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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Best Books Ever! What are yours?

I was asked to choose my 20 best books ever for The Book Club, a readers' group on facebook. Impossible of course! This is the list I came up with. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments! And help yourself to some Christmas goodies while you're thinking about brain food!

Pink Rheims biscuits
1. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
Book 1 in a trilogy showing dystopian survival in a reality TV game where the forced participants can die. Not my type of book, I thought, but I could not put it down. I love the feisty teen heroine who's a deadshot with bow and arrows and no book better captures the post-truth machinations of current politics. (I've been wanting to use the word 'post-truth' since I discovered it was Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year 2016.)

2. The Gate to Women's Country - Sheri Tepper
Fantasy novel that turns what-if into a gripping story. What if there were a way to organise society so women can have great sex with unsuitable men AND also ensure that children are protected and nurtured? I read every fantasy book Sheri Tepper writes, for the way she creates amazing worlds, tells a good story and makes me see our own world differently.

Starry starry blinis
3. H is for Hawk - Helen McDonald
Best Autobiography
Autobiography about two interwoven emotional journeys; grief and training a goshawk. A book to savour for the beautiful way its written, for its passion and honesty, for its expertise regarding birds of prey and their training. A bonus for me is the analysis of received wisdom from the past re training hawks, in particular via quotations from the troubled soul T.H.White (another of my favourite writers).

4. The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Best Children's Book
The French Winnie-the-Pooh; a children's book with observations on life that strike a chord with adults. Full of quotable quotes! 'People have forgotten this truth,' the fox said. 'But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.'
Goodreads has 659 favourite quotes from this book so I think you'll find one that hits the heart!

French Christmas log

5. Mums Know Best - The Hairy Bikers' Family Cookbook
Best Cookbook
A recipe book collated from family recipes throughout the U.K. during the Hairy Bikers'  television tour. A tribute to Mums and to home cooking, with recipes that all work and that show the whole multi-cultural range of the British people and our food. When my French neighbours sneer at Britain's lack of cuisine, I tell them 'You find world cuisine in Britain' and nowhere is that more true than in this cookbook. It makes you want to write down all your own family favourites; I still use the splotched, handwritten recipe for Grandma's Christmas Cake although my mother is dead now and I am the Grandma. The photos are good too and as I'm a food shooter (with a Nikon D750 as weapon of choice :) ) I have hundreds of cookbooks and am very fussy about the photos.

6. The Visual Toolbox:60 lessons for stronger photos - David duChemin
The best photography book. From a master of travel / landscape/ wildlife photos who works with natural light. Offers inspiration and guidance, whatever level of photographer you are. In DuChemin's company I gain confidence in who I am as a photographer; I learn what I want to improve and how to do it. His own photos are a joy.



7. Assassin's Apprentice - Robin Hobb
Epic fantasy.
Book 1 of the Farseer Trilogy. Illegitimate and unwanted, young Fitz has to fulfil the only role at court which is offered to him - that of assassin. As the kingdom faces invasion, Fitz discovers his own magical powers and has to learn to control them, for his king and country's sake. The grand, heroic adventure swept me away, I fell in love with the wolf, and I read every Robin Hobb book the moment it's available. Training in magic has become clichéd but Robin Hobb pits the illegal Wit (bonding completely with an animal) against the court-controlled Skill (telepathic communication and control of humans) and, uniquely, Fitz has to master both kinds. The relationship between Fitz and his Wolf is as deep and convincing as those between the various humans.

8. Chéri - Colette
Very French love story.
First published in 1920, when France was where the British went to be naughty, Colette's story of a 19 year old boy and his 43 year old female lover is a sensual classic. Worldly-wise courtesans and pretty young things (male and female) play out their relationships against a backdrop of gowns and soirées. I discovered Colette when I was 18 and the whiff of decadence fascinated me as much as her beautiful, poetic style. She taught me about pearls. She also taught me that a woman could break all the rules, as a writer and as a woman. Colette was the first woman to be accepted into the all-male Académie française, and a poster showing her with her cat in St-Tropez is beside my desk. She was my first inspiration as a writer. Chéri is no longer shocking but this slight volume lingers in the imagination like French perfume.


9. The Map of Love - Ahdaf Soueif
The best epic love story. Set in colonial Egypt and present-day, the story of a young English widow who meets the love of her life is revealed through the discoveries of her descendant, who also goes to Egypt. The relationship between Anna and Sharif is a heart-melter for any romantic and the exotic background takes you on a voyage of discovery.

10. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
Best BIG 19th C novel. Historical romantic suspense set in the 17th C with the best swordsmen in the whole of France. The historical equivalent of shoot-outs and car chases; sword-fights and breakneck horse rides to save the Queen of France. So many characters to fall in love with but my favourite is Milady. The Best Villain ever!


11. The Zebra Affaire - Mark Fine
Historical / Literary Fiction. He's black, she's white, and in 1970s South Africa their love affair is a criminal offence. There are chunks of non-fiction you can read if you want (I loved them) as a love story challenges apartheid. Totally authentic in time and place with a real love of South Africa despite the horrors. Reminded me of 'Doctor Zhivago' and feels relevant again today.

12. Shogun - James Clavell
Best block-busting page-turner. The adventures of a 17th century English sea-captain surviving in the violent politics of Japan - and I mean violent. Gut-wrenching (this is the culture of hara-kiri after all!) high adrenalin and romantic. Bushido code, world trade, culture clash and steamy tea ceremonies. The beautiful translator Mariko is wonderful and so much depends on the choices she makes, we agonise on her behalf. An emotional roller-coaster, whether you like historical fiction or not.

13.  The Game of Kings - Dorothy Dunnett
Best historical fiction with fictional heroes in real 16thC events, starting in Scotland. Book 1 in the six-book Lymond series. Francis Crawford of Lymond is, in my eyes, the most desirable fictional hero ever and his complicated adventures are not short of romance. Intelligent, wide-referencing and thrilling, Dorothy Dunnett's books are the ones I'm most flattered at my historical novels being likened to.

14. Steppenwolf - Hermann Hesse
Modern classic. Appeals to the middle-aged lonely werewolf in all of us, the one who looks in the mirror with distaste and is willing to follow a free spirit into The Magical Theatre and dive into life's might-have-beens to discover what still could be. Wild psychic adventure!


15. Soul Music -  Sir Terry Pratchett
Best comic fantasy. The Grim Reaper's grand-daughter has to learn the family business; Death. Stands alone but set in the many-novelled Discworld where Pratchett fans like me have their favourite characters and set of stories. Death is mine, with his grim sense of humour and his kindness; the character of Death in 'The Book Thief' derives directly from Pratchett.

16. Sailing to Sarantium - Guy Gavriel Kay
Best historical fantasy. Based on medieval Byzantium but 'given a quarter turn to the fantastic' is how G G Kay describes his technique. He captures the grand sweep and scale of history in all his books, with characters who know they are part of something bigger, characters who make me feel in awe of their nobility, their love affairs, their creative work. He makes me feel proud to be human (not easy!) And there's a heart-pounding chariot race.



17. Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien
The first fantasy novel, ever, and it's epic. If you've read other fantasy novels you'll recognise the elements: the band of elves, dwarves, men and hobbits, heroes who have to save the land from the forces of evil, with the help of Gandalf the wizard. What keeps it fresh for me is that Tolkien did it all first and there was nothing like this before TLOTR I can feel Sauron's eye seeking me out and I identify completely with the struggles of small people burdened with the responsibility of the cursed ring.

18. The Distant Sound of Violence - Jason Greensides
Modern urban fiction about British teenagers from different cultures. They have big hearts but the world's against them. You just want to adopt them all but the adults in their life have no idea what they're going through - or don't care :( An ending that stays in your mind, powerful and gives hope.



19. I Heard The Owl Call my Name - Margaret Craven
Modern fable. A young vicar, who does not know he is dying, is sent to a native American village where the two religions/ mythologies take the reader on a spiritual journey in two cultures. You don't have to be religious (I'm a sort of humanist) to respond to the wisdom in this novel, a metaphor for how to live well and accept death, when the owl calls your name. 'Don't feel sorry for yourself because you are going to so remote a parish. Feel sorry for the Indians. You know nothing and they must teach you.'

20. The Bees - Laline Paul
Best novel about bee-ing. Suspense and dystopian paranoia drive the story because 'they' are out to get the young bee Flora 717. She tries to keep out of trouble while knowing that something is terribly wrong in the hive. Underlying the survival adventure is an accurate knowledge of bees. I'm a registered beekeeper, having followed practical training for three years in Provence, and the micro-view of the world created by Laline Paul is correct in all its facts and possibilities. If bees could speak human, this is the story they would tell and as well as being a page-turner, it's an important story for the planet.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

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.


Saturday, October 1, 2016

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?


Photojournalist

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!




Saturday, March 5, 2016

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
'Believable, page-turning and memorable.' Lela Michael, S.P. Review
Winner of the Global Ebook Award for Best Historical Fiction 
1150: Provence
 
amazon link


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


www.jeangill.com