Stuart Rudge, author of Rise of a Champion and Blood Feud, joins me for a look at building Islamic Zaragoza

Well, this is a first. Today, I welcome Stuart Rudge to my blog. He’s going to tell us all about his research for his new book, Blood Feud, Legend of the Cid Book 2, available now. So, I hand it over to Stuart and he’s going to tell us about building Islamic Zaragoza, which features in his new book.

Research can be boring and tedious – or, it can be interesting and engrossing. When I was researching the Islamic city of Zaragoza for my latest novel, Blood Feud, I found myself leaning in the camp of the latter. The more I was looking in to what medieval Islamic cities looked like and how they functioned, the more I was looking forward to describing it in my novel. Today, I am going to show you how I researched Zaragoza, and how it might have looked in the days of El Cid. Let’s go on a little tour.

I will start with the name. Before the Romans came to Spain, it was a village named Salduie, and then the Romans founded a colony for retired veterans and named it Caesaraugusta. After the Islamic invasion and conquest, it was renamed Saraqusta, which eventually evolved in to the modern name, Zaragoza. As I like to have historically authentic names to my novels, I have plumbed for the Islamic version of the name, like I have done with all of the various taifa kingdoms in the same period (e.g. Toledo is Tulaytula, Valencia is Balansiya, etc).

Below is a screenshot from Google Maps of the centre of modern Zaragoza, and includes some of the key features of the Islamic settlement. The orange lines indicate the approximate outline of the walls built by the Moors, along with the site of the Aljaferia palace, and La Zuda palace, which were key landmarks of the city in the eleventh century.

Estimated site of Islamic Saraqust

The Aljaferia

The Aljaferia palace is a unique building, as it is one of the only complete structures standing today which dates to the taifa period of Spanish history. Dating to the eleventh century, the palace was named “Palace of the Joy” by amir al-Muqtadir, and he held his court and greeted his embassies in his “Golden Hall” as he described it. The modern interior is largely different to what the Islamic amirs would have walked through, as the city was conquered by the kingdom of Aragon at the beginning of the twelfth century, and over time the Christian monarchs converted it to suit their tastes, but we do have examples of friezes from the eleventh century, and the columns and archways give us an indication of Islamic architectural and artistic styles from the period, as seen below. 

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/72/La_Aljafer%C3%ADa_-_Palacio_taifa_-_Detalle_04.JPG/220px-La_Aljafer%C3%ADa_-_Palacio_taifa_-_Detalle_04.JPG
Column capitals and yeseria, c. eleventh century.
Images: Wikipedia

In its zenith it would have been a place of wonder and beauty, a tranquil palace in the centre of a neigh impregnable fortress just outside of the main city. As the building was being renovated during the latter half of the eleventh century, the only part of the citadel which the story of Blood Feud takes part in is the Troubadour tower, which preceded the citadel by around two hundred years, being part of an earlier fortification which was incorporated in to the Aljaferia palace.   

Aljafería Palace
Frontal image of the Aljaferia palace, with the Troubadour Palace on the right
Image: Wikipedia

La Zuda Palace

Before the amir of Zaragoza moved his court to the Aljaferia palace, the governors of the city were housed in La Zuda palace. Located in the old Roman part of the city, it was built adjacent to the corner section of the Roman wall next to the river, and like the Aljaferia, it was a similarly fortified and secure site.  

The current site is occupied by a sixteenth century tower and an eighteenth century church, which has replaced an earlier medieval church, and since none of the Islamic site remains, we have no definitive way of knowing what the palace would have looked like. In my view, the exterior wall would have looked something akin to that of the Aljaferia, albeit on a smaller scale. The interior is where imagination is needed. I took inspiration from the Aljaferia, the Alcazar of Seville and the Alhambra of Granada, three of the most famous Islamic palaces in Spain, thrown in with some artistic creativity, to create what I believe would have been a (roughly) accurate portrayal of what an Islamic palace would have looked like; a tranquil haven away from the hustle and bustle of the city. An example of what I came up with is below:

“Walking around the palace, I wondered why al-Muqtadir was moving his court to the citadel outside the walls. As we passed through the gate, we entered a courtyard with a long pool which stretched to a hall at the opposite end, with trees bearing peaches, lemons and pomegranates that ran parallel to the pool. Pointed archways with alternating black and white painted blocks were held up with thin black columns, and the walls were painted white with black script running down each wall. The colonnades around the periphery led to side rooms shielded with silken drapes, whilst bronze incense burners hung from the ceiling, filled the air with a perfumed scent intensified by the sweetness of the fruit trees. Court officials sauntered here and there as guards stood vigil with tall spears; each man wore the uniform of pale yellow favoured by the amir. There was relative silence within the palace save for the occasional chatter which echoed in the corridors, and made it a tranquil haven away from the commotion of the city.

