The Aljaferia of Zaragoza, Wallada Bint al Mustakfi

Aljaferia MihrabAljaferia Mihrab

For many years I've had a poster of an interior of the Aljaferia on the wall in front of my writing desk.

I bought the poster in 1993 when I first did the Camino de Santiago in a car at top speed. On that trip we stopped in Zaragoza for a quick lunch break and went into the cathedral to see La Virgen del Pilar (Pilar is my baptismal name).  I saw the poster and bought it but for years could only imagine what kind of palace would have such arches, such delicate decorative work on its walls.

Entrance to the Aljaferia, ZaragozaEntrance to the Aljaferia, Zaragoza

Finally, seventeen years later, I was able to go and see the fabled Aljaferia, originally called Al-Yafariyya. It was especially important for me to see the Aljaferia now as in my novel-in-progress, The Road to Santiago, I have a character named Zoraya that was born and grew up there between 1080 and 1096.

The palace that I will describe is not exactly the palace that one sees today, but rather what my character would have seen when she grew up there.

Tower of the AljaferiaTower of the Aljaferia

The imposing square tower that is the backbone of the Aljaferia was built first, the lower level in the ninth century and the second level in the eleventh, so Zoraya grew up with a two story tower. It's  a stronghold that protects a well -the Aljibe- that serves up water filtered from the Ebro river. Its level rises and falls with the tide. With these vital elements secured-- water and safety -- a pleasure palace could be built around it. The king only used it on holidays, but for the purposes of my story I have one family living there year round -- the king's female cousin who is Zoraya's mother. Zoraya's father is a merchant who comes and goes, using the Camino as his primary highway. A refrigerator  (a well filled with snow in winter to keep foodstuffs cold) was found under the stairs which shows that it was inhabited during winter.

The palace is laid out like an eight century desert Ommayid palace such as would be found in Jordan or Syria: it's square-shaped, 87 by 78 meters, an entrance door between two semicircular pillars, an inside space roughly divided into thirds. This division into thirds is repeated in the design throughout. For example, there are three towers on each face as well as a tower at each corner.

Turrets of the AljaferiaTurrets of the Aljaferia

The middle third is the inhabited space and is also divided into thirds, a large receiving  area fronted by a portico with an upper level, a patio in the middle, and a private housing area also fronted by a portico which would have been the primary space where women spent their time. 

In other palaces the portico was screened off but here it was open. Each portico had its own large pool, at least one of them set above ground level so people could walk around it. 

Salon Dorado, AljaferiaSalon Dorado, Aljaferia

The larger room was more sumptuously decorated, so much so that it was called El Salon Dorado, the Golden Room. Next to the public receiving area there was a room for the king to retire and rest and a tiny Mosque. This is where the image in my poster has come from: it's of a portion of the decorated wall and the herring-bone shaped door that leads onto the mithrab. Sunlight would have fallen through the domed top which had layered openings at the time but now the opening is sealed off. It would have been a lovely and convenient place to pray, especially when prayers had to be said five times a day.

Traces of paint on the decorative work still survive,  red and blue and gold. In fact the whole palace would have been a riot of color as all the decorative work was painted, there would have been tapestries on the walls and pillows and low tables on the floor. We had had tea in a teahouse in Toledo which had tried to convey a sense of environment like that although in a packaged way. 

Artist's Reconstruction of Aljaferia in XIth CenturyArtist's Reconstruction of Aljaferia in XIth Century

Most of the carving work is of intertwined leaves but there are a couple of animal figures. The tour guide tells us that the ban on animal figures was more of a practice followed in public spaces than a true religious interdiction, and that in a mostly private spaces like this one a few animal figures might be seen, specifically, a carved bird in the foliage and somewhere else a horse. 


Grove by the AljaferiaGrove by the Aljaferia

From 1046 to 1082 Abu Ya'far Ahmad I al-Muqtadir bi- llah ruled here, and four of the inscriptions in the palace, most of the surviving ones, contain his name and indicate that it was at his orders that this palace was built. One late inscription indicates that he was in power due to the grace of God -- an indication that by 1065 the theocratic basis of his rule had to be reinforced. 

In the last years of his reign Abu Ya'far was recognized by the Arab rulers of Huesca, Tudela, Lerida, and Denia (now Alicante) which were all ruled by his brothers. He convinced Valencia to give him access to the sea which improved his ability to trade. 

And there were many other inscriptions, all gone now, of verses from the Koran. The verses distinguished between those born into the faith and those who submitted to it-- I'm not sure what that difference would have been. 

The verses were also written with a "alphabet soup" effect, meaning that in addition to the main phrases spelled out in one color, other alternative phrases were spellednout, and clues to them were in letters spelled out in another color. This would have made an excellent primer for Zoraya to learn how to read, and I think that those particular Koranic verses would have come back to her, unbidden, at critical moments, or simply when she had flashes of deja vu. I have to do more research to find out which verses were on the walls; look for that in a future blog. All I know right now is that one of them referred to the seven heavens.

I imagine that Zoraya would have learned to read from her Arab mother, but she would have learned Ladino from her duenna who would have been a Spanish slave who learned Arabic on the job but taught Zoraya Ladino. Once I've thought that through I realize that as a christian slave the Duenna might have gotten invested in Zoraya's affair with a fellow Christian, perhaps seeing it as her own way to freedom, especially if she suspected that the new husband, the wealthy Moor that Zoraya is betrothed to, wouldn't have a place for her in his household.

