Thursday, December 21, 2017

Meet the characters: Sultana Aisha

“Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.”

With these words ascribed to her, the Nasrid Sultana Aisha of Granada has come down through history and legend as a mother who harangued her son Sultan Muhammad XI for his failure to preserve seven centuries of Moorish rule in southern Spain. But did the real historical figure, one of the last queens of Granada, truly speak these words?

If you’ve read my latest Sultana series novel, Sultana: The White Mountains, you already know I didn’t include any such statement or you may have wondered why I chose not to, given the association of Aisha with the castigation of her son. As portrayed in the Spanish TV series, Isabel, by Alicia Borrachero, the character certainly delivered the line with enough anger to be believable and set her beleaguered son to weeping. The occasion for Aisha's fury purportedly arose at the Puerto del Suspiro del Moro, along the mountain pass called the Moor’s last sigh in the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. The Moors traveled through the route to a new home in the steep Alpujarras region. My reasons for not having Aisha berate her son are simple.

Not only do I believe the attribution to her is false and a means by which Muhammad’s enemies, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand denigrated him. To my knowledge, none of their courtiers or chroniclers accompanied the last members of the Nasrid Dynasty to Las Alpujarras, so there is no factual account the Catholic monarchs could have relied upon to give rise to the fabled rebuke. Aisha hardly behaved as a weak-willed, tearful woman. She couldn't afford to be, so the idea of her considering women as tearful or assigning poorer attributes to women doesn't fit her history.  Also, in my depiction of the character based on an awareness of the real Aisha, she played a significant role in the unraveling of Moorish Spain and the loss of Granada’s Alhambra. To understand further you’d have to know Aisha’s history, much of which I’ve detailed in the novel about her, Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree and in the related website section dedicated to her and other contemporaries, entitled About the historical figures.

Aisha was the daughter of Sultan Muhammad IX al-Aysar and a direct descendant of the first Nasrid ruler. I’ve never discovered her date of birth but can presume she was born before March 1448; that’s the date her father gifted the “big garden of the old citadel” to her and her sister Fatima. Then she appears in the historical record again with a betrothal or marriage to her father’s successor Sultan Muhammad X al-Sagir, one among her royal cousins who had incidentally wed her sister (not Fatima) earlier and had two young sons. What can I say? Nasrids liked to keep in all in the family; the throne and their unions.

Regrettably for Muhammad X, another cousin wanted to rule just as much. After Prince Abu’l-Hasan Ali caught Muhammad X, his sons, and Aisha in the mountains, they returned to Granada, where the captives died, and Aisha became the first bride of Abu’l-Hasan Ali. In Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree Aisha remains behind to stand alone against her lover’s enemies, permitting him an opportunity for escape. Regardless of her choice to fight or flee, I’ve long supposed she could not have loved a man who killed the one whom she had otherwise united with and her paternal nephews. But I’ve had no reason to make that assumption, except for the events leading up to a coup in the summer of 1482.

Myths have influenced much of the chronicles about the Nasrid Dynasty. Within Alhambra Palace in the area designated as the harem or private family domain, the Hall of the Abencerrages references a family of chieftains and court ministers who purportedly died there at the orders of Abu’l-Hasan Ali, which some said occurred because one of the chieftains loved Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s second wife. The supposed proof of this terrible event includes several areas tinged red in the room’s central fountain. No matter what the complex’s tour guides may say, the truth is less fanciful. The reddish traces visible in the hall’s fountain basin above are rust residue. Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s father murdered some of the chieftains and ministers, not all, after accusing them of having stolen the taxes due to the Sultanate. In the summer of 1482, the survivors allied with Aisha and overthrew Abu’l-Hasan Ali, placing their eldest son Muhammad on the throne.

As much I have admired Aisha as a heroine and a patriot of Granada in its final years, I could not have ignored how her conflicts with her husband helped seal the fate of her land and its people. I’ve long supposed that had she and Abu’l-Hasan Ali united against their common enemies, Moorish Spain might have lasted much longer, with her husband defending the borders and Aisha maintaining the unity of their family. But Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were able to exploit the deep divisions of a dynasty fractured from within, caused in great part by Aisha’s opposition to her husband and her support of their son’s rule. While Muhammad was not as ineffective as historians have long assumed, his father had been one of the last great Sultans, a warrior and a diplomat with the skill to stave off intrusions at the border for almost 20 years of his reign. In such a capacity, unfortunately, Muhammad could not compare to Abu’l-Hasan Ali.

So, if Aisha blamed her son for their losses, she could not legitimately deny her part in them either. In my portrayal of her, I wanted readers to know the complexity of the woman behind the historical figure who has emerged from scant history mired in legend. She is a mother who loves her children and grandchildren with as much fervor as she devotes to Granada and Alhambra Palace. A fierce supporter of her way of life who never forgave her enemies, Christian or Moor. A wife who may have even admired her warrior husband, but could not absolve him of offenses of the past. A proud Sultana who defended her legacy. Learn how the story of Aisha’s life, which began in the preceding novel, culminates in Sultana: The White Mountains.

And, if you've missed any of the preceding Meet the characters posts about this novel, find them HERE.

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