After the Spanish Catholics chased her family from their home, she turned to piracy. For decades, she dominated over the western region of the Mediterranean Sea, while the famous Barbarossa ruled the east.
The seas were a dangerous place after the Middle Ages, when privateers rose across the world. Pirates became nightmarish apparitions and ruthlessly preyed on anyone not bearing an ally’s flag, and in the 16th century, this was particularly true of the Mediterranean Sea. As Catholic nations expanded to the other ends of the Earth, Islamic and Turkish pirates sought to undermine Christianity’s power in Europe by controlling the seas. Among those privateers, there was one particularly noteworthy. A ruler among rulers, an infamous killer, a beloved figure. A woman. A queen. Her name was Sayyida al Hurra.
Born Lalla Aicha bint Ali ibn Rashid al-Alami in 1485, in the region of Andalusia, Spain, Sayyida was fortunate from childhood. She was the daughter of Ali ibn Rashid al-Alami, sometimes known as Sherif Moulay Ali Ben Rachid, a nobleman and founder of Chefchaouen, “the blue pearl” of Morocco.
As a noble child, Sayyida was privileged. She enjoyed the best education available and all the comforts provided by her status. But then, by the time she was seven, something went wrong. The Spanish invaded her hometown.
It was 1492. The Spanish Reconquista, when the Catholic kingdom expelled or converted the remaining Muslims in Spain, was ongoing. The Catholics were bent on retaking the Iberian Peninsula, and they didn't play around. Sayyida and her family ran away and settled in Chefchaouen, as many other Muslim refugees did at the time. The Spanish were ruthless. Even though she was very young, she would never forget being driven away from her hometown—nor would she ever forgive the people who did it. From then on, she would harbor hatred for the whole of Christianity, especially against Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Spain’s rulers.
The ruler of Tétouan
Around the turn of the century, at only 16 years old, Sayyida married Abu Hassan al-Mandari, re-founder and king of the city of Tétouan, becoming the de facto queen. He was 30 years older than her, though that simply wasn’t an issue back then—it was a strategic marriage arranged long before it happened.
Tétouan began as a small fortress, but it grew into a full-fledged thriving city due to the refugee influx from the Reconquista. It existed before Abu al-Mandari resettled it, but had been destroyed by the Spanish around 1400, as it became a hub for piracy. The city was destined to go back to its roots.
Some 14 years into the marriage, in 1515, Abu died, leaving Sayyida as the sole ruler of Tétouan. It was after her husband’s death that she assumed the mantle of “Sayyida al-Hurra, Hakimit Titwan,” which means “great noble and free lady, sovereign of Tétouan.” The rightful queen of her city, she showed skilled for government from the start, having enjoyed a full education from her childhood and marriage.
Turn to piracy
Still resentful for her family’s forced exile from Granada, Sayyida set out to take revenge. She planned to turn Tétouan into a pirate city once again and profit at the expense of the Spanish, so she wasted no time and sent envoys to the east. A meeting was arranged between her and the king of the Mediterranean pirates, Oruç Reis, also known as Barbarossa. He was actually already an ally, as he had helped with the relocation of several refugees fleeing the Catholic armada. Friendly towards each other’s cause, Sayyida and Barbarossa agreed that she would control the western portion of the sea while he ruled over the eastern side.
And she took her role with enthusiasm. She was quick to send ships to prey on Catholic merchants, mostly Portuguese vessels who soon grew to loathe her name. Though she never ventured out in the seas herself, she skillfully managed the whole operation from her city.
The Pirate Queen
For decades she raided Christian nations relentlessly, growing in popularity among the pirates and Muslims alike. Her power grew to such heights that even Sultans acknowledged her domain over the seas. The Spanish were forced to negotiate with her after a successful raid on Gibraltar in which the pirates took “much booty and many prisoners,” and this notoriety granted her more prestige than many kings in the region.
In fact, Sultan Ahmed al-Wattasi, after offering to marry her, was left with no option but to travel to Tétouan for the ceremony as per Sayyida’s terms, an unprecedented event that served to show the sheer dominance of the pirate ruler (especially considering she was ruler of a city-state, a far lesser title than a Sultan). After her marriage with the Watassi king, she became a queen in every sense of the word: not only as governor of a city, but as sovereign of a whole sultanate.
As powerful as she was, by 1542 an alliance had brewed that forced Sayyida to abdicate. Relatives of the queen’s first husband reached out to her enemies to retake the city. While she was distracted with the war on Portugal, rivals of the Watassi dynasty eventually grew too forceful and, with their help, Sayyida’s son-in-law overthrew her. She retired to her old home in Chefchaouen, where she died in 1561.
But her legacy lived on. For centuries after, pirates following her example controlled the Mediterranean Sea, and she, the last person in Muslim history to hold the legitimate title of al Hurra, was forever remembered as “one of the most important female figures of the Islamic West in the modern age,” a true Pirate Queen.
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