Sayyida al-Hurra, a successful pirate queen of 16th-century Morocco you didn’t know existed

Mildred Europa Taylor August 15, 2022
Sayyida al-Hurra. Photo:

Piracy flourished during the days of Sayyida al-Hurra. Besides the practice involving outsiders or persons attacking and robbing ships in the Mediterranean and other oceans, usually, legitimate governments also sanctioned the practice. What they got from raids was used by these governments to cater to their citizens. Essentially, bounties become their main sources of income.

One of the most important female figures of the Islamic West, al-Hurra used piracy to take care of her people in the city of Tétouan in Morocco, of which she was governor. She caused great damage to Spanish and Portuguese shipping lines, gaining control of the western Mediterranean Sea. Some historians say that al-Hurra became a pirate attacking her Christian enemies because they caused her and her family to flee their home.

A Moroccan of Andalusian origin, al-Hurra was from a family of Andalusian nobles who fled to north Africa, Morocco, after the fall of Granada in 1492. Granada was a Muslim kingdom ruled by Muslims for centuries until it became a part of Christian Spain in 1492. al-Hurra was well educated during her childhood and did well in theology. Still, she was married off to a man 30 years her senior when she was 16.

The man, Sidi al-Mandri II, was the governor of Tétouan, which was at the time Morocco’s major port. Thanks to her intelligence, she helped her husband build the city and run affairs, eventually becoming a de facto vice-governor. The husband and wife-duo started a war against the Portuguese, with their aim being to unify Morocco against Spain and Portugal. In 1515, al-Hurra’s husband died, and that was how Tétouan bestowed her with the title “al-Hurra”, which means “Sovereign Lady, Governor of Tétouan”, or “noble lady who is free and independent”.

Note that al-Hurra wasn’t her real name. Her actual name was Lalla Aicha bint Ali ibn Rashid al-Alami, Hakimat Titwan. 

Being given the title al-Hurra and named governor of the city-state, al-Hurra governed Tétouan for about 25 years. The city prospered, mainly due to piracy. She became an ally of the famous pirate Barbarossa and the two controlled the Mediterranean, damaging Portuguese colonial shipping.

To show how strongly attached she was to Tétouan and her people, al-Hurra refused to leave Tétouan when she remarried to the king of Morocco, Ahmed al-Wattasi. She forced the king to leave his hometown of Fez and come to her for the marriage. Sources say this is the only time in Moroccan history that a king married away from the capital.

After almost 30 years as ruler, al-Hurra was deposed by her son-in-law in 1542. It is not known what happened to her next but some say she moved to Chefchaouen, a city in Morocco, where she passed away on July 14, 1561.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: August 15, 2022


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