Monday, November 6, 2017

El Rey Lobo, the Wolf King of 12thC Murcia

During the 12th Century, there were two crusades which pitted Christian armies against Muslims and Jews in 'the Holy Land' and in continental Europe. However, it would be as naive to think that these faith communities were 'enemies' throughout the 12th Century as to think that Germany was an enemy to  the U.K. or to France throughout the 20th Century. Wars and political alliances have never been simple, and the true story of El Rey Lobo, the Wolf King, sheds light on real politics in 1153.  

Romantic 19th C painting of a Caliph and his escort, often used to depict El Rey Lobo but NOT of him
Not a fantasy invention but a real historical figure, the man nicknamed 'El Rey Lobo' in Spanish ('The Wolf King'), ruled the kingdom of Murcia from 1147, when he was twenty-three years old, until his death in 1172. He was crucial in the defence of the Christian kingdoms in the north of the Iberian Peninsula, against the Almohad Muslims in the south - and he was a Muslim. 

Typical of the complications in real history, his ancestors had converted to the Muslim faith, so he was described as 'muwallad', an Arabic term for 'of mixed background'. Some say his nickname came from the family name Lope, which was abandoned when his Christian forebears converted to Islam.

The Spanish Kingdoms in 1210
In 1153, Abu ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Mardanīš (to give the Wolf King his full name) was the King of Valencia and Murcia. For the more romantically inclined, his wolf nickname could have arisen from stories such as his treatment of a relative, Yūsuf, who challenged his authority. Having won a battle against Yūsuf, El Rey Lobo threatened to gouge out his eyes unless he gave the order to surrender. Yūsuf refused and lost his right eye. El Rey Lobo then ordered Yūsuf's wife to surrender the castle or else watch her husband blinded. She refused and Yūsuf's other eye was removed. He was then imprisoned. Such was the mercy of the Wolf King. 

His kingdoms were sandwiched between the Christian realms of Barcelona and Aragon (both ruled by the Count of Barcelona, thanks to the marriage coup of the century) and the southern taifas of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). Relationships were amicable between El Rey Lobo and his Christian neighbours, with trade links and tolerance of mixed-faith communities. 

Tolerance did not mean equality and the laws favoured the faith group in power, whether in Muslim Murcia or Christian Aragon. Jews held positions of high status in both Muslim and Christian kingdoms but were expected to keep to their own community for accommodation, social occasions and - a big cultural division - eating.

The medieval arms of Aragon showing a moor's head in the lower left quadrant
One example of a Christian ruler's laws: 'I likewise grant to all settlers this prerogative... whether Christian, Moor or Jew, free or servile, [they] should come in safety' 

[In a court case] the Christian should swear on the cross and the Jew on the Torah. And if the Jew or Christian does not want to swear, he should lose the case. 
(from The Code of Cuença, late 12th Century)

Relationships were not amicable between El Rey Lobo and his fanatical southern neighbours, the Almohad Muslims. These invaders brought extremist views with them from North Africa and, even more than they hated Christians, they hated their fellow-Muslims. They hated the Almoravids, Muslims who'd been lords of Al-Andalus for centuries until the Almohads arrived. And they hated those like El Rey Lobo, of 'mixed' background.

In short, Muslims who'd been settled a long time on the Iberian Peninsula, and who now governed peaceful mixed-faith communities, betrayed their own faith, from the Almohad point of view, and were worse than Christians. 

There was no doubt that the Almohads' conquest of southern Spain and advance northwards was El Rey Lobo's biggest threat. An alliance with his northern, Christian neighbours was in both their interests. How was that alliance secured? Did Ramon Berengeur IV of Barcelona and Aragon perhaps take a party of his men to El Rey Lobo's stronghold of Monteagudo? What did Berengeur offer to gain Murcia's defence of his southern border? 

