Sultans of Granada. However, because of the activities of Al-Aysar as they pertained to Ismail III, I’m more inclined to believe they were uncle and nephew, versus Nasrid cousins. Anything is possible given the convoluted history of the dynasty. 


The last reign of Al-Aysar, transpiring AD 1447 – 1453 or 851 - 857 AH, persisted for six years and coincided heavily with the influence of Sultan Muhammad X al-Sagir, discussed below. After such a tenacious rule, Al-Aysar died in the summer of AD 1453 or 857 AH, likely July, or the Muslim month of Rajab in that year. 


Facts versus fiction about Muhammad IX al-Aysar 


While close relations or even a love match between Al-Aysar and his first wife comes from the sources, I have no knowledge of when their daughters were born. Some chronicles suggest that the Sultana died in childbirth while my highly fictionalized account of her life and behavior has her living in a tower and hidden from public view as an opium addict. Like her name, the truth is uncertain. If her children were much older than I have guessed, then her daughter Aisha wed men who were perhaps significantly younger than her. I’ve also suggested that Al-Aysar had tense relations with all his daughters because of the bitterness of never having had a living son and heir, and my portrayal of a complicated, melodramatic history with his first wife. Because he purportedly loved her and depended on her so much, the nature of his subsequent marriage to Zahr al-Riyad indicated something had gone awry in his first marriage. However, I don’t know the nature of the relations he shared with any of the females in his family, the wives or daughters. Nor do I know the truth of the relationship between Al-Aysar and Al-Sagir, or why men who should have been lifelong enemies,  later served together and the younger man became the heir of his father’s murderer. 


Sultan Muhammad X al-Sagir 


Sultan Muhammad X al-Sagir (meaning the Little) as termed in Arabic sources or El Chiquito by Christian historians (also to differentiate from the many Nasrid family members with the name Muhammad), struggled for the throne, too. For clarity, I will refer to him hereafter as Al-Sagir. Like his paternal third cousin, erstwhile enemy, and eventual predecessor, Muhammad IX al-Aysar, Al-Sagir was a descendant of Sultan Muhammad V, through that sovereign’s son Yusuf II, his grandson Yusuf III, and his great-grandson Sultan Muhammad VIII, called El Pequeño (also meaning the Little) by Christian historians. 


When Sultan Yusuf III died of a stroke after his own difficulties to gain power in Granada, he left an eight-year-old son in Muhammad VIII, who ascended the throne on November 9, AD 1417 corresponding to 29 Ramadan 820 AH. The mother of the new sultan descended from the clan Al-Amin. Yusuf III’s chief minister Ali al-Amin ensured a smooth succession, but the rivalry between the families of Al-Amin and Abencerrage precipitated the removal of Muhammad VIII from the throne two years later and saw Al-Aysar secure Granada on March 20, AD 1419 or 22 Safar 822 AH. The Abencerrages executed Ali al-Amin days later by the command of Al-Aysar’s second wife, Zahr al-Riyad. Muhammad VIII went to the Nasrid family’s favorite prison for the confinement of their troublesome relatives at Salobreña with his younger brother Abu l-Hasan Ali. The deposed young ruler sired Al-Sagir, but the date of birth remains uncertain. Al-Sagir could have been born at Salobreña during his father’s first exile there in AD 1419-1427. The birth might have also happened in the intervening time once Muhammad VIII returned to the throne on January 9, AD 1427 or 10 Rabi al-Awwal 830 AH, or even after March AD 1430, when Muhammad VIII lost his throne in a second instance after three years. His execution and that of his younger brother Abu l-Hasan Ali occurred in April of the following year at Salobreña. 

During the fourth and final reign of Al-Aysar (again, AD 1447-1453 or 851-857 AH), Al-Sagir became a cohort of Al-Aysar, the enemy, and murderer of his father. He supported Al-Aysar and became a great commander of his armies by at least September AD 1447. There is no indication in the sources of why this change arose, but it must have been a momentous happenstance that fostered amity between men who should have hated each other. Al-Sagir led victorious Moorish forces against the Castilians during the reign of King Juan II of Castile and their Nasrid kinsmen who warred with Al-Aysar. From AD 1450 to 1451, Al-Sagir participated in several conquests, including the one at Malaga on June 26, AD 1450 or 15 Jumada al-Ula 854 AH, five days prior to the death or likely execution of Ismail III. There are interesting references in the sources that show by at least AD 1452, Al-Sagir’s star had begun to rise and eclipse that of his patron. On August 16 of that year, a Castilian Pedro Agular negotiated a treaty for Juan II with Granada. The signatories are Al-Aysar and Al-Sagir, the latter of whom the Castilians refer to as ‘king’ – does this mean Al-Sagir served as a regent for Al-Aysar? 


