al-Andalus: Joan Fallon’s ‘Shining City’ trilogy

For my series on the places that inspire authors, Joan Fallon tells us about Medinat al-Zahra, and why a ruin not far from the ancient city of Córdoba in southern Spain provided the foundations for a trilogy.

The al-Andalus trilogy and the story behind it

by Joan Fallon

The al-Andalus trilogy is set in Córdoba and its surrounding countryside.

It is 10th century Spain, the Golden Age of Moorish rule, the time of the great caliphs, when Córdoba was considered the centre of cultural and learning for the western world.

 

For many years I have been fascinated by this beautiful city and when I heard about the ruins of Madinat al-Zahra which were only just outside its boundaries, I knew I had to go to visit them. This was the city of al-Rahman III, the greatest of all the caliphs and more than that, I was intrigued by the idea that a palace-city of such magnificence should have lasted for such a short time.  Civilisations come and go, as any reader of history knows, but for it to last no more than 75 years seemed a tragedy.

It was the summer of 2001. I picked up a leaflet about an exhibition that was to be held in the museum at Madinat al-Zahra.  It was entitled The Splendour of the Cordovan Umayyads.  So we drove across from Málaga, on a blistering hot day to see what it was all about.

I have been back many times since and the place holds a fascination for me; so much so that it inspired me to write a novel.  I decided to tell the story of the city through a family that lived there; I had the bare bones of my novel before me, in the stone walls and paved paths, in the narrow passages ways, the ornate gardens, the artefacts in the museum.  All I needed to do was to make the city come alive through my characters.  I called the novel The Shining City because ‘Madinat’ (or medina) is the word for town and ‘Zahra’ means shining or brilliant.  It’s said that the caliph called the city al-Zahra because, at the time it was being built, he was in love with a slave girl called Zahra.  It could be true; there are certainly written references to a concubine of that name, but personally I think ‘Zahra’ referred to the magnificence of the city itself.  As the principle character in my book, Omar, tells his nephew:

‘It means shining, glistening, brilliant.  Possibly his concubine glittered and shone with all the jewels and beautiful silks he showered upon her but then so did the city.  It was indeed the Shining City.  When visitors entered through the Grand Portico, passing beneath its enormous, red and white arches, when they climbed the ramped streets that were paved with blocks of dark mountain stone, passing the lines of uniformed guards in their scarlet jackets and the richly robed civil servants that flanked their way, when they reached the royal residence and saw the golden inlay on the ceilings, the marble pillars, the richly woven rugs scattered across the floors and the brilliant silk tapestries, when they saw the moving tank of mercury in the great reception pavilion that caught the sunlight and dazzled all who beheld it, then they indeed knew that they were in the Shining City.’

Of course today, looking at the ruined paths, the piles of broken tiles, the reconstructed arches and pillars, we need to use our imagination to see it as it once was.

The construction of the city of Madinat al-Zahra was begun in the year 939 AD by Abd al-Rahman III and took forty years to complete.  Having declared himself the caliph of al-Andalus in 929 AD and with the country more or less at peace he wanted to follow in the tradition of previous caliphs in the East and build himself a palace-city, grander than anything that had been built before.  The site he chose was eight kilometres to the west of Córdoba, in present day Andalusia, and measured one and a half kilometres by almost a kilometre.  It was sheltered from the north winds by the mountains behind it and had an excellent vantage point from which to see who was approaching the city.  It was well supplied with water from an old Roman aqueduct and surrounded by rich farming land.  It had good roads to communicate with Córdoba and there was even a stone quarry close by.

The caliph left much of the responsibility for the construction of the city to his son al-Hakam, who continued work on it after his father’s death.

