Thursday, January 4, 2018

Meet the characters: Sultana Soraya

The slave who became a queen.

Most of the details that have come down through history about the Sultana Soraya bears the taint of Moorish propaganda. After all, as a Christian, she did enchant Sultan Abu’l-Hasan Ali and become his wife sometime after she had entered Alhambra Palace as a captive. Historians have said that for love of her husband, she converted to Islam, and abandoned the faith of her birth. Unfortunately for her, she faced a powerful rival in Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s first wife and kinswoman, Sultana Aisha, descended from the first Nasrid Sultans of Granada. Legend has it that Soraya so enthralled her husband that he invited his courtiers to smell her fragrant bathwater after she had finished her daily cleansing ritual. As fanciful and somewhat ridiculous as such lore seems, the truth of his devotion allowed us to know much about Soraya. Who was she and how did she attain a position beside Granada’s powerful ruler? What was her final fate? Major spoilers for Sultana: The White Mountains follow. Read on at your peril.

More importantly, how has she remained such an enduring figure of the Moorish period in its rapid decline? Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra mentions her. Francisco Martínez de la Rosa published Doña Isabel de Solís, Reyna de Granada in 1837. Then in 1931, director José Buchs made the film Isabel de Solís, Reina de Granada. The Spanish TV series Isabel portrayed her as a young woman around the age of seventeen. Born Isabel de Solis, she came from a town called Martos on the Christian-Moorish border, within the province of Jaén. Her date of birth remains uncertain; I’ve seen reference to her having been as young as eight years old when she became a captive. Readers of Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree may remember that I introduced her as a girl of ten in 1468. One of the contemporary sources on the period, Hernando de Baeza (who had been a regular fixture of the Granadan court during the latter years) influenced my choice. He wrote about Isabel after 1505, stating that in 1475, she was a girl of ten or twelve. Her heritage is more certain. Her father Sancho Jimenez de Solis served as the adelantado mayor or warden of the castle at Martos. He had taken a second wife during Isabel’s girlhood, a Moorish slave called Arlaja. At some point, he had arranged Isabel’s marriage to Pedro Venegas, a relative of the lords of Luque, another town near Martos. But the union never occurred.

In the 1470’s (Baeza specifically states 1475) the Sultan’s brother Muhammad who’s more commonly known as Al-Zaghal raided at Martos and his men captured Isabel. Her father may have died at the same time, either defending the town or her. The Spanish have said she endured her detention in Alhambra Palace’s Torre de la Cautiva, but no one truly knows. Baeza tells us she became a slave to the Sultan’s daughter and cleaned the young princess’ chamber, hence my portrayal of her early captivity in Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree. Of greater certainty is Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s notice of her. She became his concubine and then his wife. As a wedding present, she received the castle at Mondújar, the ruins of which remain visible. She bore him two sons Nasr and Saad. Purportedly, this brought her into conflict with Aisha, who also had two sons by her husband, Muhammad and Yusuf. Hernando de Baeza also suggested Isabel endured a brutal beating at the hands of Aisha and her servants, reminiscent of what the Ottoman Sultana Hurrem bore at the hands at her rival for Suleiman the Great’s heart, Mahidevran – again, of less surety but the story of Isabel’s suffering added to the idea of palace intrigue between the women. While the Sultan had not declared an heir and over time, delegated the powers of regent to his brother Muhammad Al-Zaghal, their enemies of the clan Abencerrage believed he would declare one of his children by Isabel as a successor. The offspring of a Christian woman became the rivals of Aisha, whose descent and adherence to the Muslim faith remained beyond reproach.

Historians tell us Isabel converted to Islam and the Sultan renamed her Soraya, which meant ‘morning star’ in Arabic. The name is certainly accurate, but what about the religious change? In my research, I haven't discovered any captive of the Moors who retained their original name so this was a common enough practice. Conversion had long held benefits, including freedom, for no new Muslim would endure the status of a slave. Did Soraya willingly convert? Was it a requirement of her marriage? No Arab chroniclers nor Baeza mention her abandonment of the Christian faith. Not until 1530 do we have the first reference from Lucius Marineus Siculus, who states that Soraya reverted to Christianity from Islam. So where does the truth lie? Somewhere in her murky history and that of Moorish Spain.

Two occurrences may have deeply affected her life as a Sultana. In the summer of 1482, a coup against her husband occurred. She escaped with him and their children, first to their castle at Mondújar and then to Malaga, which his brother governed. Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s eldest son by Aisha took control of Granada with the support of Abencerrage clan members, further fueling the supposed conflict between Aisha and Soraya. A year later, due to the missteps of his successor, Abu’l-Hasan Ali regained power. In 1485, Soraya’s life changed again. Her husband, who had suffered the effects of epilepsy and diabetes, either abdicated or surrendered the throne to his brother. He spent his exile in Salobreña and Almuñécar, where he allegedly died and lies buried at the summit of the highest Spain mountain named after him, Mulhacén. Afterward, Soraya’s saga becomes ambiguous again. Supposedly, her brother-in-law wanted to marry her, but he never did. She either stayed by his side with her children or extended her exile in the Lecrín area of the Alpujarras region of southern Spain. If you’ve read Sultana: The White Mountains, you’ll know I had her take a different path. Why?

At some point after the death of her husband, Soraya returned to her former life with her sons. She took up the name Isabel de Solis again. After the conquest of Granada occurred on January 2, 1492, on April 30, the bishop of Guadix baptized her children Nasr and Saad as Juan and Fernando de Granada respectively. They went on to marry; Fernando became the husband of Mencia de la Vega and had no known heirs, while Juan wed twice, to Beatriz de Sandoval who gave him Isabel, Geronimo Bernardino, Juan and Magdalena, and Maria de Toledo who mothered his Maria, Diego, Pedro, and Felipa. As a final anecdote, I’ve seen one intriguing reference to the former princes of Granada later abandoning the Christian faith and crossing over to Morocco as their eldest half-brother had done in 1493. But what of their mother?

After the first decade of the 16th century, she disappears from the historical record. Until then, she purportedly lived in a house in Seville. A letter dated 1494 from Queen Isabella of a united Spain refers to her as ‘Queen Soraya, Moor’ and from 1501 and 1506, she’s alternatively called ‘Doña Isabel, Madre de los infantes de Granada’ or ‘Queen Soraya’ in documents.

Throughout my novels that chronicle events of her life, I’ve portrayed many possible facets of the personality I believe Isabel de Solis/Soraya adopted. She is clever, hiding her knowledge of Arabic gained from her stepmother Arlaja the Moor during the subsequent captivity and enslavement. She is also dutiful to Sultana Aisha, whose servant she becomes and whose daughter she cares for and admires. She also shows genuine devotion to her eventual husband Abu’l-Hasan Ali and shrinks from the idea of becoming the wife of his brother, seeing the move as a probable end to the lives of her children. Most of all, she is a survivor because ultimately, the historical figure who inspired the character was nothing less. Learn more about her portrayal in Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree and Sultana: The White Mountains, both available now. 

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


Nathalie said...

Thank youuuu for this portrayal, for so many reasons.
I believe she first stayed at the Torre de la Cautiva, yes.
Also, the possible last abode in Seville might have been close to or in the judería.
She must have vanished with the 15th century.
Such a huge work you've done for us all.

Lisa Yarde said...

You're welcome, Nathalie, glad you enjoyed it and helped shed more light on Soraya, too.

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