Category Archives: Spain

Guest Post – Joan Fallon: The al-Andalus trilogy and the story behind it

Today I have a guest post from my good friend Joan Fallon, who also writes about the al-Andalus region of Spain during the time of the Moors.


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.


Joan Fallon’s trilogy is available in paperback and on Kindle, and you can find out more about both her and her books on her website: www.joanfallon.co.uk

The Fortunate Dead: Chapter 1 – WIP

For those interested I thought you might like to read Chapter 1 of the forthcoming Book 6 in the Thomas Berrington Historical Mysteries. This is a first draft only, so might change a little in the finished book.


CHAPTER ONE

Thomas Berrington stared at a wooden pallet, its surface stained by years of misuse.

“Tell me, how exactly did you manage to lose a body?” He wiped at blood-stained hands with a damp cloth but it did little good. Only a long bath might do that.

“I did not lose it,” said Lubna, her face set. “I delivered the woman to this pallet before noon and informed the mortuary officer of her location.”

“Perhaps the family collected it, then. Did you check?” He made little attempt to hide his impatience. He had been sent for as he was trying to save an unborn child, the mother beyond any need of his skills. She had been brought in by her husband after falling from the city wall. Thomas was in a bad temper after the man had refused to accept the infant he had saved because it was a girl.

“Of course I checked. Would I send for you if it was that simple? Nobody has come to claim her.”

“You are sure she was dead?”

Lubna cast him a glance that said more than words, perhaps not wanting to sour the atmosphere between them any more by speaking, and Thomas realised he was being too harsh on her. He had lost bodies in the past under similar circumstances. The infirmary in Malaka was both large and busy. He sometimes wondered how any body made its way to its family after it had stopped breathing. Thomas touched Lubna’s shoulder but she pulled away. Not forgiven yet, then.

He wondered if she was distracted by thoughts of the child she carried. Over six months now, beyond the time she had lost their first when they had visited Ixbilya for Thomas to attend the Queen. It had been on his mind of late, hers too, he was sure. He knew he may have been too attentive, too cosseting. Lubna was not a woman to be cosseted, even less so this last year. They had come to Malaka so she could attend the Infirmary, the place Thomas had learned his skills. That had been many years before, half a lifetime, and much had changed in the years since. Except Malaka was still where people came to learn the skills of a physician, ever since Persia fell to Mongol hordes.

It had not been easy for Lubna. As a woman she had not been made welcome, only accepted in the end because she was Thomas Berrington’s wife and everyone knew of his reputation. A reputation that brought respect but little fondness. The lack of the latter did not concern him and never had. Ability and an open mind meant more, and Lubna possessed both.

“What did she die of?” he asked.

“Does it matter?”

“I am curious.”

“In that case, I don’t know. There was nothing physically wrong that I could find. It was as if she no longer wanted to live.”

Thomas frowned. “Such a thing is possible, but rare.”

“Which is why I wanted you to see her, why I came for you. I have learned much this last year but not enough to explain what happened to this woman.”

“We’ll go to the Clerk of records,” Thomas said. “The body might have been mistaken for someone else and given to the wrong family. I have seen it happen before.”

Lubna fell into step beside him. “How often?”

“Not often, but four or five times over the years. It is surprising how many people do not wish to look at the face of a loved one once life has departed.”

The administration offices lay outside the Infirmary, requiring the crossing of a busy road and ascent of marble steps beneath the onslaught of a fierce sun. It was as they climbed the steps that a commotion broke out behind them, a man shouting at a group of musicians.

Thomas stopped and looked back.

“Leave it for someone else,” said Lubna. “You cannot heal the entire world.”

He glanced at her. She was right, the thought clear in his mind even as his body carried him back the way they had come. It was none of his business, but sometimes that made a thing more interesting rather than less. Besides, the missing body would still be missing an hour from now. Or would have been found.

As he approached the gathering Thomas heard laughter and jeering, and saw it was not only the musicians who were being accosted but a well-dressed man he recognised as Ali Durdush, grand master of the Malaka Guilds and almost certainly the richest man in the city, if not all of al-Andalus.

“What is going on?” he asked of an onlooker.

“It’s that idiot preacher, al-Antiqamun. Everyone is his enemy today. He has already torn Durdush’s cloak and now it’s the women he has it in for.”

Thomas watched as the ragged-robed man, tangled hair falling almost to his waist, berated two female dancers. Four others tried to continue their dance but the musicians were faltering. A few laid down their instruments and approached the altercation.

The rotund figure of Ali Durdush bustled away. He glanced in Thomas’s direction and offered a nod of recognition before moving on.

When Thomas looked back at the preacher he had grasped the arm of one of the women and was trying to force her to her knees. All the others had stopped dancing and gathered around. Voices were raised. And then a knife appeared, flashing sharp light from its blade, and al-Antiqamun staggered backward and fell to one knee.

Thomas pushed through the crowd. They had stopped laughing, but one or two now called threats. He reached the preacher and tried to find a wound, but before he could one of the musicians pushed him away.

“Let me finish it,” he said. “This crazy man has been following us for a week now and I will have it no more.”

Thomas watched a blade hang loose in the musician’s hand, the drip of blood from its tip. The man was short, slim, with corded muscle showing in his arms. His accent placed him from the north coast of Africa.

“Leave him be,” Thomas said, and something in his eyes gave the musician pause. Thomas turned back to the preacher and lifted sections of robe until he found the wound. A slash to the arm. Nothing serious, but it would need binding and a salve applied to prevent infection. He saw older scars and knew this was not the first attack on the man. Al-Antiqamun had no-one to blame but himself.

