Thursday, July 26, 2012


Colin Falconer

Mumtaz Mahal, inspired the Taj Mahal
Mumtaz Mahal
In the west we think of Romeo and Juliet as the archetypal lovers, the ultimate romantic couple. Yet India has perhaps better claim to the accolade than Italy; if you want to find a monument to the world's greatest love story, you will find it in one of India’s most polluted and industrialized cities, not the cobbled medieval streets of Verona.

India’s Juliet was born Arjumand Banu Begum, in Agra, northern India, the niece of the Empress Nur Jehan, wife of the Emperor Jehangir. She was fourteen years old when she was engaged to Prince Khurram - later to become the Shah Jahan. But she had to wait five years for the marriage, for a date chosen by court astrologers as propitious for a happy marriage.

For once, the court astrologers got it exactly right.

In the intervening years the Shah had already taken two other wives; but after he married Arjumand he was so taken with her that he surrendered his polygamous rights to other women in order to be only with her. He later conferred upon her the title ‘Mumtaz Mahal’ - the chosen one of the palace.

According to the official court chronicler, Motamid Khan, the relationship with his other wives ‘had nothing more than the status of marriage. The intimacy, deep affection, attention and favour which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence (Mumtaz) exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other.’

Of course, the affections of princes can be notoriously fickle; but not in the case of Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal

Mumtaz became his trusted companion, and travelled with him everywhere, even on military campaigns, despite her frequent pregnancies. Court historians go to elaborate lengths to document the intense and erotic relationship the couple enjoyed. His trust in her was so profound that he even gave her his imperial seal, the Murh Uzah

Buranphur, where Mumtaz Mahal died
Burhanpur: photograph Md iet
In their nineteen years of marriage she bore him thirteen children, seven of whom died at birth or at a very young age. But in 1631, while him accompanying on a military expedition in Burhanpur (now in Madhya Pradesh) she died while giving birth to their fourteenth child, a daughter named Gauhara.

The Shah was reportedly inconsolable. He went into secluded mourning for a year and when he appeared again, his hair had turned white.

The first half of his life had been dedicated to their marriage; the second half of it he dedicated to her memorial.

In 1631 he had her body disinterred and transported in a golden casket back to Agra. He then set to work planning the design and construction of a suitable mausoleum and funerary garden for the woman who was the love of his life. It was a task that would take more than 22 years to complete: he was still laboring over her tomb in his fifties. 

Taj Mahal
the Taj Mahal

 He had translucent white marble brought from Rajasthan; jade and crystal from China; turquoise from Tibet; carnelian from Arabia. He brought in the finest artisans in the Empire. There were sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia, stonecutters from Baluchistan.   

When it was finished it became one of the wonders of the world and remains the iconic emblem of India; the Taj Mahal.

mausoleum, the Taj Mahal
But the construction bankrupted the Empire and soon after its completion, he was deposed by his son Aurangzeb and put under house arrest at nearby Agra Fort. 

It is said that he could not see the Taj from his cell so he hung a crystal in the high window so he could see its reflection there. When he died, Aurangzeb buried him in the mausoleum next to his wife.

Theirs was one of the great love stories of history. And as the four million tourists who flock to Agra every year will attest, it was indeed a love that did not grow old. 

harem, colin falconer, suleiman the magnificent

See Colin Falconer's HAREM here.

See more history at 
Looking for Mr Goodstory here
From History and Women

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Colin Falconer

Helen of Troy
The face that launched a thousand ships?
Beauty, passion, jealousy, corruption, treachery, lust.

It could be just another day in Washington or Hollywood; instead these are the key ingredients in a story that happened over three thousand years ago, in the Middle East.

The tale was inspired by one of the most beautiful and enigmatic characters in all history; her name was Helen. 

She was to become a symbol for all mens' erotic desires, her legend  intricately and intimately entwined with that of the Greek pantheon.

Leda and the Swan
Her father was Tyndareus, King of Sparta. Or was he? Others say she was sired by a god, one dedicated to the torment of all mankind - Zeus. It is said that he slept with her father’s queen, Leda, while disguised as a swan. 