El Rey Lobo's Castle of Monteagudo with the more modern addition of a statue of Christ
That meeting is the starting-point for my historical novel 'Song Hereafter', in the court of El Rey Lobo, where Ramon Berengeur and his two commanders seek an alliance with Murcia. One of those commanders is Malik, the Muslim from Zaragoza, and one is his friend, the Christian warrior and troubadour, Dragonetz los Pros, fictional hero of The Troubadours Quartet.

Song Hereafter
1153 in Hispania and the Isles of Albion
Chapter 1

'Usually when El Rey Lobo bared his teeth, everyone in his line of sight wondered whether to do likewise and call it smiling, or to wait and pray for invisibility. Men had been killed for doing either. He had earned his nickname ‘the Wolf King’. The men in front of the king today were not, however, his courtiers but his Christian neighbours of Barcelone: Ramon Berenguer and two of his commanders. They were not currying favour but seeking an alliance.
Ramon was sombre. ‘Without the King of Murcia, we would have the Almohads in our gardens. I hear they make a virtue of killing.’
‘And of dying, too. In order to ‘purge’ this land.’ the king replied. At the mention of the Almohads, El Rey Lobo’s face darkened beneath his turban, and his mouth pursed as if accustomed to spit at the name. His swarthy features, oiled beard and flowing robes gave no sign of his Christian ancestry and it had been many generations since his family had converted to the Muslim faith of their overlords.
 He continued, ‘They will not rest until all our people are dead. All of our faith who have made this country our home for generations. We have ‘sinned’, we are ‘unbelievers’ and the penalty is death for me, for our wives, for our children, for men like your commander Malik. They will make slaves of Jews and Christians but us, they will kill.
They are superstitious barbarians from the hills of Africa! They shave their heads before battle. What pious man would do such a thing? And their black slaves thump on great drums the size of cartwheels. When you hear the beat of their war-drums, you hear your own death. This is what my men must face! Their own hearts beating in fear!’
Dragonetz listened intently to his Liege and the Wolf King, sifting courtesies from nuggets of information. They were all waiting for the king’s terms.
El Rey Lobo dismissed the Almohads with a defiant gesture and began the bargaining. ‘The Almohads are not causing me a problem today. If you want to solve the problems I have today, go and find me a mintmaster and an expert in siege warfare.’ He paused for thought, then held up a third finger. ‘And somebody who will repair a paper mill. These are the problems that take up a king’s time! When you take away these headaches, we can talk about protecting boundaries and Almohads!’

To continue reading, for more details and buy links for Song Hereafter (the last book in the award-winning Troubadours Quartet) please visit my website . Book 1 Song at Dawn is on promotion at 99c / 99p if you wish to start this epic saga at the beginning but Song Hereafter can be read as a standalone.

Further Reading
Medieval Iberia, Readings from Christian, Jewish and Muslim sources, edited by Olivia Remie Constable
Photo credits
Map of the Spanish Kingdoms, courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin. Castle of Monteagudo By SergioHC (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 es (], via Wikimedia Commons
Arms of Aragon, the Aljaferia, Zaragoza - Jean Gill
Song Hereafter - cover design Jessica Bell
Painting by Theodore Chaserieu of Caliph Ali Ben-Hamet, public domain

Friday, June 30, 2017

A picture paints a thousand … dollars

The 13th Sign copyrighted Publisher logo
As writers, we want images for our book covers, blogs, adverts and tweets. It is so easy to break the law if I find the perfect picture online. All I have to do is right-click, save it and use it. Simple! As simple as picking up sweets in a shop and pocketing them. You probably wouldn’t do the latter because a) it’s stealing and b) if you get caught, you don’t just pay the price of the sweets. The same applies to using images without permission and there are some horror stories doing the rounds about the price of being caught.

I’m a writer and a photographer, with a stock portfolio of 3,500 photos at istockphoto and Getty Images. When you buy a stock image, you pay for a license to use it and have the security of knowing you are not breaking any laws. The photographer remains the copyright holder and can earn a living through multiple small sales. If you use any photo without payment (if required) or permission, you are stealing from the photographer.

