“At length they saw the silver cross, the great standard of this crusade, elevated on the Torre de la Vela, sparkling in the sun beams. Beside it was planted the pennon of the glorious apostle St James; and a great shout of ‘Santiago! Santiago!’ rose throughout the army. Lastly was reared the royal standard, by the knight of arms, with a shout of ‘Castile! Castile! For King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.’ The words were echoed by the whole army… At sight of these signals of possession, the sovereigns fell upon their knees, giving thanks to God for this great triumph.”
A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, Washington Irving
I read Irving’s heroic tales of the Alhambra in my early teens. It sat alongside Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and The Talisman, Thomas Costain’s Black Rose and For My Great Folly, and Ronald Welch’s Knight Crusader. I loved this sort of florid, heroic historical fiction and devoured it without any thought as to its accuracy or political slant. Without any context, and in the hands of great storytellers, I cheered on the crusaders and Richard the Lionheart, and the Catholic Monarchs as they crushed the dark, cruel, inscrutable infidels.
I never planned to be a historical novelist: the research required was simply too daunting – until some research into our Cornish roots threw up the intriguing possibility that a family member had been abducted by Barbary corsairs in the 17th century: and that was just too good a story not to tell. Writing The Tenth Gift triggered an earthquake in my life that ended with me quitting my job, as a publishing director for HarperCollins (they tempted me back with a remote-working contract), selling my London flat and shipping the contents to Morocco, where during my research trip I had met and fallen in love with a Berber tribesman in the rural southwest of the country. (We’ve now been married for twelve years.)
Living in a Muslim kingdom shook up my view of the world, and changed me as a novelist. I had to do a lot of fast learning about the country I now lived in, about its history, and art, and culture, and its complex, 1200-year interface with the Christian West. Such a huge subject, so important and so intensely topical, as our own culture struggles to come to terms with the contradictory complexities of Islam. Each novel I’ve written has pivoted around this crucial axis: preparation for each novel has been like taking a double-degree from scratch.
The Salt Road focused on the desert nomads known to us as the Tuareg (the people of my husband’s mother) and their fight for survival and against radical Islam; The Sultan’s Wife dealt with the slave trade, both black and white, and the embassy between the Moroccan sultan and the court of Charles II. Pillars of Light, a book deemed ‘too political’ by most mainstream UK publishers, will be released in the autumn by a university press and tells the brutal story of the Siege of Acre during the Third Crusade. But I knew the great crux point between Christianity and Islam came in 1492 with the fall of the last Moorish kingdom in the West: Granada, in southern Spain.
I first visited the Moorish palace-complex in Granada known as the Alhambra as a tourist over twenty years ago and like everyone who walks beneath its graceful arches and gazes upon its serene pools and lacy, geometric stonework, fell under its spell. Coming back to research Court of Lions, with a far greater understanding of the mystical intricacies of Moorish architecture gleaned from visits to palaces and ruins all over Morocco and a good deal of study, enriched the experience further. It infused my ramblings through the Nasrid palaces of the Alhambra and their gorgeous gardens with an even greater sense of wonder, one shot through with comprehension of the mind-boggling levels of craftsmanship and scientific mastery that had gone into their creation.
Imagine, I thought, being raised in such a beautiful and peaceful place. Then imagine being raised there during the last bloody days of Islam in the West; with the rise of the Catholic Monarchs and the Spanish Inquisition; while inside the walls of this paradise on earth your parents are fighting with one another, each of them using you in their inexorable, destructive domestic war. And I felt a terrible sadness for that last young sultan whom history has written off as (in the words of Donald Trump) “a huge loser”.
Everyone thinks they know the story of the Fall of Granada: how, after handing the keys over to Isabella and Ferdinand, the young sultan turned for one last time to look upon the city he loved; how his mother derided him for ‘weeping like a woman for what you could not hold like a man’; how that spot is called ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’. But when I started in on some serious research I soon discovered that this was largely made up by Antonio de Guevara, Bishop of Guadix, for the benefit of Emperor Charles V when he visited Granada on his honeymoon in 1526, and that history – from both the Christian and Muslim perspectives – had treated that young sultan, Abu Abdullah Mohammed, known as Boabdil, cruelly. So I wanted to tell his personal story, as well as the great sweep of events leading up to the fall, which the poet Federico Garcia Lorca described as ‘a calamity, leading to a new dark age’.
The book was shaping up to be a straightforward historical epic: but one day in 2013 the producer who was interested in making a film of The Sultan’s Wife told me about a discovery by restorers in the Alhambra. While moving one of the great doors they had come upon a scrap of paper that had been hidden deep in the intricate latticework of the wood. It appeared to be an ancient love letter: but the provenance of the note and the identity of the scribe remain a mystery. The movie deal sadly stalled but the story was a gift, and I remembered another Lorca quote – “In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead in any other country in the world”. And that got me thinking about how the past and present arc towards one another, and how love is an eternal force. And I thought – what if a series of tiny notes (love letters, maybe; or spells) written in the 15th century were to come to light in the 21st century? And Court of Lions turned into quite a different book to the one I had originally envisaged.
Jane Johnson has worked in the book industry for over 20 years, as a bookseller, publisher and writer, and is the author of The Tenth Gift, The Salt Road, The Sultan’s Wife and Pillars of Light. Her latest novel, Court of Lions, is published on 6 July.
- Alhambra at dusk © Nathan Rupert/flickr
- The Lion’s Head, Tafraoute © Jane Johnson
- The Alhambra detail © Jane Johnson