Another legend claims her mother was the goddess Nemesis, who turned into a goose to try and escape Zeus's attentions. So he transformed himself into a swan in order to ravish her. She then left the egg with Leda.

But however she was conceived, she grew to become the most beautiful woman in the world; and when she was of a marriageable age, Tyndareus looked for a suitable husband for her. 

Every prince and hero in the Greek world competed for her hand and with great prescience, Tyndareus made them all swear an oath to assist the eventual winner should Helen ever be stolen.

He then sold her to the highest bidder - Menelaos.

Aphrodite and Paris
But Zeus had not finished plotting. He organized a beauty contest among three rival goddesses; Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. He then named a mortal Trojan prince named Paris as the judge.

But it is with gods as it is with us; the fix was soon in. All three girls tried to bribe him to choose them as the winner. Hera promised him power; Athena promised him wealth; Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in the world. 

Paris chose Aphrodite and she rewarded him with Helen as her part of the bargain. It didn’t matter to her that Helen was married - that was a problem for mortals, not for gods.

Helen and Paris
was it like this ...?
Paris went to Sparta under the guise of a diplomatic mission and when Menelaos left for a brief visit to Crete, he claimed his prize and abducted Helen. Some stories say Helen went willingly, seduced by Paris's charms; others claim that he kidnapped and raped her.

the rape of Helen
... or like this?

Whatever the truth, when Menelaos discovered that his wife was missing, he was enraged by this abuse of his hospitality. He called upon all the other Greek princes to fulfill the oaths they had made, and help him get her back. 

An armada set sail for Troy - Helen thus became 'the face that launched a thousand ships.'

The war against Troy lasted 10 years, and laid waste the surrounding land, (now part of western Turkey), costing thousands of lives. During this time Helen grew disenchanted with Paris; his brother, Deiphobus, took her as his paramour when Paris was killed.

In the Iliad, Homer paints Helen as a poignant and tragic figure, filled with self loathing for the destruction she has caused. The Trojans have come to hate her: ‘no longer have I anyone beside in broad Troy that is gentle to me or kind; but all men shudder at me.’

the fall of Troy
the fall of Troy
Other ancient writers describe her as treacherous, claiming she signaled to the Greeks when the Trojan Horse was admitted to the city, and then hid her new husband's sword when the city was overrun, thus leaving him to the mercy of Menelaos.

When Menelaos finds her, he raises his sword to kill her; but, at that moment she lets slip her robe and the sight of her beauty makes him drop his sword, all thoughts of revenge forgotten.

Her fate is cloudy; some say she sailed back to Greece and lived a long and happy life as the wife of Menelaos; others that she sought exile on Rhodes, and was lynched.

Helen of Troy
'What part of "I want a pony" don't you understand?
Her precise role in the fall of Troy is a matter of legend rather than historical fact. In this way, the interpretation of her role has served  as a mirror to society’s view of women through history, rather than a view of Helen herself.

Since ancient times she was blamed for her extraordinary beauty and the effect it had on men. Beauty then was her curse, while it was also vindication for the actions of the men around her. 

But when we look at the story and Helen’s actions, none of it was her doing; she was first sold to the highest bidder by her father, then abducted from her home at the behest of the gods. The story makes her never more than a puppet in the machinations of men and of heaven.

Yet she is portrayed as the type of woman that all other women should envy and therefore hate; and that all men should fear and yet desire. 

Helen of Troy
photograph: Marie-Lan Nguyen

The story thus remains as fresh and relevant today as it was three and a half thousand years ago, when it was whispered around the fires of more ancient times.

Helen of Troy
"Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships ...
 Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss."
... Christopher Marlowe (Faust, 1604)

Does beauty bestow immortality and happiness? If we look into the haunted face of Helen of Troy, we find our answer. 

Hers is indeed one of the greatest stories ever told.