Women's Portico, AljaferiaWomen's Portico, Aljaferia

It is very hard to imagine what the lives of these women would have been like, as there is next to no data on them -- even the tour guide in San Juan de la Peña didn't know what year King Pedro's daughter Isabella died. He must have mourned her as she is buried next to him, but that's all we know about her. 

I looked around for someone I could base Zoraya on, or at least a historical character that would give me some sense of what it was like to be a well- to-do Moorish woman from Spain at this time, and of course the one I found was a writer, one of the few women who could leave us a record of her own  life. She is Wallada Bint Al Mustakfi, born in Cordoba in 1011 and died there in 1091. There is very little information available about her, but I did find an article in a magazine publishedoutnof then U.A.E., which I quote from below. Here is the source.

Wallada was the daughter of the Caliph al-Mustakfi Billah, Mohammed the Third, who reigned for only two years, 1023-1025. She was greatly admired for her fair skin and blue eyes, which gave her a very special, exotic appeal for the aristocats of Cordoba. She had a unique reputation for wit, eloquence and intelligence. Famed for beauty as well as independence, Walladah inspired verses from other poets and wrote her own, becoming poet and author as well as singer. Her poetry was noted for its boldness. In fact, she was so proud of her beauty that she refused to wear the veil when she went out in the streets of the city, thus enraging the local religious people. It was the time of the great fitna, (rebellion) when the Berbers were rising up against the Umayyad Caliphate, and religious tension was high.

But Cordoba was in many ways very liberal. This was because the Andalucian society of the time was a multi-cultural one, a mixture of the Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures, the epitome of the convivencia in medieval Spain.

Wallada not only refused to cover her face, she also was very outspoken and free in her personal behavior, thus becoming a symbol of liberation for the women of her time. She resisted all efforts to keep her in her traditional place, and to prevent her from choosing the lovers she preferred.



When she was accused by a judge of being a harlot, she responded with an act of defiance. She had one of her own poems embroidered on the gown she wore in the street, for everyone to read. It said:

On the left side:

I am fit for high positions by God

And am going my way with pride.

And on the left:

I allow my lover to touch my cheek

And bestow my kiss on him who craves it.

Her most famous relation, a true and passionate love story, was with Ibn Zaydun, one of the greatest Arab poets of the time, born in 1003 and died in 1071.

Although Ibn Zaydun was a leading figure in the courts of Cordoba and Seville, he was most famous among the people of his day because of his scandalous love affair with Princess Wallada. They did nothing to hide their passion, and at her literary circle, when the poets began improvising, as was their custom, they would allude to it quite openly. On one famous occasion, Wallada uttered this impromptu verse, as she gazed upon her lover's face:

I fear for you, my beloved so much, that even my own sight even the ground you tread even the hours that pass threaten to snatch you away from me. Even if I were able to conceal you within the pupils of my eyes and hide you there until the Day of Judgment my fear would still not be allayed.

And he, returning her glance just as ardently, responded:

Your passion has made me famous among high and low your face devours my feelings and thoughts. When you are absent, I cannot be consoled, but when you appear, all my cares and troubles fly away. When she offers me jasmine in the palm of her hand I collect bright stars from the hand of the moon.

Doorway in the AljaferiaDoorway in the Aljaferia

Ibn Zaydun's prestige as the leading poet and the lover of the most beautiful woman of Cordoba awakened much jealousy among his rivals, such as Ibn Abdus, the Caliph's Vizir. The Vizir created a venomous intrigue aimed at destroying his enemy's friendship with the Caliph and also his romance with Wallada.

At first he failed, but then succeeded in catching Ibn Zaydun making love to Wallada's favorite slave, an African girl. The proud Princess was so hurt that she wrote him a poem of rebuke:

If you had been truly sincere in the love, which joined us, you would not have preferred, to me, one of my own slaves. In so doing, you scorned the bough, which blossoms with beauty and chose a branch, which bears only hard and bitter fruit. You know that I am the clear, shining moon of the heavens but, to my sorrow, you chose, instead, a dark and shadowy planet.

Ibn Abdus then made his rival jealous by letting it be known that Wallada had taken him as her lover, and by walking beside her in the streets of Cordoba. The arrow hit its mark, and the wounded Ibn Zaydun bitterly wrote these lines to the woman he thought had spurned him:

You were for me nothing but a sweetmeat that I took a bite of and then tossed away the crust, leaving it to be gnawed on by a rat.

Although the Caliph was fond of Ibn Zaydun, the scandal reached such proportions that he had him thrown into prison, and later exiled him to Seville. The hapless poet languished there, far from the gardens of the great palace, Medina Zahara, and he passionately missed his beloved Princess. Fortunately for him, the Caliph died soon afterwards and Ibn Zaydun was able to return. The lovers forgave one another and for a while their affair continued, just as passionate and stormy as before. But Wallada now lived in the home of powerful Vizir, who gave her protection, and Ibn Zaydun, disenchanted, eventually decided to return to Seville, where he spent the rest of his life as the favourite poet of the Sultan.

Only nine of Wallada poems have been preserved.