Sultana Morayma: the Last Queen of Al Andalus

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

UnnamedAt the end of the story, in its final pages, is a queen. Not the pious despot Isabella of Castille who is about to command the Inquisition, or the embittered, vengeful Sultana Aixa la Horra who is inciting war within the house of Nasrid, but the queen who is obscured from view on this history’s chessboard, whose life and death will come to be a veritable symbol of the paradox that is Al Andalus, the queen who prevails as the enduring shadow of a legend. Her name is Morayma.

Eight hundred years have passed in Al Andalus, Muslim Spain— years turning like great mills, a resplendence of work reflected in books and buildings, cities and institutions, technology and aesthetics, bridging antiquity with modernity, east with west, fissured periodically but sewn back again and again by Iberian Muslims, Jews and Christians. Al Andalus, which, under Muslim rule, has brought about a transformation simply through inter-translation, which has dared to find direction in deviation from the known and accepted, where the Abrahamic people have found enough peace to transcend literalism and worship willingly in each other’s sacred places, to inscribe the other’s scripture on their own walls, is collapsing.

It is 1482; the year Morayma weds the Nasrid prince Abu Abdullah who is known in history mostly by nicknames: Boabdil, or Rey el Chico (“little king”), or El Zygobi (“the unfortunate one”). The house of Nasrid is at war. All that signifies Al Andalus — the books, maps, machines, manuals, poetry, medical and musical instruments, recipes, calligraphy— is about to be destroyed forever; a near-millennium of civilization utterly wiped out by the crushing machinery of the Inquisition; a tyranny of epic proportions poised to swallow an epic legacy of tolerance. It is the year that Morayma’s fate becomes knotted with the fate of the last Andalusi bastion, Granada.

Morayma is fifteen years old on her wedding day, wearing a borrowed gown. Her father, the vizier, a spice merchant turned General, is frugal, wise and well-respected but no less doomed than every other character in this story. Courtiers and chroniclers observe the bride in the magnificence of the Alhmara palace, where she stands surrounded by honeycomb colonnades, saffron curtains in Granada silk embroidered with the Nasrid motto Wa la Ghalib Illa Allah (“And there is no conqueror but God”), filigreed walls, acres of scented gardens, leaping fountains. Amidst all this richness, she appears in her Muslim modesty, covered with a shawl, showing only her “large eyes and sweet face.”

The wedding festivities in the breathtaking Alhamra would be Morayma’s only time in the palace as a royal. Instigated by his mother Aixa, Boabdil fights against his father Mulay Hacen for succession, a conflict that results in the imprisonment of Morayma in a carmen (small house with an orchard) in the city of Albayzin, at the foothill of Sebeka, directly below the Alhamra. In this city, which takes its name from Al bayyazin or “the falconers,” Morayma is a caged bird. Her husband is sent to battle, and what is left with her in his long absences, is a caged bird’s view of the palace on the hill. She bears Boabdil two sons. Both are taken away in infancy by the Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand who agree to return the boys when the war is resolved; this is said to be the first of many false promises to come.

Morayma’s father dies in battle and her husband is defeated. Her sons are raised Catholic in captivity, cut off from Arabic which is not only the language of their forebears but has been the lingua franca of Al Andalus for centuries. Morayma dreams in Arabic. She is the closing chapter of a civilization known for enlightenment, elucidation, articulation, communication, but she herself is pure silence. Unlike her husband made famous for a sigh (as he looks back at Granada for the last time) and her mother in law for her rebuke (“you do well to weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man”), Morayma bears the burden of history’s silence. She symbolizes the trauma of loss but I insist on seeing her also as a dreaming time capsule, locked out of verbiage. So she dreams in all the banned languages: Arabic, Andalusi script and weave and rhyme. She dreams in tile-work, water-work and geometry, in logic and faith, musical notation and recipe, fact, theory and praise.

Morayama’s death comes as a further poetic comment; she is invited back by fate for repose in Andalusi soil, a sort of permanence denied to others as the clan goes into exile to Morocco. She is only twenty-six years old at death. Her grief-stricken husband carries her body from the mountains of Alpujarras to the family graveyard in Mondujar. As he goes through the burial rites, he does his utmost to honor his beloved queen. The city of Granada’s official records show that Boabdil offers regular prayers at Morayma’s tomb and furnishes the mosque with substantial funds to continue recitation of the Qura’an as a blessing for her soul. Promises are made and broken yet again. The new rulers of Granada confiscate the sum of money left for the upkeep of the mosque and tomb, demolish the mosque and build with its funds a church on the site. There she dreams, under the ruins, endlessly dreams.

What the lovely “moor” Morayma loses from neglect by historians, she gains in mystique. Her silent presence seals her place as the lingering ghost of a spectacular millennium. Al Andalus will be recalled in poems and songs for centuries to come, as nostalgia and as a story of hope and heartbreak. In no other way does this tragedy punctuate itself better than the figure of Sultana Morayma.

NOTE: This essay was first published in MIZNA in print. It is published for the first time online here.