Also, during this time, as Al-Aysar had no son, Al-Sagir married one of the daughters of the Sultan, yet unnamed but given the title Umm al-Fath as with other unknown Sultanas. The wedding happened after Al-Sagir became a supporter of Al-Aysar during his fourth reign, so after AD 1447. The wife of Al-Sagir, whom I called Mumina in the novel, bore her husband at least two sons, who I’ll discuss further in this section. Other events altered the personal life of Al-Sagir. At some point, he either promised to marry or did wed another daughter of his predecessor, Sultana Aisha bint Muhammad. A sister of the half-blood to Al-Sagir’s first spouse, history references Aisha as the betrothed wife or actual spouse of Al-Sagir, which begs a question about her half-sister’s fate. The other Sultana could have perished by any means, natural or unnatural. While no promulgation in Islamic law prohibited Al-Sagir from marrying his former sister-in-law, I doubt the marriage would have taken place during the lifetime of his first wife. There is only one other instance of Nasrid sisters, the daughters of Sultan Muhammad II, married to the same man so the happenstance was lawful, but concurrent unions seem unlikely. 


After Al-Aysar died, the reign of Al-Sagir began in the summer of AD 1453 or 857 AH and lasted for a year. Renewed peace between the Moors and the Christians of Castile followed. But the Moorish people rebelled and preferred another claimant, the paternal third cousin of Al-Sagir, Abu Nasr Sa’d, who became Sultan in AD 1454 or 858 AH. The fickle citizens did not support him for long either and Al-Sagir returned to Granada. His second coronation on January 20, AD 1455 corresponded to 30 Muharram 859 AH. A brief tenure of a few months followed before he absconded before the onslaught of the allies Abu Nasr Sa’d and the Christian king of Castile. In August AD 1455, Al-Sagir escaped the palace and capital for the last time and hid within the mountainous Alpujarras region, while his enemy Abu Nasr Sa’d regained the throne. 


If Al-Sagir had hoped for a respite while he recouped his strength and found new supporters in another bid for the throne, he held false optimism. The princes Muhammad al-Zaghal and Abu’l-Hasan Ali, the sons of Abu Nasr Sa’d found Al-Sagir with his two young sons and dragged them back to Granada. Sources indicate the princes also captured Sultana Aisha at Al-Sagir’s side. Death awaited him. In an unspecified room above the Patio de Los Leones, called the harem’s Garden of Happiness, his foes beheaded him. His sons died, too with wet towels over their mouths and noses, pulled so tightly that the young princes suffocated. Given the children’s likely births after AD 1447 and their deaths at the same time as their father in AD 1455, neither of them could have been more than eight years old when Abu Nasr Sa’d’s forces murdered them. Afterward, Aisha married one of the princes who had captured Al-Sagir, his enemy’s son Abu’l-Hasan Ali. 


Facts versus fiction about Muhammad X al-Sagir 


As history never provided the name of his first wife, the daughter of Al-Aysar, I called her Mumina in the novel, a common name in Nasrid history. The nature of their relationship, whether they respected or even cared for each other is pure speculation, as is her death. I also assigned the two sons of Al-Sagir to her as their parent, but the sources do not specify their mother’s name. Nor do I know the dates of the boys’ births, which do not occur in the novel before the death of Al-Aysar. If Al-Sagir had any daughters, the chroniclers do not indicate their existence. Likewise, the history does not explain why he chose Aisha for his second bride; whether love or political expediency guided his alignment with yet another daughter of his patron, and if in fact he married her, or they remained engaged for the latter half of his reign. While sources indicate Abu’l-Hasan Ali captured her alongside him, in the novel I placed her within Granada under the power of Abu Nasr Sa’d. 


