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The Legend of Zaida, Princess of Seville

#The Legend of Zaida, Princess of Seville

By Natalie Mallat

Standing majestically in the heart of the Guadalquivir Valley, once known as Al Wadi Al Kabeer, the impressive Almodovar Castle reminds its visitors of the glories of its past. Every year, between 28 and 31 March, the Zoco de La Encantá (“Zoco” from the Arabic word “Souk” of the Enchanted) is held to commemorate the legend of this castle, where once the beautiful but grieve-stricken Zaida yearned for her lover, the Arab Prince of Seville. 

Al Mutamid, The Poet-King

Once you visit Andalusia, you can feel its vanished Islamic glory in the elaborate palaces, mosques, and buildings. That you can contemplate the presence of the great Arab Kings in every arch; their sighs in the air and their steps on the ancient paths. For the Arab tourists and the people of Spain, these banished Kings often come back to their palaces and gardens. To the voices of the singing Al Rumaikiyya, treading out with her slender feet things dear to the Eastern heart, camphor, musk and rose-water as her husband, the great poet-King of Ishbilliyya watched from the balcony of the Real Alcazar.

Muhamad Al Mutamid ibn Abbad ruled Seville during the chaotic Taifa period in the eleventh century, when small rival kingdoms emerged after the collapse of the central Umayyad government. His grandfather Abu Al Qasim, a descendant of the noble Arabian tribe of Lakmn, brought a man resembling the last Umayyad Caliph who never actually held real power and was overshadowed by his greedy mother Subh and her lover, the ambitious and charismatic Al Mansur ibn Abi Amer. Abu al Qasim took advantage of the Caliph’s mysterious disappearance to gain legitimacy for his rule. Al Mutamid’s father was the ambitious Al Mutadid who lived the dream of reuniting Al Andalus under Arab rule and waged war against his Taifa opponents in hopes of fulfilling that. The historian Al Marrakshi described him as the most chivalrous, majestic, and brave-hearted ruler of his time resembling the great man of the Abbasid house, Abu Jafar al Mansur.

Real Alcázar of Seville. Photo by Anna & Michal / Flickr

Of a much gentler character, Al Mutamid resembled his father in handsomeness but in passion, he was much like the poet-caliph of Baghdad, Al Wathiq who inspired William Beckford’s Arabian tales. Much like Beckford’s Vathek, Al Mutamid was a lover of life, a spoilt King lying in the trance of luxury who lived in indulgence. In his vast gardens where wonderful spring flowers blossomed, Al Mutamid spent long hours playing chess with the companion of his youth, the machiavellian Ibn Ammar. This game that the Arabs brought to Europe drew Christian attention as well. The Castilian Alfonso VI who was passionate about chess played a game with Ibn Ammar in his tent as he camped outside Seville. The condition was whoever wins has his wishes granted. Ibn Ammar, a master of this game, won and asked the Christian King to retire. He also gave Alfonso VI the most beautiful chess set ever seen.

Just as it seemed that matters settled down, Alfonso VI once again started threatening the southern cities of Cordoba and Seville. Al Mutamid, who was the overlord of large dominions of Al Andalus, was frustrated by Alfonso’s delegates and did not accept the humiliation. He expelled them, saying angrily: “I can no longer tolerate the tyranny of these scoundrel Christians.” Alfonso VI, battling to save his reputation, swore a great oath and cried: “I will lay waste the infidel’s dominions with warriors numerous as the hairs of my head and I will not halt until I reach the Straits of Gibraltar (Jabal Tariq)”. Al Mutamid, overtaken with pride, responded that he would punish Alfonso’s greed with the ferocious swords of the Al Moravids.

Al Moravids in Al Andalus

Al Mutamid was aware that his power was not sufficient and he dreaded submission to the Christian King more than any other disgrace. In a council held to discuss the matter, the Princes of Seville advised Al Mutamid to communicate with the Arab Kings of North Africa but he refused on the basis they were not powerful enough. He openly announced that he would call upon the Emir of the Al Moravids, an ascetic named Yusuf ibn Tashfin. Those around him, including his son the Crown-Prince Al Ma’mun, realized the danger of bringing those Berbers of the Sahara to the paradises of Al Andalus. They then warned the King who responded: “Better a camel-driver in Africa than a swineherd in Castile.”

The Siege of Toledo as depicted in azulejos at the Plaza de España in Seville, built for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 – Wikimedia Commons

The Al Moravid movement comprised of Berber tribesmen from North Africa who were dedicated to pious Islamic exercise. Their name, Al Murabiteen, comes from the Arabic Al Ribat meaning “bond”. These groups undertook the military conquest of North Africa marching deep into Western Africa and capturing Ghana.

Yusuf ibn Tashfin was born in Lamtuni, a small town near Ghana. He was described by the historian Abi Zar al Fasi as having a brown complexion with black eyes, medium build, and a slight beard. Yusuf responded to Al Mutamid’s appeal and upon landing on Andalusian soil, he said, “We have come here to save Islam and we will have to fight against a formidable enemy. Those of you who are afraid are free to return home”.

