The Real History Behind Game of Thrones, Part 2: The Dothraki
Previous Great Empires of North America, Part 6: Masters of the Plains
They ruled North Africa, conquered Spain, and transformed European culture forever. Meet the REAL Kingdom of Dorne.
The empire is at war. The southern king retreats to his seaside palace, where he cautiously plots revenge amid sumptuous gardens — with his beloved queen always at his side.
Meanwhile, on the mainland, armies of knights clash in the shadows of towering castles, while their lords maneuver for political advantage in a web of ever-shifting alliances and betrayals.
Peasants and warriors die by the thousands, their bodies left to rot in the hot sun, feasted upon by crows. Rogue armies traverse the war-torn countryside, selling their swords to the highest bidders.
But this isn’t Westeros — it’s Spain, in the 1480s. The king isn’t Doran Martell of Dorne, but Abu l-Hasan Ali, Sultan of Granada. And his enemies aren’t Lannisters — they’re Christian crusaders.
Still, the echoes of Game of Thrones (especially season 5) are unmistakable: an empire ripped apart by civil war. A wealthy noble house seeking to reunite the factions. A southern kingdom politically attached to its northern allies, yet boasting its own proud and distinct culture.
And of course, all those similarities are no accident. George R. R. Martin himself has described Islamic Spain as one of his primary inspirations for the Kingdom of Dorne. In fact, medieval Spain is probably the closest we can get to experiencing the “real Dorne,” up close and hands-on.
Who were the people who ruled medieval Islamic Spain? Where did they come from? What was it like to live in their empire — and what became of them?
I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a journey to Morocco — where our tale begins.
It’s the 11th century — about 400 years before Sultan Abu l-Hasan Ali retreated to his seaside garden paradise to plot revenge on the Christian armies.
Although not all Morocco is desert, the desert is where we’ve come today — because that’s where our story begins: deep in the sands of the Sahara.
The first thing that captures our attention is the sheer emptiness in this place — nothing but rocky sand dunes stretching beyond the horizon in every direction, beneath the merciless heat of a pale blue sky.
As ghostly mirages shimmer in the distance, we begin to notice the silence, too. The air here is so dead that we clearly hear the thumps of our own heartbeats over the soft hiss of swirling sand.
The Sahara’s desolation seems overwhelming. Surely this barren land must be hostile to all life. And yet …is that the thunder of hoofbeats in the distance?
Indeed it is! For thousands of years, people have not only survived, but have found ways to thrive in this wasteland.
In their own language, these Sahara nomads call themselves the Imazighen — the Free People. But the outside world knows them by the name the ancient Greeks gave them: “Berbers” — “barbarians.”
No one knows exactly when Amazigh culture first took root in North Africa — but artistic and linguistic evidence hints that the history of the Imazighen probably began here more than 10,000 years ago.
At sites like Tassili n’Ajjer, rock paintings and carvings in recognizably Amazigh style depict animals like crocodiles and gazelles — which lived here shortly after the end of the last Ice Age, when much of the Sahara was not desert, but fertile riverplains.
The name “Tassili n’Ajjer” means “Plateau of the Rivers” — which means the Imazighen remember what this land was like before the desert sands swept in, more than 10,000 years ago.
Even the written history of the Imazighen spans thousands of years and thousands of miles — which means it’s far too long a tale to tell here.
Just a few highlights: 3,200 years ago, Amazigh warriors conquered Egypt and ruled as pharaohs of the 19th and 20th dynasties. A few hundred years later, they beat back the mighty Assyrian army — then, centuries after that, fought a brutal guerilla war against the Roman Empire.
Along the way, the Imazighen created the distinctive Tifinagh script, which you might recognize as Wakanda’s alphabet from the movie Black Panther:
But as I said, that’s a much longer tale. Here’s my telling of it, which you can bookmark for later:
As for today’s story — it begins in the 11th century, when a new religion called Islam was sweeping across northwest Africa.
Amazigh chieftains converted eagerly to the new religion — bringing thousands of warriors with them. Soon, great armies of camel riders were crying the name of Allah.
But although the Amazigh people shared some cultural similarities with Arab Bedouins, they quickly became known for several striking differences.
In Amazigh culture, for example, men wear veils, and women go barefaced — precisely the opposite of Arabian tradition.
