Written by : Laura Sook Duncombe
The phrase “Muslim woman” evokes a wide variety of images today, many of them dangerouslyprejudicial; one image that’s not conjured up nearly often enough is that of an independent and beautiful woman who had the King of Morocco in the palm of her hand—and also controlled much of the western Mediterranean Sea with her ruthless pirate fleet. In 1515, Sayyida al-Hurra became the last Islamic queen, the last woman to hold the title of “al-Hurra.” But the name we know her by now is just her honorific: she is a pivotal figure in the history of the Islamic West, but no one remembers her real name.
Sayyida (as she’s commonly called) was also known as Hakima Tatwan, which means governor of Tétouan, the northern Moroccan city that she ruled. She was born sometime around 1485 to a prominent Muslim family in the kingdom of Granada, which is part of present-day Spain. Her early childhood was happy, but in 1492—the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue—Sayyida’s life changed dramatically. Catholic Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the Muslim Granada at the close of the Reconquista, and Henry Kamen estimates in Spain 1469-1714: A Society of Conflict that Spanish armies murdered and enslaved up to 100,000 Muslims and forced another 20,000 to flee.
Among the refugees were Sayyida and her family. Sayyida never forgot the indignity of being forced to flee her home, and she vowed to avenge herself on her Christian enemy.
Sayyida decided to play the long game—she didn’t enter piracy until 23 years after her family’s exile. In the meantime, she and her family settled in Chaouen, a city in present-day Morocco. She she married a man named Abu al-Hasan al-Mandri, a man many years her senior to whom she’d been promised to as a child. Al-Mandri was the head of another prominent refugee family from Andalusia who lived in and governed nearby Tétouan. (Some sources claim she married the son, al-Mandri II, and not the father, but it seems from the place she obtained in Tétouan’s government that she most likely married the elder al-Mandri.)
Despite the age difference, there seemed to be genuine affection, or at least respect, between the pair. Sayyida was her husband’s “partner in the diplomatic game,” according to Fatima Mernissi in The Forgotten Queens of Islam. They ruled the city side-by-side, united in their hatred of the Spanish and the Portuguese. Together the al-Mandris restored Tétouan, which had been destroyed in 1490. The high walls that fortified the city were re-erected first, and then the Grand Mosque was built. Narrow, mazelike streets warded off invaders, where jewelers and and leather workers hawked their wares in front of low, white houses. The Old City of Tetouan is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, in part due to the restoration work done by Sayyida and her husband.
Their domestic bliss ended in 1515, when Sayyida’s husband died. Like many female pirates before and after her, her husband’s death played an important role in her ascent to power. She declared herself sole governor of Tétouan and obtained the “al-Hurra” title.
But no matter how high Sayyida she rose, she could never shake off the feelings of shame and fear that came with her family’s exile. And Sayyida was not alone in her desire for revenge. Since 1492, elite Andalusian families had been plotting to take back their Granadan homeland, and indeed, Sayyida’s husband had been fortifying Tétouan with the intention of launching a holy war against the Catholics. But efforts up to this point had been largely uncoordinated and unsuccessful.
Sayyida knew just how to rectify that. She knew what her community needed: pirates.
Sometime after her first husband’s death and 1520, Sayyida made contact with the Barbary pirates known as the Barbarossa of Algiers. They were the spark Tétouan needed to ignite their attack against the Spanish and Portuguese. Sayyida, presumably under the Barbarossas’ guidance, assembled a fleet and began her strikes on the Portuguese shipping routes in the Mediterranean Sea. If she couldn’t regain Granada, she could at least make Tétouan great with money she stole from Catholic coffers.
Sayyida was the “undisputed leader of the pirates in the Western Mediterranean,” writes Fatima Mernissi in The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Exactly why she was so readily accepted as a ruler is up for some debate. It’s true that the region had been ruled by several strong female monarchs, including Sayyida’s enemy, Isabella of Spain. Her association with the [male] pirates the Barbarossa may have helped as well. It is also quite possible that she was just very, very good at what she did. She was certainly motivated: her community and her family had been dealt a heavy blow by the Catholics, and she was very publicly hitting them back.
And, what’s more, everyone was benefiting from her labors.
The money Sayyida’s pirates brought home rebuilt city walls and caused the once-floundering area to flourish. Families who had lost everything to the Reconquista were repaid. Pockets were full and the area was prosperous. Sayyida was a popular ruler, by then a veteran at exercising the power she had wielded beside her husband publicly since her early teens.
As is a theme even with the most powerful women in history, Sayyida’s exploits are, unsurprisingly, not well-documented. Stories tell that she captured the Governor of Portugal’s wife in 1520, and Spanish papers from the period tell of onshore raids in Gibraltar. Her fleets took prisoners, either enslaving them or selling for ransom, with the money going back into Tétouan’s refurbishment.
For twenty years, Sayyida ruled the Western Mediterranean with the Barbarossa holding down the East. Hostage negotiations went through her—everything having to do with piracy went through her. She may have never set foot aboard ship (she was still busy ruling the bustling city-state of Tétouan) but she was still in charge The rulers of Spain and Portugal knew her as a force to be reckoned with. She is mentioned in official state papers by her title, and was referred to as “lady-ruler” so often that the governments of Spain and Portugal wondered if that was in fact her real name.
Towards the end of her piratical career, in 1541, Sayyida married the King of Morocco, Ahmed al-Wattasi. They had come into contact years earlier when Sayyida and her first husband sent a delegation to the King in Fez to apply for permission to settle Tétouan. The King granted their request and must have taken a shine to Mrs. al-Mandri. Sources do not mention how they became engaged or when, but it’s suggested that the King was fairly besotted with Sayyida and wooed her from Fez. The Historical Dictionary of Morocco reports that the King took the unprecedented step of leaving Fez and traveling to Tétouan for their wedding—the only time in Moroccan history that the king left the capital to get married. (Think of the hubbub when Prince William goes to Bucklebury to visit Kate’s nonroyal family, multiply that by a thousand, and that is approximately how big of a deal it was that Sayyida married the King of Morocco in her hometown, not his.) Sayyida’s no-nonsense take on marriage continued after her marriage to the King. She ruled Tétouan as before, refusing to give up her governorship or piratical activities.
If Sayyida’s life up through 1542 was sparsely documented, it is even less well recorded after that time. She was most likely deposed by her stepson, a son of the King, in that year, after nearly thirty years of solo rule of Tétouan. This coup is shrouded in mystery: most sources only note the year of her deposition and nothing more. She was stripped of her power and property, and after that, she disappears from history altogether. There are no records of her later life or death. This remarkable woman—beloved Queen and fierce pirate—slipped quietly, and quickly, from the throne.
I wish much more was known about Sayyida. Her transformation from refugee to Queen is a Cinderella story of unusual satisfaction: I can picture her as a tiny child, face streaked with tears, watching the lights of her home fade away from the deck of a ship, promising to herself to make those who had taken her life from her pay. And she kept that promise, and so much more. She revitalized her new hometown, governed a large and important city-state.
And still, all we have of what must have been a life full of adventure and romance is a skeletal sketch. But maybe that brings us to another point. In finding the scant facts of Sayyida’s life, we can dare to imagine the rest. In dreaming up the life she might have led, we can conjure up some fantasies for ourselves. That is not to say that holy wars and revenge vendettas are something to aspire to—quite the opposite. But her determination, her wisdom, her pride, and her sense of self-worth are virtues valuable to all women, not just 15th century pirate queens.