The joint Arab-African armies defeated Alfonso VI  in the famous Al Zallaqa (Battle of Sagrajas), which Al Mutamid commemorated in his poem Yawm al Uruba (The Day of Arabs) labelling Yusuf as the defender of Muslim lands from disbelievers with swords shining like stars. The King generously invited Yusuf to dine in his sumptuous palace. The Emir, who led a modest life, looked scornfully at the opulence of the court. The Arab elite and court poets took pride in their elegant manners and refined culture. When one poet sang the praises of Yusuf, the Emir did not understand it. And in another incident, when he looked contemptuously at Al Mutamid’s eloquent letter, he exclaimed, “What does he ask for?” Before leaving Seville, Yusuf gazed at the splendid paradises and flowing waters. It seems that the devout Emir returned to Africa carrying in his heart the splendours of Andalusia.

Not everyone was impressed by Yusuf’s arrival. In fact, the crown prince Al Ma’mun was suspicious of any Berber initiatives that might threaten the Abbadid power. By now, the events were moving fast and his fears turned to be true: Yusuf changed his position on the Arabs and decided to wage war against them. The Arab efforts to defend their city were in vain. As Al Moravids besieged the prosperous Cordoba, the Prince sent his beloved wife Zaida along with their infant sons to the nearby castle of Al Modovar that was built by the glorious Umayyads not long after their first refugee Prince, who fled the Abbasid persecution, arrived in Spain.

The Al Moravids betrayed the sons of Al-Mu’tamid, Al-Radi, the Prince of Ronda, and Al Ma’mun, the Prince of Cordoba. After promising them safe conduct, they plundered the cities as soon as the gates were opened. Al Ma’mun continued to defend Cordoba, bravely fighting the veiled Berbers until they killed him. His head was cut off and placed on the tip of a spear, then they paraded it through the streets of the city. As news of these events began to reach Seville, Al Mutamid was sure that the same fate would befall his city. Not long after, the Al Moravids attacked Al Mutamid’s Alcazar (Al Qasr), the pearl of Andalusian beauty, originally known as Al Qasr Al Mubarak (The Blessed Palace), killing men and kidnapping women, among them Al Mutamid’s own daughter, Princess Buthaina who was sold into slavery. Al Mutamid and his beloved wife were taken into captivity and sent to exile.

Zaida, Queen of Toledo

In the castle of Al Modovar, Zaida awaited the safe arrival of her prince. The nights grew darker until one evening she saw horses riding into the foam. But her husband was not among the knights. Devastated by the news, Zaida so full of tears and passion, fled with her sons to the protection of Alfonso VI. Captivated by the beautiful Zaida, the Christian King let himself be carried away by his passion. Alfonso VI’s wife remained silent about her husband’s suspected affair with the Muslim Princess. He took Zaida to the castle of La Adrada which witnessed their love adventures.

After Alfonso VI was widowed, he decided to marry for love ignoring criticism from nobility and the religious order. To avoid disagreement at court, Zaida was baptised as Queen Isabel. Alfonso honoured the Arab princes and bestowed on them the titles of Counts. This relationship brought good coexistence between Muslims and Christians and the happiest years of Alfonso VI. Zaida bore him an heir, Prince Sancho, a unique union of the Castilian and Arab cultures. According to legend, this Queen secretly kept her Muslim faith and introduced many Arab customs to the Castilian court. Alfonso adopted many Islamic traditions and the men at his court dressed in Arab-style clothes. The coins minted were very similar to those of the Muslims, and even the Mozarabic religion of Toledo seemed to have forgotten Latin and was replaced with Arabic.

Castle of Al Modovar (Arabic: Al Modawar meaning the circular). Photo courtesy: @castillodealmodovar @ruben_travels

The Popular Legend of the Encantá

In the Encantá, Zaida sensed that something was not right on the night Al Ma’mun was killed. She looked out onto the balcony, searching long into the horizon. She had a terrible vision that her husband had fallen into battle. She then saw white stallions galloping riderless towards Al Modovar. The grief-stricken Princess fell into depression. She locked herself in the castle, not eating or drinking, until she died. It is said that every year, on the 28th of March, the date of Al Ma’mun’s death, Zaida’s ghost returns to the castle to look for him. Her ghost, dressed in a white tunic, wanders out to Al Modovar’s Homage Tower anxiously awaiting the return of her beloved prince. She would look across the Guadalquivir Valley in the direction of Cordoba. The Zoco de la Encantá commemorates this legend by recreating the scenes in theoretical performances and parades with live music and a craft market.

Natalie Mallat is a freelance writer with a particular interest in Medieval Arab history. She enjoys running the history blog Biblioteca Natalie. You can follow her Instagram @medievalarabhistory and Linkedin @bibliotecanatalie for regular posts.

Further Readings:

Calvo, P. (2023, Jul 02). La Mora Zaida: la princesa musulmana que llegó a reinar en Castilla.

Cavero, I. G. (2023). Seville, a Cultured and Influential Court: The Palace of Ibn ‘Abbād. Arts, 12(2), 44;

DeCosta, M. (1975). Historical and Literary Views of Yusuf, African Conqueror of Spain. The Journal of Negro History, 60(4), 480-490.

Malaga, B. Chess Saved Seville’s Taifa Kingdom.

Smith, D. L. (1915). The Poems of Mutamid King of Seville.

المعتمد بن عباد لعبدالوهاب عزام.

Top Image: Mugeres célebres de España y Portugal, Zaida, mujer de Alfonso VI. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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