Sultan Abu Nasr Sa’d I 


Sultan Abu Nasr Sa’d, also called Ciriza by Christian historians, was a great-grandson of Sultan Muhammad V, the grandson of Sultan Yusuf II, a nephew of Sultan Yusuf III, and the son of Ali. Abu Nasr Sa’d was also a second cousin of Al-Aysar, a second cousin of Sultan Muhammad VIII and third cousin of his enemy Al-Sagir. Most sources believe he was over 55 years old when he first became Sultan of Granada in AD 1454 or 852 AH, which if true would mean his birth occurred in AD 1398 or 796 AH during the reign of his cousin Sultan Muhammad VII. With unidentified partner(s), Abu Nasr Sa’d became the father of three known sons, Sultan Abu’l-Hasan Ali who born in either AD 1436 or 1437, Prince Muhammad al-Zaghal, and Yusuf, who died of the plague in AD 1467 at the age of seventeen. Abu Nasr Sa’d had the support of the Abencerrage clan; since his second cousin Al-Aysar died a year before Abu Nasr Sa’d made his bid for the throne, the Abencerrages could have abandoned Al-Aysar’s successor Al-Sagir in favor of this new claimant. The clan declared him their ruler in Archidona and from there, he invaded Granada in AD 1454. He also enjoyed influence among supporters towards the west in Ronda. 


Earlier in July of the same year, Enrique IV succeeded to the throne of Castile in place of his father Juan II. Enrique IV warred against Granada, as well, and gave tentative backing to Abu Nasr Sa’d. The ruler of Granada, Al-Sagir, who counted on the loyalty of governors at Malaga and Almeria, then fled the capital before August 16, AD 1454 or 21 Sha`ban 858 AH, because that is the date of a letter in which the high minister Abu’l-Qasim ibn Yusuf of the Abencerrages informed Enrique IV’s court of the abdication of Al-Sagir. As a sign of peace with Castile, a month later Abu Nasr Sa’d sent his eldest son Abu’l-Hasan Ali to Arévalo as part of an embassy with three hundred Abencerrage cavalrymen and one hundred and fifty infantrymen from Granada. The men brought gifts and tribute for the Christian sovereign from Abu Nasr Sa’d. 


By January 20, AD 1455 or 30 Muharram 859 AH, Al-Sagir had regained power and Abu Nasr Sa’d withdrew to Casarabonela near Malaga, where the enemy besieged him for weeks. He declared himself a vassal of Castile and Enrique IV in a bid for help, which Abu Nasr Sa’d received a month later. The Christian king attacked several Moorish cities on his behalf, including Íllora and Moclín before retiring from the field. At Guadix, Al-Sagir clashed with Prince Muhammad al-Zaghal on April 24, AD 1455 or 6 Jumada al-Ula 859 AH in a battle which the prince with his Castilian allies won. Weeks later after May AD 1455, Abu’l-Hasan Ali returned from Castile and reunited with his father while in June – July AD 1455, Ibrahim ibn Abd al-Barr sued for peace with the Christians on Al-Sagir’s behalf. To no avail because by August, he had lost Granada forever. Abu Nasr Sa’d sent his two eldest sons into the southern mountainous region where his enemy had hidden. They returned victoriously and brought Al-Sagir home to his death alongside his young sons. 


In the aftermath, Enrique IV turned against Abu Nasr Sa’d when an unnamed Nasrid castellan attacked the castle at Solera, which broke the truce Granada and Castile had enjoyed. The Christian king received the refusal of the Sultan to return the fortress. Warfare began anew with Moorish losses at Estepona, Malaga, and Fuengirola. A brief peace followed in the period of October AD 1456 to March AD 1457, for which the Moors gave the equivalent twelve thousand gold doblas and surrendered six hundred Christian captives. In AD 1459 and 1460 the ravages of war with Castile as attacks renewed and persisted, and the economic demands on the kingdom caused the Sultan to conduct various real estate sales that revealed a pressing need for funds. Abu Nasr Sa’d sold his private property, including some land and farms, and shops in the Granadan marketplace. 


