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Sayyida al-Hurra, Sovereign Lady who turned pirate.

Sayyida al-Hurra: Noble ‘Sovereign Lady’ Who Terrorized the Mediterranean As A Pirate


Sayyida al-Hurra was a notorious female pirate who lived between the 15 th and 16 th centuries. She was active in the western part of Mediterranean, and frequently targeted the ships of Portuguese and Spanish traders. In addition to being a pirate, Sayyida al-Hurra was the governor of Tetouan, and eventually married the Sultan of Morocco. Although she was hated by her European enemies, her fall from power was not caused by external forces, but from internal ones, as she was overthrown by her son-in-law.

Sayyida al-Hurra – Sovereign Lady

Most of the information regarding Sayyida al-Hurra comes from Christian, in particular Portuguese and Spanish, records. It is from these sources that we find the name Sayyida al-Hurra, which in fact is a title that translates to mean ‘Sovereign Lady’. Few of those writing about her were aware of this and assumed that this was her actual name. As a result, her real name has been lost to history, though it is assumed that it was Aisha.

In any case, Sayyida al-Hurra was born around 1485 in the Kingdom of Granada, the last Muslim state in the Iberian Peninsula. Her father was Moulay Ali ibn Rashid, a tribal chief, while her mother was Zohra Fernandez, a Christian who converted to Islam. The family belonged to a noble clan known as the Rashids, who trace their ancestry all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad via Idris I, who founded the Idrisid Dynasty in Morocco during the late 8 th century.

Portrait of Sayyida al-Hurra of Tetouan. (Victorcouto / Public Domain)

Portrait of Sayyida al-Hurra of Tetouan. (Victorcouto / Public Domain)

In 1492, Granada fell to the forces of the Reconquista and many Muslims fled south into North Africa. Among them were Sayyida al-Hurra and her family, who eventually settled in Chefchaouen or Chaouen. As the child of a nobleman, Sayyida al-Hurra was provided with an excellent education, being tutored in such subjects as mathematics, theology, and languages. Later on, Sayyida al-Hurra married Abu Hassan al-Mandari, who was 30 years older than her. Some sources say that she married him when she was 16, while others state that she was 25 years old when the marriage took place.

Like Sayyida al-Hurra and her family, al-Mandari was also a refugee who had fled from Spain. He was the head of another noble clan and his marriage to Sayyida al-Hurra had been arranged many years before. al-Mandari had settled in the city of Tetouan and had become its governor. Sayyida al-Hurra was treated as an equal by her husband and helped him in the administration of the city. When al-Mandari died, sometime between 1515 and 1519, Sayyida al Hurra became the sole governor of Tetouan.

Sayyida al-Hurra Becomes a Pirate

At some point of time, Sayyida al-Hurra became a pirate. Some have speculated that Sayyida al-Hurra never forgot the fall of Granada, and vowed to avenge this loss, as well as to retake Andalusia from the Christians. Although she was not able to take the Spanish and Portuguese head-on, she was able to wreak havoc on their sea trade via piracy, which was exactly what she did.

Painting depicting Sayyida al-Hurra’s family moments after the fall of Granada. (Macucal / Public Domain)

Painting depicting Sayyida al-Hurra’s family moments after the fall of Granada. (Macucal / Public Domain)

Therefore, she formed an alliance with the infamous pirate Oruç Reis, who was known as Barbarossa in the West. While Barbarossa terrorized the eastern part of the Mediterranean, Sayyida al-Hurra was active in the west and frequently targeted Portuguese and Spanish merchant ships. These ships would be raided and their crews taken captive. The Portuguese and Spanish were then forced to negotiate with Sayyida al-Hurra for their release and large sums of money were paid to her.

Sayyida al-Hurra Gains Wealth and Power

The wealth accumulated by Sayyida al-Hurra, as well as the power she wielded, made her a force to be reckoned with in North Africa. This was realized by Ahmed al-Wattasi, the Sultan of Morocco, who proposed to marry her so as to form an alliance. Sayyida al-Hurra agreed to this, on the condition that the sultan travel to Tetouan to marry her. This was unprecedented, as it was always the woman who had to travel to her future husband’s city for the marriage. The sultan agreed to this, and after the marriage, the two lived in their own separate capitals, evidence that the marriage was purely for political purposes.

Portrait of Ahmed al-Wattasi, the Sultan of Morocco, whom Sayyida al-Hurra married to form an alliance. (Victorcouto / Public Domain)

Portrait of Ahmed al-Wattasi, the Sultan of Morocco, whom Sayyida al-Hurra married to form an alliance. (Victorcouto / Public Domain)

Sayyida al-Hura’s fortunes did not last forever. In 1542, the Moroccans were in open war with Portugal. Taking advantage of the chaos, Ahmed al-Hassan al-Mandari, Sayyida al-Hura’s son-in-law (as well as a relative of her first husband), formed alliances with the enemies of Ahmed al-Wattasi and succeeded in overthrowing his mother-in-law. Sayyida al-Hura disappears from history after that, but it is thought that she returned to Chefchaouen and died there 20 years later.
Sayyida al-Hurra is still remembered in Morocco today, and in 2016, there were plans to produce a historical drama based on her life.

Top image: Sayyida al-Hurra, Sovereign Lady who turned pirate. Source: selenit / Adobe.

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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