You would be surprised at which photos sell best. How much do you think each of these photos has earned for me?

Untidy Wardrobe istockphoto file link

The untidy wardrobe has earned $400 and the swamp hag, which involved a gutsy paid model, complicated lighting and a unique (!) location - $20. The wardrobe photo is successful and the swamp hag is not (though of course I love it). If somebody saw the wardrobe and thought, ‘That’s just an ordinary photo; why shouldn’t I use it – and I’ll pay if I get caught,’ I’d lose my income.
All this is a bit heavy when all you want is a little picture for your blog?

You have three legal options. 

1) You could use a photo that is ‘free to use without restriction’ often stated to be ‘under creative commons license’. Here are two of the many sites that offer photos free, even for commercial use.

Pixabay is a gateway to shutterstock and many of the paid stock libraries offer freebies as a taster. Help yourself!
The New York Library is also one of many sites offering free photos. Be careful. Some ‘free sites’ steal photos. You could be in trouble if you use images these sites should not be offering.

A creative commons license does NOT automatically mean that you can do anything you like with a photo. You need to read the terms of each photo, which might limit the use or require credit in a given manner.

2) You can pay for Royalty Free stock photos. Royalty Free does NOT mean free. It means you can use the photo in advertising (e.g. book jackets) and combine it with other images in any way you want. You can Photoshop it to death. Check the license use if you have a bestselling print run – you might need an extended license (usually at about 500,000 copies).

Credit your source where possible and, if you can, the photographer by name. These are your creative colleagues and, if you use one of my photos, let me know and I will publicise the fact! Photographers are your marketing friends!

3) The third option is to use your own (or a friend’s) photos. You avoid all the legal problems that way, right? Wrong. 

Photos that are fine for personal use might be illegal if used commercially and it is your responsibility as photographer (and publisher) to obey the law. Your human subjects have rights so you should have permission from them before using their photo as e.g. a book jacket. Some buildings are copyright protected so you could be sued for using a photo of e.g. the Eiffel Tower at night, without permission.

I mentioned ‘Royalty Free’ photos. Every human subject in my photos has signed a Model Release permitting sale of their photos. There are no brand names, logos or copyright places. As a photographer, you could be sued over any of these issues.

The exception is when you use or sell your photos as ‘Editorial’. This is photo-journalism; travel, news or street photography where you do not always have model permission. Editorial photos can only be used in a reporting context and cannot be changed (i.e. Photoshopped or cropped in a way that changes the context). Laws vary by country but, for instance, even for Editorial, my companies do not allow photos of one child unless model released; several children or a child with at least one adult are acceptable.

If these were your photos, which of these could you legally use for a book cover?

Lyon Old Quarter istockphoto file link

Collioure Harbour istockphoto file link

Answer: all of them require Model Releases or can only be sold for Editorial use. This means that you could use them for a non-fiction (e.g. travel) book but if anybody can be recognised, it’s always safer to have permission from the subject. Number 2 (man hiking) does have a Model Release so is for sale Royalty Free. 

Because we photographers are lovely people, this photo (Romance in Paris) is a gift to you from me, free to use without restriction. Credit is always appreciated and if you let me know of any use, I will publicise that – I love seeing my photos ‘in the wild.’ Incidentally, photographers still own copyright to a photo even if there is no name or watermark on it, or embedded identifying data. Those are mere reminders to viewers that the photo is copyright – they don’t change its status.

If you’re not sure it’s OK then it probably isn’t, so unless you’re willing to go to court, don’t take risks. The main rule is to respect others’ copyright as much as your own and to appreciate that a photographer’s subjects (human and property) have rights too. Only use photos you have permission to use, in the way that you are using them.

I am NOT a lawyer so the opinions given here are based on my experience as a photographer, author and publisher.