Then in July AD 1462, he threw off the influence and control of the Abencerrages who had held influential posts in the government and throughout the kingdom. Under the pretext of summons to a council meeting, soldiers ambushed the Abencerrage chieftains in Alhambra Palace. One source has suggested the proposed topic might have been the abdication of the Sultan in favor of Abu’l-Hasan Ali. The dead included two of the top Abencerrage leaders, the chief minister and a chieftain Yusuf. Others of the clan managed to escape and took refuge in Malaga first before they sought the help of the Castilians; some also joined King Enrique’s Moorish guard. Retaliation happened almost immediately as the Abencerrages supported a new pretender to the throne who had the backing of the Christians, another Ismail. To date, there is no information regarding the familial connection of this new claimant to the Nasrids but the Abencerrages followed him if only to exact their vengeance. Within months of the massacre, they took the palace in September AD 1462 and Abu Nasr Sa’d fled with his family to Íllora. A month earlier, he had also suffered the loss of Archidona and Gibraltar. Now Ismail IV ruled in Granada but by early AD 1463, Abu Nasr Sa’d recovered the kingdom and his latest rival exchanged places with him and entered Íllora with the Abencerrages. They maintained the struggle from there, evidenced by the attack on Granada that happened November 1, AD 1463 or 18 Safar 868 AH. However, Ismail IV failed in his quest to regain the throne and died later in the year. 


Abu Nasr Sa’d sought help to maintain his kingdom against the Castilians. He wrote a letter in February AD 1464 to the Mameluke sultan and the Hafsids in Tunisia, the latter of whom did respond with assistance. By this time, Abu’l-Hasan Ali had begun to exercise greater power at court. He then betrayed and overthrew his father, who went into exile in jail by at least September AD 1464 because that’s when the news filtered out beyond Granada’s borders. Chroniclers offered varying places for the imprisonment, at Salobreña, or Moclin or Almeria. One source offers an interesting theory that might explain the different settings; purportedly regretful, Abu’l-Hasan Ali tried to reconcile with his father and asked him to come to Malaga, but Abu Nasr Sa’d refused and settled in Almeria. The remorseful son apologized again and promised to recognize his father as the legitimate Sultan and assured him that he regarded himself as his father’s minister. But no changes affected the kingdom. Varied dates for Abu Nasr Sa’d’s death appear in the history, too, as early as April 20, AD 1465, which would have been 23 Sha`ban 869 AH or as late August 23, AD 1465, corresponding to 30 Dhu al-Hijja 869 AH. 


Facts versus fiction about Abu Nasr Sa’d 

Myths and legends about Alhambra Palace have mired the history of the massacre of the Abencerrage clan. The tragedy befell the family in the reign of Abu Nasr Sa’d, not Abu’l-Hasan Ali. The stains in the fountain of the so-called Hall of the Abencerrages within the palace are not bloody evidence of the murders, but rust or metallic residue. While the attack did not occur because any Abencerrage chieftain fell in love with any Sultan’s wife, all certainty regarding the pretext of the massacre that Abu Nasr Sa’d gave is impossible to determine. Different from the novel, a purported council meeting heralded the event rather than a banquet; however, I do find it strange as discussions among the Nasrid ministers usually took place within the council chamber (which serves as the visitors’ entrance into the palace today) that the harem’s southerly Hall of the Abencerrages became associated with the violent deaths of the ministers and chieftains. Wherever the tragedy happened, the act must have shocked and devastated the former allies of Abu Nasr Sa’d. Whether the Abencerrages also immediately blamed his eldest son Abu’l-Hasan Ali is conjecture on my part, but the actions of the father certainly guaranteed enmity against the son, as discussed below. 


Sultan Abu'l-Hasan Ali 


The eldest son of Sultan Abu Nasr Sa’d, Sultan Abu’l-Hasan Ali also called Muley Hacén by Christian historians. I’ve seen references to his date of birth in the sources, between AD 1436 and 1437. If true, he would have been 18 or 17 when his father first invaded Granada, 26 or so when the Abencerrage massacre happened, and two years older when he usurped his father. His mother remains unidentified as do any sisters. It’s also unknown whether he and his two brothers shared the same mother. 


