Book two in the al-Andalus series
The first of the al-Andalus series was The Shining City, a novel about the ruined city of Madinat al Zahra, in the year 948 AD.
I never really intended to write a series of books; I thought that The Shining City – the first book I wrote about Moorish Spain – could stand very well on its own as a novel about life in Spain at that time. However, when I began researching what little information there was about 10th century Spain, I realised that there was more than one story there. Al-Rahman III’s reign had been a time of peace and prosperity, which could have continued for a hundred years or more, except for the greed of one man, al-Mansur. His lust for power turned him from a humble civil servant into the ruler of al-Andalus and brought about the eventual disintegration of the Omayyad dynasty.
A number of events coincided to give al-Mansur his opportunity. The caliph Abd al-Rahman III, who had brought peace to a warring kingdom of princedoms and united them into a caliphate, died after ruling for forty years. His son, al-Hikam, did not survive him for very long and the throne passed to the hands of his grandson, al-Hisham II, a boy of eleven. And herein lay another story. How was a child going to rule such a wealthy country, especially as it was surrounded by enemies?
So that was when I decided to write a second book The Eye of the Falcon. Falcons and other birds of prey were very important symbols in ancient times of a ruler’s power and wealth and they feature quite prominently in this novel – hence the title of the book. Visiting ambassadors to the court would bring the rarest and most expensive birds as gifts to impress the caliph.
When I started the first draft of the book, I intended to make the boy-caliph the main character, but the fact that he was so isolated made it difficult for him to interact with the other characters in the story. So I made his mother, Subh, the main character instead, because she moves between her son and al-Mansur, who is not only the boy’s Regent but also her lover. So Subh is constantly torn between her passion for al-Mansur and her loyalty to her son.
Subh was originally a slave who was sold into the harem of al-Hikam II. The only problem was that al-Hikam was homosexual – not an unusual occurrence among the elite at that time – and it seemed that he was never going to produce an heir. With the encouragement of al-Hikam’s mother, Subh set out to seduce him by dressing up as a boy. The ruse worked and eventually she gave him two sons. In doing so, she became rich and powerful.
There is a saying that truth is often stranger than fiction and, in this case, I think it is very true. That the most powerful and richest ruler in the Western world could be isolated and deprived of his birthright because of his age seems unbelievable, yet it happened. That a concubine was able to dress as a boy in order to seduce the homosexual caliph, also seems very far-fetched, but it happened. Not all of the characters in my novel were real people but the main ones were. The caliphs existed, as did al-Mansur, General Ghálib and others in the government. Subh was a real woman, a slave from the north of Spain, and is recorded as not only being the mother of al-Hakim’s two sons but also rumoured to be the mistress of al-Mansur. However there was little information available about her life before she entered the harem, so her back story is fiction. Al-Jundi and his family are fictitious characters who started life in the first book, The Shining City. As is frequently the case with history, what information there is about people living in the past usually relates to the rich and powerful. Servants, slaves and artisans are hardly ever mentioned by name. If Subh had not given birth to the Caliph’s sons we would never have heard of her either. Consequently all the supporting characters, soldiers, servants, slaves, falconers etc are fictitious.
Having said that, the question is how much of the novel is fact and how much is fiction?
Of course the story is fiction – it is after all a novel – but there is written evidence that Al-Mansur was a ruthless man, who usurped the young caliph and became the supreme ruler of al-Andalus. It is true that he fought many battled against the Christians, conducting a jihad against Christianity. Many deaths were attributed to his lust for power, but a lot of it was, and is, speculation. He is however, recorded as having burnt thousands of the city’s books – a loss from which al-Andalus never recovered.