You can see my stock portfolio here 

You can see my fine art photo galleries here

First published in 2016 in ALLLi's Self-Publishing Advice Centre 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What kind of photographer are you?

Athabasca Glacier, Canadian Rockies, twilight

In my ongoing search for what sort of photographer I am and how to improve, I've had another professional portfolio assessment, this time from Getty Images. Although focused on stock photography, the comments apply more widely.

'Your best qualities as a photographer are working with real people, real situations and natural light.'

You have to love the stock world distinction between glamorous models and 'real people' :) and 'real situations' means acted-out situations that look real. As to natural light, I do enjoy fooling around in the attic studio with speedlights but, well, yes, 'let's go outside' is more me.

So I know how I could sell more photos as stock but who am I as a photographer, apart from stock? Sometimes knowing who you are NOT is very helpful and I've learned that photography is not just about liking the subject; it's about YOUR personality and lifestyle. So, who are you? Do you recognise who you are - or who you're not? Feel free to add some categories in your comments!

Landscape Photographer

You rise at dawn, spend the day complaining about harsh light and too much sunshine, then come alive again during the twilight blue hour and into the night. People exist to show scale as 'figures in a landscape' and are of no interest in themselves. In fact, people are irritating and you prefer there to be no people at all. You love slow exposures. Tripod, patience and natural light are your tools. You're willing and able to hike to impossible places, carrying 50kg of gear, to get The Shot.

Check out these photographers for great landscapes (and more):-
David duChemin
Chris Hepburn
Ryerson Clark
Paula Connelly

Athabasca Glacier, Canadian Rockies 6 am

Night Photographer

You come out at night, seeking places that no sensible person would go in the dark. Your partner is used to you sneaking out of bed, throwing on some clothes and going out. He/she has given up telling you it is dangerous. Whether in mean streets or trackless wilderness, you wear a cloak of invisibility that, along with your tripod, protects you from violent lowlife, human or animal. Your exposures are so slow they make people disappear and only the essential remains. You love stars. You might even specialise in astral photography.

La Belle Vie

Landscape and night photographer Tommy Dickson said 'I love turning night into day.'

Wildlife Photographer

You have inhuman patience. You could watch a patch of grass all day because three years ago a rare insect was seen on that very spot. You are a stalker. You know your subject intimately; how it behaves, where it goes; its mating habits. You have a David Attenborough commentary going on in your head at all times. You are happy to get close-up and personal with creatures that have big teeth. You think photo manipulation is cheating. You need a telephoto lens that costs the price of a house. You can lose the hiking/carrying and financial requirements if you opt for the macro version and shoot tiny wildlife, close-up.

Finalists in Wildife Photographers of the Year 2016
Check out the wildlife photos (and more) by Guenter Gueni

Street Photographer

You have no scruples about shooting strangers' private moments in public places. You shoot fast and have an eye for composing a candid scene, capturing relationships, emotions and urban settings. Usually, nobody notices you sneaking photos but every now and then a subject looks at camera with a smile, or shock or indignation. You shoot with an unobtrusive prime, probably 35mm, and you like black and white processing.

Apart from the iconic Cartier Bresson, one of the most famous street photographers is Vivian Maier, the nanny, who perfected invisibility but whose photos were never seen until after her death. Modesty? Lack of money for prints? Or scruples about the strangers whose lives she presents?


You care passionately about human rights, the planet and freedom of information. You want everyone to know what's happening in 'the rest of the world' so you risk police harassment, even rape or murder to portray the truth. You started as a travel photographer but you left your viewers' armchair comfort zone and you want to change their attitudes, startle them, stir them into action. You carry two cameras, no tripod, and you like shutter priority - it's not a question of shooting fast, but rather of how fast you shoot. If you slow down, it's to photograph the people who ought to be in the news, not the people who are. Home can be boring.