See Colin Falconer's latest novel, Anastasia, here, 
and more history from Colin Falconer at  

From History and Women

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Women Who Ruled: Razia Sultana of India

By Lisa J. Yarde

History often reads a lot like “his story” - a list of exploits from the men who came, saw and conquered. It has its fair share of powerful female rulers: Hatshepsut, Cleopatra VII and Elizabeth I. A consistent theme is that most of these women lived in the sway of male influences, until they met tragic, lonely ends. Women have exercised limitless influence in some of the most unexpected places.

At a time when most Muslim women lived veiled and secluded in harems, many remarkable females made their bid for power. One among them was Razia, the eldest daughter of Sultan Iltutmish, who reigned in Delhi for 16 years until 1236. Educated and with a strong interest in politics, she became her father's regent during his campaigns.On his deathbed, Iltutmish expressed his wish that Razia would rule in his stead, but this command offended the Indian nobles. Iltutmish insisted. “My two sons have given themselves up to wine, women, gambling and the worship of flattery. Government is too heavy for their shoulders to bear. Razia, though a woman, has a man's head and heart and is better than twenty such sons.”

In defiance of their father's decree, Razia's half-brother Rukn-ud-Din Firuz, supported by the nobles and factions loyal to his mother Shah Turkaan, took the throne.Six months into the new ruler's reign, Razia appeared before the congregation at Friday prayers and spoke of the excesses of her half-brother. He was assassinated along with his mother. Supported by the masses, Razia ascended the throne of Delhi at the age of 31. During her four-year reign from 1236, silver coins issued in her name bore her official title “Jalauddin” but she referred to herself as “lmadatun Niwan”, which meant the Great Woman. Razia Sultana dressed like a man and rode an elephant through Delhi with her face unveiled.

Rumors about her close relationship with an Ethiopian slave, Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut, caused her downfall. Her governors rebelled on the suspicion that her slave was her lover. They forced Razia to marry Malik Atunia, the governor of Bhatinda. However, the second of her brothers, Muizuddin Bahram Shah, usurped the throne. Razia and her husband died fighting against him in October 1240. Her final resting place remains a source of controversy; there are at least three sites where her body could have been interred. Legends surrounding Razia have made her popular in Indian culture; the 1983 Urdu film Razia Sultan is a fictionalized account of her life, as is Rafiq Zakaria's novel, Razia: Queen of India.

From History and Women

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


The life and times of one of the world’s most famous female spies
by Colin Falconer
Just before dawn on October 15, 1917, a woman was woken by a deputation of religious and turnkeys in the Saint-Lazare prison, just outside Paris. She was driven to the Vincennes Barracks where a twelve man firing squad awaited her.

A few moments later Mata Hari was dead.

Mata Hari
It was the end of the line for possibly one of the most famous female spies in history.

Mata Hari was born Gertrud Margarete Zelle. In a society best known for blonde, blue-eyed women, little M'greet stood apart, with her thick black hair, black eyes, and olive complexion. She claimed distant Javanese blood.

Her father was a successful businessman and M’greet enjoyed a lavish early childhood. But when she was 13 he went bankrupt. Her parents divorced and when her mother died soon afterwards she was left in dire straits.

her husband, Rudolf and son, Norman
At 18, she married a Dutch Colonial Army Captain, twenty years her senior, who went by the unusual name of Rudolf MacLeod. He was posted to Java and there she bore him two children, Jeanne and Norman-John. But Rudolf was a drinker and a womanizer and the marriage was unhappy. 

Then in 1899, both children fell violently ill in mysterious circumstances. It was claimed they had been poisoned by an irate servant though other versions say it was the result of their treatment for syphilis contracted from their parents - almost certainly  Rudolph. Jeanne survived, but Norman died.

The family returned to Holland where M’greet sought a divorce - a scandalous move for a woman in those days. Rudolf reacted bitterly, putting an advertisement in the Amsterdam newspapers: "I request all and sundry not to supply goods or services to my estranged wife Margaretha MacLeod-Zelle."