Abu’l-Hasan Ali married twice. First to the Sultana Aisha, daughter of Al-Aysar and former betrothed or widow of Al-Sagir, whom Abu’l-Hasan Ali had found in the region of Alpujarras and brought back to Granada for his eventual execution. Historians do not indicate when this marriage happened, but it would have taken place after August AD 1455 when Al-Sagir and Aisha suffered capture. She and her new husband had three known children; boys called Muhammad and Yusuf and a daughter, named for her mother. Abu’l-Hasan Ali then married a Christian slave of the harem whom his brother Prince Muhammad al-Zaghal had taken on a raid at Martos, born Isabel de Solis. She became Soraya, meaning ‘star’ in Arabic and bore him two sons, Nasr and Sa’d. Again, there is no date indicated for this marriage or the births of the children of Soraya. 


When he took the throne, matters outside Granada benefitted his rule. In January AD 1465, the Castilian nobility quarreled with King Enrique IV Castile, which would end with the proclamation of his brother Alfonso in June of that year as a successor. So, Granada had an opportunity for peace but beforehand, the Castilians attacked Moorish territory and caused a delay. By April 20, talks were underway. Yet, a rebel in Malaga sought and gained the support of Enrique IV against Abu’l-Hasan Ali in AD 1468 for a brief time until that revolt ended. Peace with Castile finally followed in the subsequent year although not everyone on both sides of the border respected the terms. 


The next rebellion took place much closer to home. In AD 1470 Prince Muhammad al-Zaghal agitated against his brother’s new rule, too, with the support of the Abencerrages in Malaga. But Abu’l-Hasan Ali put down the revolt and reconciled with his sibling thereafter. On January 10, AD 1472 or 28 Rajab 876 AH, the Moors and Christians affirmed the terms of a new agreement with Enrique IV of Castile, valid from January 18, AD 1472 to January 17, AD 1475 / 6 Sha`ban 86 AH to 9 Ramadan 879 AH. One significant clause required that Enrique IV nor anyone within his kingdom support or host the Abencerrages, who remained active. 


Another figure from the past returned to plague Abu’l-Hasan Ali. Abu Salim Ibrahim al-Nayyar, governor of Almeria and son of the long-deceased Yusuf IV ibn al-Mawl allied with Ferdinand of Aragón for a brief time to overthrow his relative in AD 1474.  Four years later in the spring, a terrible flood occurred that the people of Granada viewed as an ill omen and perhaps as a sign of God's displeasure with the sultan's rule. But Abu’l-Hasan Ali's troubles did not cease there.  


Once on the throne at the death of her brother Enrique IV, Queen Isabella of Castile continued with her husband Ferdinand of Aragón renewed the truces with Granada; on June 20, AD 1475 / 15 Safar 880 AH, and January 17, AD 1478 / 12 Shawwal 882 AH, each for three-year terms. While the last truce should have occurred for another year and taken effect from March 12, AD 1481 or 11 Muharram 886 AH, that never happened. External conflicts for Castile drew the Christian king and queen’s attention. Nasrid troops under Abu’l-Hasan Ali took advantage of their distraction and reconquered Zahara on December 27, AD 1481 corresponding to 6 Dhu al-Qa’da 886 AH, for which the Castilians retaliated. Rodrigo Ponce de León, Marquis of Cádiz, besieged Alhama on February 28, AD 1482 or 9 Muharram 887 AH, which Abu’l-Hasan Ali tried to relieve. Loja came under threat, too. The military governor Ibrahim Ali al-Attar of Loja, whose daughter Moraima became the wife of Abu’l-Hasan Ali and Aisha’s eldest son Muhammad, inflicted a severe defeat on the Christian troops on July 14, AD 1482 or 27 Jumada al-Ula 887 AH. 


Sultana Aisha bint Muhammad 


Sultana Aisha bint Muhammad, the daughter of two paternal cousins among the Nasrids, Al-Aysar and the sister of Sultan Yusuf III, entered the world during the uncertainty of her father’s struggles for the throne. The date of her birth is even less certain. Historians know she had two sisters, Fatima and one yet unnamed but referred to in the Arabic histories in the same manner as other unknown Sultanas, Umm al-Fath. For centuries in the chronicles, great confusion surrounded Aisha and Fatima, such that their names appeared interchangeably as a wife of Abu’l-Hasan Ali. Sources do indicate the two sisters were alive by at the latest AD 1448; in March AD 1448, their father Al-Aysar donated to his two daughters, Fatima and Aisha, “the big garden of the old citadel,” which a likely reference to the Zirid Alcazaba Cadima in the direction of the Puerta de Elvira. No other details exist to indicate whether this was a gift their father made to minor daughters or women who had reached their legal majority. 