Two outstanding photojournalists:-
Anna Puig Rosado
Lynsey Addario

Food Photographer

You buy vast quantities of cookbooks and food magazines for the photos. Eating is a pleasure and you see food as beautiful. An aubergine is sexy and you can see what colours would set it off to perfection. Your house is full of unmatched plates, cutlery, serviettes and other objects bought as food props. Your partner is trained to ask whether you have photographed an item of food before he risks your wrath by eating it. Outdoors/indoors; tripod/free-range; macro/telephoto lens; your choice. As long as you see food items as glamour models, you're a food shooter.

French buche de Noel / Christmas log

My food photography inspiration includes Kelly Cline, whom I met online thanks to istock, and Helene Dujardin (what a great name for a French food shooter!)

Studio Photographer

You're a perfectionist and control freak. There must be no light or shadow in your image but what you allowed and intended. You can shoot beautiful studio portraits but, if you're honest, people are a little difficult to control and what you like best is a perfectly lit product shot. Your studio does not only have lights and every kind of modifier known, including mirrors and gobos; it has a beam and rail systems. You know how to name and use every piece of technology you have and what you most want is a smoke machine. Your assistant takes his/her shoes off at the impeccably clean threshold and whispers while you work.

You know who you are :)

Portrait Photographer

You're a people person. You can make someone relax in front of a camera; talk, laugh, fool around. People trust you and show you who they are, who they want to be and then magic happens. A portrait is an interactive threesome and, unlike food or landscapes, the subject has opinions and can hate the photo. Relationships can hurt and if you don't know what the other person wants, you can both be disappointed; if you work together, you can have more fun than ought to be allowed when working. Studio or natural light; tripod or not; still or movement; your favourite portrait lens (mine's an 85mm f1.4) Just steal somebody's soul!

Check out the portraits (and more) taken by Richard Clark

Architecture Photographer

You get excited at diagonal lines and architraves. You have the urge to lie on your back and shoot a cupola or skyscrapers. Stairwells induce pleasure overload. You are THE mathematical photographer, always aware of symmetry and straight horizontals. If a human being is in front of you, what you see are circles, verticals and curves. Sorry, did it say something? Your weapon of choice is a tilt-shift lens but you'll settle for a wide-angle that doesn't vignette.

Ceiling, The Palace of Joy, Zaragossa

Fashion Photographer

Designer labels and colour co-ordination make your shutter-finger twitch. You know about handbags. Only young, beautiful people exist and you can charm them into impossible poses to show off the real subjects - clothes and accessories. Star-jumps on rooftops and clinging to a cliff-face are only some of your ideas to display voile floating. You are inseparable from your favourite stylist and make-up artist.

Check out three-times-winner of Malta's Fashion Photographer of the Year Kurt Paris , and stunning work from Nils Kahle

Sports Photographer

You don't just support one team; you support twenty and you know the rules of every game, underwater, over hurdles and in the sky. You love action, motion, effort and achievement, winning and losing. If it moves, you shoot it. You like panning, tracking and motion blur. Forget the tripod and sell the house for a super-fast telephoto lens.

Check out Charlie Mann's work.

Of course there are overlaps and specialisms within specialisms; timelapse, underwater, lo-fi, baby-mugging and Pellier Noir are just some that came up when I googled photography categories!

My photographic adventures in 2016 have included organising and shooting professional models in Paris with some amazingly talented photographer friends; giving a ten minute presentation on my work at a Getty Images event; and testing my landscape skills in Zaragossa, Northumberland and the Canadian Rockies. Next weekend I'm attending a portrait workshop with Anna Puig Rosado who lives only 30 minutes from me and is not only internationally respected as a photojournalist but also a warm, friendly person and a great teacher. Watch this space!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Benedictines and bubbly; the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire

From the village of Limoux, not far from Carcassonne, the road to Saint-Hilaire and its Benedictine abbey, winds through woods and vineyards. In October, the mists and autumn colours add to the sense of time-travel as stone walls loom out of nowhere. This probably means you are lost, as we were, and that you should have taken the much shorter road. But then you would not have seen the cemetery on the hill, blooming with chrysanthemums in preparation for Toussaint, All Saints' Day, a national holiday when the French pay their respects to their dead.

