“Do Not Cry as a Woman For What You Could Not Defend as a Man” – Who Was the Sultana of Granada?

Aisha bint Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar or Aixa al-Hurra (the honoured) was the feisty, determined mother of Boabdil, the last Emir of Granada.  She earned her place in history for having rebuked her son for the loss of Granada in 1492, famously quoting;

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

Aixa was a politically active queen, wielding a great amount of influence on matters of state during the final years of the Emirate of Granada. No woman in Moorish history fought like Aixa to save Granada from its final demise, which resulted in the famous moment when her son Boabdil handed over the key of Granada to 15th century Catholic powerhouse of  Isabel of Castille and Fernando of Aragon. Aixa’s true place in the history books, in what was the most critical turning point for Islam in Europe, has yet to be recognised.

Who was Aixa al-Hurra?

Aixa was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. She was born into the Nasrid dynasty who built the sumptuous Alhambra Place in 1238 which translates as the Red One.  She was the daughter of Mohammed IX, El Zurdo and granddaughter of Yusuf IV the 11th ruler of Granada.  Her first marriage was to her cousin Muhammed XI, who briefly reigned as the 19th Sultan of Granada but was assassinated in 1454.  Her late husband’s successor Said Ciriza, married Aixa to his son Abu l-Hasan Ali commonly known as Muley Hacén. The shrewd move to marry Aixa to the future Emir of Granada was a bid to appease rival factions of the Nasrid dynasty.

Aixa bore Muley Hacén three children; Boabdil, Yusuf, and Aixa.  Said Ciriza had paid a yearly tribute to the Catholic Monarchs in exchange for peace between the kingdoms.  But his son, Muley Hacén,  refused to pay the tribute, resulting in a deterioration of the relationship with Castile. As a sign of his might, he  invaded the Christian fortress town of  Zahara de La Sierra. Many town people were slaughtered and the peace that had been brokered over centuries via a yearly tribute to Castile was finally over.  The event marked the pretext of war by which Isabel of Castile vowed to conquer Granada and unite Castile under the banner of Catholicism.

To Aixa’s utter consternation, Muley Hacén refused to acknowledge Boabdil as the rightful heir of Granada. Muley’s Hacén’s negative attitude towards his son relates to the fact that on the day of his son’s birth in 1460, astrologers claimed Boabdil would be the last Islamic Emir of Granada.

The situation deteriorated when Muley Hacén married Christian slave – Isabel de Solís. Isabel converted to Islam and became known as Soraya. She bore the Sultan two sons who Muley Hacén recognised as the rightful heirs of Granada.  Aixa and Boabdil were both imprisoned in the Tower of Comares within the vicinity of the Alhambra Palace.

Aixa’s battle for her son’s succession

Aixa was a warrior and fought to protect Boabdil’s Nasrid legacy.  She aligned herself to a rival opposition party and began to plan her strategy to see Boabdil restored as the rightful heir. Aixa and her children escaped from the tower of Comares and took refuge in Guadix where she prepared Boabdil to be Sultan of Granada.

After a bloody civil war, Aixa managed to restore Boabdil as the Sultan of Granada. By this time, the relationship with Castille had deteriorated, and Queen Isabella was determined that she would conquer Granada.  Boabdil’s only option was to fight Castile and protect Granada’s 700-year Islamic legacy.

The Monarchs captured Boabdil in the Battle of Lucena in 1483; he was taken as a prisoner of the Castilian crown.  Aixa shrewdly negotiated his freedom, but at a price. He was forced to handover his oldest son Yusuf as a hostage in exchange for his loyalty to Isabel and Fernando. While the Catholic monarchs treated Yusuf well, his life was always at threat and used as leverage to influence Boabdil.

Even in exile, Muley Hacén still refused to recognise Boabdil as the rightful heir to Granada. Before his death he placed his brother Al Zagal as the transitory Sultan until his son with Soraya became of age to rule. Al Zagal tricked Boabdil into a false alliance against Castile and thus forced Boabdil to break the truce with the Catholic monarchs.  The Monarchs now demanded the key of Granada and took his youngest son Ahmed as a hostage.

The Catholics Monarchs built the fortress town Santa Fé and set up an encampment just 13 kilometers away from Granada.  After finally winning back Malaga and defeating Al Zagal, the Monarchs turned their final strategy on the conquest of Granada by slowly starving the city of food and resources.

Aixa el-Hurra, a fighter for her own beliefs

Historians describe Aixa as passionate, driven by revenge and jealousy.  Aixa was a strong energetic woman with a character of steel, and never stopped fighting for Granada. A political player, she fought for the rightful succession of her son Boabdil to the Nasrid throne. After the fall of Granada, Aixa followed her son into exile, initially to the Alpujarras and then to finally to Fes in 1493. Whether Aixa truly did utter those famous words “Thou dost weep like a woman for what thou couldst not defend as a man” is still debated or may be just down to historical fancy.

Written by Sabera Ahsan

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Sabera Ahsan is a former Primary school teacher, police equality advisor and government policy officer. She currently dedicates her time to writing and reading about Moorish Spain.