For a while she sought refuge with various relatives and became a sad charity case. She had no marketable skills, no husband, no job, and no income.

female spies
It was in 1905 that she re-invented herself as Mata Hari, (it’s Javanese for Eye of the Dawn), posing as a Javanese princess, immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance. After her debut at the Oriental Studies Museum in 1905 she achieved overnight fame. Think Lady Gaga and Marilyn Monroe.

The most celebrated segment of her act was her progressive shedding of clothing until she wore just a spangled bra and some jewellery. (She was seldom seen without a bra as she was self-conscious about her small breasts). ‘My dance is a sacred poem,’ she told her audiences. 
Mata Hari
Her sacred, naked poems became outrageously popular with ecstatic audiences throughout Europe, because what she had done was invent the modern form of striptease. 

Naturally, she attracted the attentions of a number of powerful men; high-ranking military officers, politicians, and aristocrats. These liaisons frequently took her across international borders.

During World War I, she had a passionate May-November romance with a young Russian pilot who was flying for the French. When he was wounded in 1916 she asked to visit him at a forward hospital in a neutral zone. French officials at the Deuxieme Bureau gave her permission - in return for her spying on the Germans. After all, she had once been the intimate of Germany’s crown prince.

What happened next is unclear. The French later claimed she had already been recruited by the Germans under the code name H-21 and she was arrested on her return to Paris in January 1917.

Mata Hari with jeweled bra

It is interesting to note that French allegations were based on intercepted messages passed in a code that the Germans knew had been broken. Germany's motive may have been to lure France into killing one of their own or because she was truly a double agent.

But it is also suspicious that the French prosecutor asked to hold the trial "in camera" (in secret) and to seal the records "for the good of national security." The motion was granted and the huge crowd who had shown up for the proceedings were shooed out of the courtroom.

her scrapbook from Fries Museum, Leeuwarden
Under the military trial rules of the time, the defence could not cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses or even question its own. So the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion.

Her execution by the French may have been a serious miscarriage of justice. Perhaps she was no double agent at all.

Yet she remains one of the most famous spies in history, because of her stage act. Just the idea of an exotic dancer using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her many lovers fired the popular imagination. The 1931 film starring Greta Garbo was pure fiction; her name has endured not because she was such a great spy, but because men liked spying on her.

the execution of Mata Hari from a 1921 film
Even after her death, her mystery endured.  After a threat by the French government to close the Museum of Anatomy in Paris in 2000, it was discovered her head had disappeared from a collection of mummified heads of victims of the firing squad and guillotine.

The court file cannot be opened before the 15 October 2017, exactly one hundred years after her execution. This might finally shed some light on the actual truth.

Until then we can only guess whether Hari, Mata Hari, should be remembered as The Spy Who Loved Me or The Stripper Who Loved Everyone.

Or perhaps the truth is even more poignant; having dragged herself single-handed from abandonment and destitution, here was a remarkable woman who achieved fame and fortune on her own terms, and justifiably felt she no longer owed any loyalty to anyone.

They say that at the end she refused a blindfold and blew a kiss to the twelve man firing squad: it seems she ended her days as she lived them -from Java, with Love. 

See Colin Falconer's latest novel, Anastasia, here, 
and more history from Colin Falconer at  

From History and Women

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


The Life and Times of the Inimitable Lola Montez
by Colin Falconer

She was one of the most notorious women of the Victorian era. She was undressed by kings and saw some things that a woman ain’t supposed to see. 

She even inspired a popular nineteenth century catchphrase: ‘Everything Lola wants, Lola gets!’

'Lola Montez"
She could shoot, she could dance and she took a horse whip to anyone she didn’t like. She even brought down a German monarch.

And all before menopause.

She was born Eliza Gilbert, in County Sligo, Ireland in 1821. She went to boarding school in Scotland where she soon made an impression on her teachers who described her as an elegant and graceful child, with eyes of ‘excessive beauty’ and an ‘orientally dark’ complexion. 

They also noted a violent temper and a stubborn streak.