The houses of the village encroaching on the abbey
The dead were all around me as I walked alone in the cloisters, the only visitor to an abbey founded in the early 9th century, the place where the body of Saint Hilaire was buried. It was mentioned at this time in a charter from Louis le Debonnaire, confirming donations from his father Charlemagne to Abbot Monellus of St-Hilaire. Early features remain in the later buildings and over time, the village has crept from outside the abbey walls to lean over the church itself.

My spirit guide
If you love medieval history, as I do, you will find treasure here. One of the fascinating characters who has turned up in my 12th century research is the Master of Cabestany but I never expected to find one of his masterpieces in this little village in the Languedoc. Made of one slab of white marble from the Pyrenees, this 'sarcophagus' is more accurately an altar piece because it is far too narrow and could not contain a corpse.
The current setting of the sarcophagus,
which was probably once the main altar, in the choir
Look at the people, gawking out their windows as the martyred Saint Sernin is beaten and torn apart by a goaded bull. He still manages to bless the two women who pray for him. Medieval brutality and Christianity in all its horrific richness.

Medieval rubber-neckers
A jongleur on a  tight-rope is distracted by the goings-on
The goaded bull and animals representing the bestial nature of the saint's oppressors

The identity of the Master of Cabestany is a mystery but his - or could it be their? or even her? work is famous throughout Catalonia, known for a certain style. I find it strange that the story progresses from right to left and, having written about left-handers, I wonder whether this was an accidental left-handed reversal of European writing convention? Or deliberate left-handed choice? Or could the Master have been from another culture, where writing flowed from right to left? It seems more than odd for an artist of this quality not to be aware of conventions. Do let me know your theories!

The story of Saint Sernin, reading from right to left (missing the two side panels),
from his evangelical preaching to his gory end

Mysteries and ghosts were all around me and I jumped when something brushed my leg - a cat who accompanied me with the air of a guide who knew all and wasn't telling. Many monks must have met unnatural ends here and when you climb the pulpit in the monks' refectory, you hear your words of warning ringing out around the hall. The protection of the Counts of Carcassonne was not enough to keep the abbey safe in the madness of the Albigensian Crusade that swept Languedoc in the 13th century and the monks were accused of heresy and merged with Les Frères Prêcheurs, the Dominicans.

The Benedictines emerged from their troubles and endowments from the local nobles continued. Naturally the Abbot's apartment benefited from such generosity and I was feeling cynical as I walked into a room that took my breath away. The textures and patterns on the ceiling reminded me of those in the Palace of Joy in Zaragossa but the addition of satirical portraits make it look like an illuminated manuscript, with which a scribe has had fun in the margins.

Abbot's chamber ceiling, with portraits
Detail of ceiling portraits

Heraldic shields on the walls below the decorated ceiling

My favourite motif - a heraldic beast with banner in its teeth

Patterned rows carved in wood

The walls bear the shields and names of all the Abbots and you can imagine how excited I felt at seeing the dates 1146 and 1154. I get the shivers every time I come across details of the period I write about.
The Abbots of 1146 and 1154

Perhaps the Abbey's biggest contribution to the world came in the 16th century. In 1531 the monks created what is claimed here to be the first sparkling wine in the world, the 'blanquette' for which Limoux is now known and I stood in the very 'cave' or cellar where a monk was surprised by bubbles forming in the corked bottles of white wine, as if they were undergoing a second fermentation...

The birth-place of sparkling wine: the wine cave in St-Hilaire

From its origin in this cellar, bubbly gained international popularity, leading 17th century Irish dramatist George Farquahar to comment, 'Brut sparkles like the lively remarks of a man of wit.'