Aisha does not appear much in history thereafter until a betrothal or marriage with Al-Sagir, who had been her brother-in-law with his marriage to the sister denoted by chroniclers as Umm al-Fath. It remains unclear whether the marriage of Aisha and Al-Sagir took place. If they had married, the couple had no known children. She was supposedly with him during his capture. After his death, she married his captor Abu’l-Hasan Ali. Their children, mentioned above, would play pivotal roles in their father’s kingdom. 


Facts versus fiction about Abu’l-Hasan Ali and Aisha 


I combined this section because it’s impossible to separate this dynamic union of two strong-willed, prideful, determined patriots of Granada in my mind. I strongly believe, they could have been the “premier power couple” of Moorish Spain, had he not killed her betrothed or first husband. The date of her marriage with Abu’l-Hasan Ali is uncertain, as is the nature of his relationship with Aisha. I've suggested in the novel that she hated him because I couldn’t fathom how a woman might have married into the family of those who murdered her betrothed or husband and yet loved her new husband consequently. Could Aisha have loved Abu’l-Hasan Ali? I suppose anything is possible. If her purported union with Al-Sagir had meant nothing to her and she suffered capture at his side because she had little choice except to have been with him, she might have seen his subsequent death and the marriage with Abu’l-Hasan Ali as favorable. Even if so, had the violent deaths of her sister’s children with Al-Sagir also meant nothing to her? I struggle with such possibilities because of subsequent events that I won’t discuss here; however, I will be considering them in full when my discussion of the new novel, Sultana: The White Mountains, appears on this website. 


Aisha’s relationships with her sisters, Isabel de Solis / Sultana Soraya, and Queen Isabella of Castile are highly fictionalized. Whether she and Fatima were twins is pure theory based on the interchangeable mention of the sisters as wives of Abu’l-Hasan Ali. Again, I have no idea how Aisha felt about her sisters or the union between Abu’l-Hasan Ali and his second wife. Also, to my knowledge, the queens of Granada and Castile never met or corresponded – imagine the conversations that could have taken place if they had! 


The characters of Rania al-Hurra and Fatma bint Bannigash, who shared close confidence with Aisha throughout the novel, are based on real people. Yusuf III had a concubine who was the sister of Zahr al-Riyad; since she was Muslim, and Muslims did not suffer enslavement among other Muslims, I assumed this unnamed sister of Zahr al-Riyad was a Christian and a sibling of the half-blood. I named her Rania al-Hurra; the first name chosen in honor of a Facebook friend. Fatma bint Bannigash, the niece of Abdul Qasim ibn Ridwan ibn Bannigash and granddaughter of the famed minister Ridwan ibn Bannigash lived in Granada at the time of the novel. She appears in court records with her guardian and paternal aunt Taj-al-Ula. However, I guessed at some intimacy with Aisha based on the prominence of the Bannigash courtiers within Granada; I have no knowledge of whether Fatma and Aisha shared the friendship to which the novel alludes. 



Isabel de Solis / Sultana Soraya 


Isabel de Solis became a slave of the royal harem in her y0uth. The daughter of Sancho Jimenez de Solis, the mayor of Martos, a city just across the border with Granada near Jaén, she lived there until a raid befell her under the direction of Prince Muhammad al-Zaghal. Soraya could have been as young as eight or much older at the time of her capture. I’ve seen varying references to her as a child or a young woman. What is more certain is the favor Abu’l-Hasan Ali showed her. She bore him two sons, may have converted to Islam, and became his treasured wife, which might have also influenced events to follow. A full discussion of Soraya, her fate, and her impact on Granada’s history will happen after the new novel, Sultana: The White Mountains makes its debut. 


Facts versus fiction about Isabel de Solis / Sultana Soraya 

While she appears in history as a slave of the harem, I decided to foster a close relationship between Isabel and Aisha as a plot mechanism. If, as I posited, Aisha could not have loved Abu’l-Hasan Ali, I wondered how she might have felt if placed in a situation where the slave she trusted betrayed her with him. For me, Aisha’s hurt and anger would have gone deeper than any rivalry between the women as wives of the same man, especially when only one of their sons could potentially have inherited the throne. 


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