One of the most curious questions about Madinat al-Zahra is why, despite its importance as the capital of the Omeyyad dynasty in al-Andalus, this magnificent city endured no more than seventy-five years.  When al-Hakam died in 976 AD the city was thriving; all the most important people in the land lived there.  The army, the Mint, the law courts, the government and the caliph were there; the city boasted public baths, universities, libraries, workshops and ceremonial reception halls to receive the caliph’s visitors.  But al-Hakam’s heir was a boy of eleven-years old.  The new boy-caliph was too young to rule, so a regent was appointed, the Prime Minister, al-Mansur, an ambitious and ruthless man.  Gradually the Prime Minister moved the whole court, the Mint, the army and all the administrative functions back to Córdoba, leaving the new caliph in Madinat al-Zahra, ruling over an empty shell.  Once the seat of power had been removed from Madinat al-Zahra, the city went into decline.  The wealthy citizens left, quickly followed by the artisans, builders, merchants and local businessmen.  Its beautiful buildings were looted and stripped of their treasures and the buildings were destroyed to provide materials for other uses.  Today you can find artefacts from the city in Málaga, Granada, and elsewhere.  Marble pillars that once graced the caliph’s palace now support the roofs of houses in Córdoba.  Ashlars that were part of the city’s walls have been used to build cow sheds.

Excavation of the site of Madinat al-Zahra began in 1911 by Riocardo Velázquez Bosco, the curator of the mosque in Córdoba.  The work was slow and hampered by the fact that the ruins were on private property.  Landowners were not keen to co-operate and eventually the State had to purchase the land before the excavations could begin.  The work progressed slowly but gradually over the years a number of government acts were passed which resulted in the site being designated as an Asset of Cultural Interest and in 1998 a Special Protection Plan was drawn up to give full weight to the importance of the ruins.  Today the site is open to the public and has an excellent visitor centre and museum.

THE SHINING CITY became the first book in a trilogy about al-Andalus and 10th century Spain in particular. I decided to write a second book about the boy-caliph, al-Hisham II whose life was dominated by his mother and her lover. This one I entitled THE EYE OF THE FALCON.

After some hesitation—I was unsure if I would find enough material for a third book—I wrote the third book in the series, THE RING OF FLAMES. This brings the story up to the end of the Golden Age and the demise of the Omayyad dynasty, and gives some clue to the eventual fate of al-Hisham II, the forgotten caliph.

The trilogy is available in paperback and on Kindle.

For more information see: www.joanfallon.co.uk

 

A Tudor Trilogy

Interview with Tony Riches, author of ‘HENRY’

Book Three of The Tudor Trilogy

My guest today is Tudor specialist Tony Riches, author of the best-selling Tudor Trilogy.

 

 

 

 

Tony, where did the idea for writing the Tudor trilogy come from?

I began looking into the life of Owen Tudor, the Welsh servant who married a queen, and was surprised to discover his amazing story. As my research progressed I began to collect fascinating details of the lives of Owen’s sons, Edmund and Jasper. I realised that if I planned it as a trilogy, Henry Tudor would be born in the first book, come of age in the second and become King of England in the final book.

 Why do you think this is the first full-length novel about Henry Tudor?

Everyone from Shakespeare to Alison Weir has written about Henry, but this trilogy is the first time his full story has been told through historical fiction. Even at the Bosworth re-enactment you would hardly believe Henry was victorious, as ‘Ricardians’ outnumber Tudor supporters by more than ten to one. Schools and TV historians can’t wait to get on to Henry VIII and his six wives, and Henry has too often been dismissed as the ‘miserly’ king. The truth is, as so often the case, far more complex and his story deserves to be told.

 What surprised you about the ‘real’ Henry Tudor?

Far from being ‘miserly’ I found Henry loved gambling with cards and dice and lost huge sums more often than he won. He also kept detailed records of who he’d played against (which included his wife, Elizabeth of York) and how much he’d lost. As well as lions and other dangerous animals, which he kept at the Tower of London, he kept a pet monkey, thought to be a marmoset, in his private chambers. (One day he discovered it had torn up his detailed diary, so there is a gap in his meticulous records.) I’m certain he loved Elizabeth of York but when the pretender Perkin Warbeck was finally captured, Henry was so enamoured of Warbeck’s wife, Lady Katheryn Gordon, he kept them both in his household – but wouldn’t let them sleep together. He also bought Lady Katheryn expensive dresses and she became a close companion and confidante, even after Henry had her husband executed!