At 16, Lola eloped with one Lieutenant Thomas James. They did not live happily ever after. Five years later Tom sued her for divorce, citing adultery. It was granted on the condition that neither party ever married again.

So barely in her twenties, she was already a woman with a past; an elopement, an adultery and a divorce meant that she could never hope for anything like a normal life in Victorian England. Her solution was as eccentric as it was unexpected. She took herself off to Spain to learn the flamenco. Eliza Gilbert, disgraced wife, re-invented herself as Lola Montez, exotic dancer.

Lola Montez
She premiered her erotic Tarantula Dance - it was her own invention - at Her Majesty's Theatre in London in 1843. But her disguise did not fool some, and when she was outed as the former Mrs James (ex-Army trollop) she was hounded out of Britain and fled into the arms of an admirer - Prince Heinrich of Thuringia, in Germany.

He was to be the first in a long line of Prince Charmings. Thanks to his patronage, she soon became a favorite in European court circles, performing for the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia among others.

It’s a pity that while taking flamenco classes, she didn’t also sign up for anger management 101. While in Berlin she horse-whipped a police officer who had the temerity to try and remove her from a royal parade field. 

Things went from bad to Warsaw when she went to Poland, where her stage performance almost caused a riot. She was placed under house arrest and then threatened the policeman sent to guard her with a dagger.

Undeterred, she embarked on a rhapsodic affair with Franz Liszt. Typically for someone with a quick temper, she lost her composer.

In 1844 it was on to Paris, and the next in her long line of lovers, newspaper editor Alexandre Henri Dujarier. After he died in a pistol duel, she took the arm of Alexandre Dumas Pere, author of 'The Three Musketeers.'

Two years later she headed for Bavaria, thinking to earn some spending money performing in the Munich Oktoberfest. But when the State Theatre told Lola her dancing might cause moral offence, she appealed the decision to King Ludwig of Bavaria himself. The King was far less concerned about offending public morals, as we shall soon see, and allowed her to debut in a play called, fittingly, 'The Enchanted Prince.'

Her next major role was as his mistress.

Ludwig built Lola a palace and named her the Countess of Landesfield. Some even called her the uncrowned queen. 

But she was no Princess Diana; arrogant and haughty, Bavarians saw her as Princess Uncharming. Ludwig's relationship with her contributed in no small measure to his fall from grace. As hatred for Lola grew, Ludwig's entire cabinet resigned and after a revolution in 1848, the King also abdicated.
Lola returned to London. 

Never one to mope, she married George Trafford Heald. a young army officer with a recent large inheritance.

But the marriage broke the conditions of her divorce, and Lola again had to flee Britain for France or face life behind bars. She and Heald ran up huge debts in Paris. Well, Lola did. George fled back to England.

She went to America, and in San Francisco she married Patrick Hull, a local newspaperman. But that marriage soon went out of circulation too.

She tried to revive her career by entertaining miners during the Victorian gold rush in Australia. In September 1855 she performed her erotic Spider Dance at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne.

Next day the Argus thundered that her performance was 'utterly subversive to all ideas of public morality'. After reading another bad review in The Ballarat Times, she attacked the editor, Henry Seekamp, with a horse whip.

She ended her days in New York. On 30 June 1860, she suffered a stroke which left her partially paralyzed. By Christmas Day she had recovered enough to hobble outside for a breath of fresh air but the chill air gave her pneumonia and she died a month later.

And so ended the life of one of the nineteenth century’s most astonishing and enigmatic women. Defying the conventions of her age, Lola lived a riotous and passionate life utterly on her own terms. 

She is buried in Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn beneath a tombstone inscribed Mrs Eliza Gilbert - a name she never used. As a final insult it gives her age as 42 - she was only 39.

Lucky for the engraver she wasn’t around to correct him. She would have taken the horsewhip to him.

What is also missing from her headstone is a suitable epitaph for such a remarkable woman. It might well have been.

Everything Lola wants - Lola gets.
See Colin Falconer's latest novel, Anastasia, here, 
and more history from Colin Falconer at  
From History and Women