“I need to treat you,” Thomas said, steadying the preacher as he rose. He was tall, with a wild beard that matched his hair. His face was surprisingly intelligent, the eyes calm. Or empty.

“I need no heathen to mend me. Allah sees to his own.” He looked beyond Thomas and scowled at the musicians who were packing their instruments, about to move on.

“You must leave them in peace. They do no harm.”

“Allah forbids it. Music. Dancing. Women in clothing designed to reveal their bodies. It is against what is written.” He looked around. “And where did the fat fool get to, I’ve not finished with him yet.” His gaze returned to Thomas. “I know you.”

“Many do. And I know you, but not your true name.”

“I am al-Antiqamun.”

“I know that too, but it is not your given name, is it?”

“I am al-Antiqamun,” he said again, and Thomas knew it was all the answer he would get, perhaps all the answer the man knew. The child he had once been was long lost in his visions of heaven and hell. Or vengeance. For that was what his adopted name meant in Arabic. Vengeance.

“You are the stranger,” al-Antiqamun said, his voice as calm as his eyes now the dancers had moved away. “The butcher, they call you, do they not?” He smiled. “When Allah’s fire cleanses this land of unbelievers it will scorch the flesh from your bones, gassab.” His head turned, seeking new victims and finding Lubna waiting on the steps for Thomas. “But your wife is devout, I hear. She will live.” As if such was in his gift to offer or take away.

Thomas turned away. The man could bleed to death for all he cared. Those already dead were waiting for him.

The joy of Campo living in Spain

We are the proud owners of a house in Spain. I know, it’s tough, but someone has to stand up and say Brexit might be Brexit but some of us still believe in Europe. But this is not meant to be a political post, so no more of that nonsense. Please… no more of that nonsense.

My wife and I appeared on the UK television show A Place in the Sun in February 2017. More about that experience in another post, but it is enough to say we made an offer on the second property we saw. It was accepted, and within three weeks we flew out to take possession. Which is when our education began.

Our house sits on a hillside in a small hamlet that is unknown to Google maps. That should have been a warning, but not one we took any notice of. Not then.

Our house is also classified as “rural”. Which means it’s Campo.

What is Campo?

Look carefully – the little blue dot is our water meter!

Campo is anywhere that is not connected to the grid, likely has no paved road to it, no telephone service, and no postal service. Usually water is supplied from a well or a tank on your roof. It’s more than rural. And often times the house you think you bought is not shown on any official plan.

We were lucky.

When you try to buy anything or get anything delivered you will invariably get asked “Are you Campo? Even something as simple as your post. We take some things for granted in the UK and most of the rest of Europe, like a telephone line, the internet, water, electricity and so on. Except we are lucky. We have both water and electric. But no phone. And we have internet, but again that’s a long story.

Anyway – when we arrived our land was thigh high in weeds so I drove into our closest large town, Velez Malaga, to buy a strimmer. There was a Stihl shop. I had been told Stihl was the best petrol driven strimmer to buy. I’m not stupid. I went into the shop.

First question from the lovely lady behind the counter:

“Are you Campo?” Except it was in Spanish. But I had my phone and I had Google translate.

“Semi-campo,” I said.

She smiled indulgently.

I asked how much the strimmers were.

She extracted a thick catalogue. It contained no prices. But she went through four pages and wrote in the prices for me while I took sharp intakes of breath.

Then she smiled and crossed them all out and wrote their special prices.

Another smile. Another crossing out. By now she had taken 30% off the price if I came in on Tuesday or Thursday. Apparently if you buy equipment on those days, between certain hours, you don’t pay any VAT (IVT in Spanish). I don’t know if this is official government policy or not but it seems to apply to all agricultural and machinery shops we come across.

So, it being a Tuesday, I pointed. I’d like that one, please.

She smiled.

It will have to come from Madrid. Three weeks. Everything has to come from Madrid, and it always takes three weeks. It’s a good first estimate.

No – our weeds are thigh high, I said, I need something today.

Ah. You can have this one. It is a little more, but we have it in stock.

Yes, I said.

She then proceeded to take 20 minutes dismantling the strimmer in the showroom and re-assembling it for me. All the while there was a queue of other customers, but this being Spain they managed to amuse themselves while openly staring at the strange Englishman.

I got my strimmer.

It works very well. It’s a Stihl, see.

And then we went to find furniture in Ikea in Malaga.

We asked for it to be delivered.

Are you Campo?

It was becoming a familiar litany.

There are not many Town Halls with a view like this

Next we went to the local post office to see if we could get our mail.

Are you Campo?

Yes, we are bloody Campo!

We don’t deliver to Campo. You can have a post box, but for that you need form XY-double-de-dub from the Town Hall.

The Town Hall don’t know anything about the form, but they do ask if we are Campo.

We are so Campo that after an hour in the Town Hall offices we discover our house is not actually the house on the town plans, but that’s fine, this is Spain, they will correct that for us right there and then. It often happens, they say, houses are sold and sold again but nobody bothers to tell them about it. We will have to wait several months before it is official. Where should they send the paperwork?

But it all worked out in the end, and then as we were about to leave the very nice lady asked if we wanted to vote in the European elections. We could, because we owned a house in Spain, she said. It might not be the house shown on their plans, but we looked like nice people, so we now have authorised forms allowing us to vote in the next Euro elections.

Coming to Spain from the UK is a strange experience, one you need time to adjust to. In a few weeks I will try to explain the joys of shopping in Spain, and next time I’ll wax lyrical over the history of illegal construction.

And yes, if you’re Campo you need to be careful about that. We, it turned out, were lucky.