 What did you find most difficult about the research for this book?

Henry escaped to exile in Brittany at the age of fourteen and remained there until he sailed to take the throne with his invasion fleet at the age of twenty-eight. I struggled to understand how he spent those formative years (often described as ‘uneventful’) so decided to follow in his footsteps, all the way from Pembroke Castle to the remote Forteresse de Largoët, deep in the forest outside the town of Elven in Brittany.

Amazingly, I was able to climb the Dungeon Tower through a dark high stairway lit only by small window openings. Henry Tudor’s rooms were full of cobwebs and signs in French warned of a danger of falling masonry, but this first hand research really helped me understand what Henry’s life there might have been like. Although it was called the ‘dungeon tower’, in subsequent research I discovered intriguing details at the National Library of Wales which suggest Henry Tudor enjoyed more freedom at this time than is generally imagined. The papers claim that, ‘by a Breton lady’, Henry Tudor fathered a son, Roland Velville, whom he knighted after coming to the throne.

 What will you write next, now you’ve completed the Tudor trilogy?

I’ve moved on one generation of Tudors for each of the past three years, so thought it would be interesting to write about the life of Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor. Reputed to be a great beauty, Mary was only eighteen when she became Queen of France, married off by her brother Henry VIII to the fifty-two-year-old King Louis XII. I’m also looking forward to writing about her womanising second husband, one of the last true Tudor knights and Henry VIII’s lifelong friend, Charles Brandon. The Tudor trilogy may be completed – but the story of the Tudors continues!

About the Author

Tony Riches is a full time author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales, with his wife and is a specialist in the fifteenth century, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s other books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

Tony Riches’ books can be found on: Amazon UK  Amazon US and Amazon AU

 

Memoirs from the Tower of London

This month’s guest post on the writer’s craft is by Elizabeth St.John.
Elizabeth was brought up in England and lives in California. She has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, to Castle Fonmon and The Tower of London to inspire her writing. Although her ancestors sold a few mansions and country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them – in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint.


“All the time she dwelt in the Tower, if any were sick she made (the prisoners) broths and restoratives with her own hands, visited and took care of them, and provided them all necessaries; if any were afflicted she comforted them, so that they felt not the inconvenience of a prison who were in that place.”

Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson
Lucy Hutchinson, 1620-1681
(Recounting the life of her mother, Lucy St.John)

Gazing from the parlor window of the Queen’s House within the walls of the Tower of London, I could see the chapel of St. Peter, the iconic White Tower… Continue reading “Memoirs from the Tower of London”

Writing about 17th Century Spain

This month’s guest post on the writer’s craft is by Donald Michael Platt, a prolific author in diverse fields but perhaps better known now for his recent books on the Spanish hidalgo, Vicente de Rocamora. Donald has lived in California, Brazil, and now in Florida, so I asked him how and why he came to write a novel about 17th century Spain. Here is his response.

The Mystery of Vicente de Rocamora 

dm-platt-rocamora-1

Little-known historical individuals who led interesting lives arouse my interest. The less documented about them the freer I am to create character motivation and an entertaining story line. That is why I selected Vicente de Rocamora, 1601-1684, to be the protagonist of my two novels Rocamora and House of Rocamora. Several anomalies in his life piqued my curiosity, and the few available facts about him, especially in Spain, are unexplained. Continue reading “Writing about 17th Century Spain”

Leah Devlin’s “Where I write about . . .” or “Where the bodies and pirate treasure are buried”

vital-sparkIn the opening scene of Vital Spark, Alex Allaway is driving along a coastal road, through a valley of summer corn on Maryland’s eastern shore. She’s thrilled to be returning home. She’s landed a job as a fisheries ecologist at a small marine station in her hometown of River Glen. River Glen is the epicenter of my new Chesapeake Tugboat Murders series. The village is located at the intersection of the fictional Glen River and the real Chesapeake Bay. Continue reading “Leah Devlin’s “Where I write about . . .” or “Where the bodies and pirate treasure are buried””