The famous 'blanquette'
Photo: Agne27 at the English language Wikipedia

As I turned to go, I sensed a lighter presence than the black monks. A faded inscription above a door lintel gave me enough of a clue to work out who used to come here and why. Can you figure it out?

A long discussion with the Abbey curator confirmed my guess - this became the 'Ecole Publique des Filles' in the 19th century so the girls and small boys from the village came here for their lessons. The curator also clarified much else about St-Hilaire and played troubadour CDs for me. Now all I need to know is whether Estela and Dragonetz passed this way, and, if so, why.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Moors who stayed; Zaragoza, Spain

Zaragoza: even the name sounds magical, a fantasy city, and the more I found out about its history, the more I needed to see its medieval treasures. What could stones and ceiling patterns tell me about the people who lived in this city a thousand years ago? About the little boy, Malik of the Banu Hud, heir to the throne of Zaragoza, whose life I wanted to understand as he grew to manhood? Was there a spirit of place?

Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar and the River Ebro

My guide books told me what to see and what to think, veiling me in a mental burka, but for this trip I was determined to see through the eyes of a 12th century Muslim growing up in the palace of his ancestors, the Kings of Zaragoza. The 12th century? Not to Muslims, for whom this was the 5th century in the Year of the Hijra.

Guide books make a big deal about freedom. Places are 'conquered' and 'liberated' but these are often words that can be interchanged, just by changing the point of view. Zaragoza's medieval citizens inherited the infrastructure left by the the Romans for whom it was Caesaraugusta. A city can have many names in its lifetime and each one is a layer of history and language. Caesaraugusta became Saraqusta (Moorish), then Zaragoza (Christian). A visitor is left in no doubt that this is an ancient city, dating back to about 25 BCE (to use the 'neutral' term for the year).

The Roman walls in central Zaragoza
After the Romans came the Visigoths, Then, for 300 years, Moors ruled the city and state of Zaragoza.

The building I had come to see was the Aljaferia, the only surviving example of a palace from the time of the Muslim Taifas (Kingdoms), legacy of the Moorish Banu Hud dynasty and Malik's childhood home. The oldest part dates from the 9th century and is known as The Troubadours Tower, which got my hopes up for a story - but no, the name was given much later, when the tower features in 'Don Quixote.'

The Aljaferia
In medieval times, the words Moor and Saracen were used, rather than Muslim, but the faith was implicit in those terms and explicit in the architecture of what became known as the Palace of Joy. This beautiful mihrab, a niche in the wall, was a focus for prayer in the same way as an altar in a Christian church.
The Moorish Oratory (Mihrab), the Aljaferia
Calligraphy had symbolic and religious importance equal to images in Christian churches, and quotations from the Koran were used as decor and inspiration. Just as medieval Christian scribes sometimes doodled marginalia in illuminated manuscripts, so did Moorish architects indulge in tongue-in-cheek comments chiselled in alabaster such as, 'Have you seen any mistakes?' as well as the more conventional, 'Allah be blessed.'

Late 11th century epigraphic fragment
The gardens of paradise are easier to imagine when you have visited earthly ones, with fruit trees and patterned paving. As in the Moorish gardens of the Alhambra, the water channels are carved in straight lines, ending in gentle water features, spouts and small fountains. In Moorish tradition, the water should bubble in the background and encourage meditation, not explode in high fountains Versailles-fashion.
Known since the 17th century as the Santa Isabella Courtyard, the garden was part of the earliest Taifa Palace
Malik would have eaten the fruit (oranges nowadays) in the gardens, run his fingers through the flowing water and washed his hands in preparation for prayer. He would have peeked through the windows and arches, watched the gatherings of learned Jews and Moors, heard the poetry, music and debates. Famous for its culture and sophistication, the Aljaferia was known as The Palace of Joy, from lines composed by one of its Moorish kings, Abú Yafar of the Banu Hud:-
O palace of joy! O hall of gold!
You embody my aspirations.