            Idris led us across to the opposite side of the courtyard and through to a large hall, and here the decoration was more elaborate. The walls bore intricate patterns painted in vibrant blues, reds and yellows, and it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I marvelled and let my jaw hang slack, for something so striking was rare in Castile and I could have lingered all day to drink it in. Fine bronze statues of stags lined the walls too, and the domed ceiling was of smooth, dark stone studded with small pieces of coloured glass, so it resembled the stars twinkling in the night sky. The perfumed scent intensified, and the air was filled with the sound of a man uttering what seemed like poetry to an audience.”    

The Roman City

By the eleventh century, the shell of the old Roman city of Caesaraugusta would still have been intact. The fact that part of the Roman walls still stand suggest they would have stood in some capacity in the Islamic period. We know that some parts still stood, as they do today, yet other parts would have been stripped of their masonry to be used elsewhere in the city for new structures, and only the foundations would have remained to form some sort of border or barrier. As the Moors built another wall around their own city, there was no need to fully maintain the Roman fortifications.

Estimated site of Roman Caesaraugusta

Part of the section in Zaragoza involves Antonio tailing an old foe towards the wharfs, and again later on when he is trying to prevent his escape. In my research I found scant information relating to what the Islamic wharf would have looked like at the time, and had to improvise. But around a month or so before I was going to release the book, I stumbled across the website Zaragoza.es. On there, it had a little pamphlet with information about the Roman forum, the wharf and the walls. From the below picture, we can garner quite a lot of how things looked.

Artist impression of how the Roman forum and wharfs would have looked. 
Image: Zaragoza.es

The central structure and wide open space is the old Roman forum, which was the beating heart of the city, and the structure below it, facing the river, is a huge warehouse. The image below shows a reconstruction of what the warehouse may have looked like.

Cross section of old Roman warehouse.
Image from Zaragoza.es

We know from sources that the forum was all but gone by the eleventh century; given the close proximity to the river, it is likely the area was turned in to a large market. It is also likely that the warehouse was still functioning at this time, and was used as a place to store goods coming straight from the ships before being taken to market, or further afield on the back of mules. Given the length of the wharf and the amount of ships that could have been docked at any one time, it is not hard to imagine the area as a hive of activity, with men coming from all corners of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, bringing goods such as spices, leather and metal work, raw materials from far off lands, luxurious silks and linens, and even slaves.  

After conducting all of my research, I made myself a little map with all the different sites of the city, and where the Roman and Islamic parts of the city would be. Here is what I came up with:

https://stuartrudge.files.wordpress.com/2020/03/zaragoza-2.png?w=611
My interpretation of how Saraqusta would have looked

The characteristics of both the Roman city and the Muslim city would have been very different. Roman cities generally followed a set of rules; wide, straight streets, close to a water source, with strong walls and a central open space called a forum, where the principle administrative buildings were located. Muslim cities tended to be more compact, with narrow, winding streets, branching off to cul-de-sacs of homes for the inhabitants, with a large space reserved for markets, and various mosques scattered throughout the cities. One example for the differences was transport. The Romans used wagons to transport their goods, and so main streets had to be wide enough to accommodate two wagons travelling abreast, whereas Muslim traders used pack animals such as mules, and so the streets would not be as wide. In a warm climate like Spain, narrower streets coupled with white washed walls of the buildings made the cities feel cooler, darker and more compact.

I hope you have enjoyed this little tour around the medieval city of Zaragoza. For a more in depth look at how I envisioned it, pick up a copy of Blood Feud, the second book in the Legend of the Cid series, and explore the secrets of one of the great taifa states of the medieval period.

Blood Feud is available now, and can be picked up from Amazon here.

One thought on “Stuart Rudge, author of Rise of a Champion and Blood Feud, joins me for a look at building Islamic Zaragoza

  1. Pingback: Blood Feud Blog Tour Posts | Stuart Rudge

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