Historians might disagree about how happily Christians and Jews lived under Muslim rule in 12th century Spain but there is general consensus now that they socialised and traded together, and were all allowed to worship in their own faith. Christians and Jews paid a tax for the privilege. The city boasted a mosque, a synagogue and a church. What is now the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar was then only a small chapel, but it contained the same wooden Madonna on her jasper pillar (dating from the 1st century) and is believed to be the oldest church dedicated to Mary.

The River Ebro and view of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar
Stone does speak. The keyhole/horseshoe arches 'typical' of Muslim Spain in fact developed from an architectural feature used previously by the (Christian) Visigoths. 

View into the Moorish Oratory, the Aljaferia

The ceiling decoration of the Muslim palace was replicated in the extension to the Aljaferia built by the Roman Catholic Kings who occupied it later, even to the repeated image of the pine cone and other Moorish symbols. 
Ceiling of the Catholic Kings' Throne Room
To build the cathedrals and churches to the glory of their god, these Christian kings employed Muslim architects and, whether you believe in any God or not, the glory of Moorish style in Christian Spain is undeniable. This is what gained World Heritage status for Zaragoza's medieval buildings; the combined vision of Christians, Muslims and Jews, expressed in stone and plaster. Examples of inter-faith collaboration are everywhere.
The ceiling of the 3rd Pacing Room of the Catholic Kings
(Note to self - I need more 'Pacing Rooms'!)
So how did that little boy lose his kingdom? Did crusading Christians destroy his family and his home? Far from it. Militant Muslims fresh from Africa swept through Spain, attacking the residents who had grown 'too tolerant', 'too integrated'. The Banu-hud could not hold their fortress against the the extremist Muslims and in 1110 CE, the Almoravids took the Taifa of Zaragoza for themselves, only to lose it eight years later to the Christian King of Aragon, Alfonso the Battler. 

Side door in the Catholic Kings' Throne Room
The real twist in the story is that the Moors who chose to stay in the new Christian Kingdom of Aragon were offered work, not just as architects and builders, not just as tradespeople, but as generals and soldiers for the King of Aragon. The Banu Hud were no longer kings but they still wielded power in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Such alliances were not new. Little Malik's grandfather fought alongside the grandfather of Aliénor (Eleanor) of Aquitaine and gave him a precious crystal vase, in token of friendship. The vase was given to Aliénor as a wedding present when she became Queen of France and can be seen today in the Louvre Museum.

Malik grew up to be a fictional character in my Troubadours series and I understand him so much better from seeing where he came from and what he lost. I know why he rode under Aragon's colours and was part of the political coup of the 12th century which united Barcelona and Aragon to form an unshakeable power in the north. Today, the city of Zaragoza is the capital of Aragon and hosts its Cortes (parliament) in the Aljaferia itself. I think that would make Malik smile. 

Room where the Cortes of Aragon meets
I wonder what stories the local children are told about the palace as it was in days gone by.

FREE! Song at Dawn, Book 1 of The Troubadours Quartet
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Winner of the Global Ebook Award for Best Historical Fiction 
1150: Provence
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On the run from abuse, Estela wakes in a ditch with only her lute, her amazing voice, and a dagger hidden in her underskirt. Her talent finds a patron in Aliénor of Aquitaine and more than a music tutor in the Queen's finest troubadour and Commander of the Guard, Dragonetz los Pros. 
Weary of war, Dragonetz uses Jewish money and Moorish expertise to build that most modern of inventions, a papermill, arousing the wrath of the Church. Their enemies gather, ready to light the political and religious powder-keg of medieval Narbonne. 
Set in the period following the Second Crusade, Jean Gill's spellbinding romantic thrillers evoke medieval France with breathtaking accuracy. The characters leap off the page and include amazing women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Ermengarda of Narbonne, who shaped history in battles and in bedchambers.
'One of the best historical novels I've read in a long time.' Paul Trembling, Dragonslayer