Throughout the Islamic world, Arabs mocked Amazigh men for their supposedly “effeminate” style of dress.
In this scene from Game of Thrones season 5 episode 6 — “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” — we see Jaime and Bron attempting to sneak into the Dornish Water Gardens, disguised in veils that any medieval Amazigh warrior would instantly recognize:
And indeed, Amazigh culture was, on the whole, far more gender-equal than that of the Bedouins. Amazigh women could fight, own property, and vote in assemblies — which made the Arabic traditionalists very uncomfortable.
But for all the nervousness about Islam’s latest converts, nobody could deny their military prowess. In the 1050s, a ferocious Amazigh confederation known as the Almoravids began capturing cities throughout Morocco.
By the 1060s, Almoravid armies had conquered large swathes of Sudan, Mauritania and Algeria.
Along the way, they stopped to found a city named Marrakesh — which remains one of Morocco’s most popular tourist destinations to this day.
In the 1060s, the Almoravids went to war with the Wagadu (Ghana) Empire, and won — capturing some of the richest gold mines on earth.
Here, by the way, is the tale of the Wagadu Empire:
But as the 1100s dawned, it became clear that even more power lay north, in Spain. And when the Muslim rulers of Al-Andalus (southern Spain) needed help fighting a Christian army, who did they call?
The Almoravids, of course! In 1086, a huge force of Amazigh fighters crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, and decimated a Christian army at Castille.
Throughout the 1090s, Almoravid forces consolidated their gains in Iberia — capturing only a few cities, but keeping the Christians well at bay.
Unlike their Islamic contemporaries in Baghdad and Persia, the Almoravids didn’t show a huge interest in art, poetry or science. So far, the Amazigh legacy in Spain was mainly political and military. But that was soon to change.
About 50 years later (in the 1130s) a new Amazigh confederation — known as the Almohad dynasty — thundered into Spain, rooting the Almoravids out of their strongholds and setting up a very different kind of state.
Unlike their Almoravid predecessors, Almohad emirs spent mountains of gold on universities, and commissioned exquisite mosques in oriental style.
But it was the Almoravids’ successors — the Nasrid dynasty — who built the masterwork by which Moorish Spain is most vividly remembered today.
By the 1350s, Christian armies had recaptured most of Spain. Al-Andalus’s last surviving artists and intellectuals retreated to an ancient Roman fortress, atop a hill in the city of Granada.
On that hilltop, the Nasrids constructed their very own Heaven on Earth.
The Alhambra (“Red Woman”) was Spanish Islam’s swan song — a palace complex whose every stone testifies to the highest achievements of Islamic literature, art and science.
The stonework here is some of the most exquisite on earth, weaving every school of Arabic calligraphy into a single geometric tapestry.
Its gardens blossom with plants from every corner of the world — a symphony of color and delicate perfume.
This vision of Heaven was so beautiful that when at last, in 1492, Granada surrendered to a Christian king, the conquerors couldn’t find it in their hearts to destroy the Alhambra.
In fact, by that time, southern Spain had already given birth to an artistic movement known as Mudéjar (“Domesticated”).
This Mudéjar style filters Gothic Christian motifs through the Islamic artistic repertoire, creating architectural wonders unlike anything else on earth.
In this scene from Game of Thrones season 5 episode 6 — “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” — the Dornish royal family plan their schemes in a room of unmistakably Mudéjar design:
And that’s no coincidence! All the scenes set at the Dornish Water Gardens were filmed at the Real Alcázar de Sevilla — an actual medieval fortress in Seville, Spain:
Although the Real Alcázar was built by Castilian Christians, it stands on the site of a Muslim fortress. Its name comes from the Arabic al-qaṣr (اَلْقَصْر, “the castle”) — and it’s now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I myself spent a few hours wandering around the Real Alcázar last spring — and let me tell you, it’s about as close to Dorne as the real world gets.
But beautiful gardens and palaces are only the beginning of Islamic influence on Spanish culture. Amazigh culture left its stamp on Iberia in many other ways — from food and drink to language and music.
Flamenco music and dance — and southern Spanish dishes like paella — still carry faint memories of distant Morocco.
In fact, even the Spanish language itself contains more Arabic influence than many speakers realize. Quite a few Spanish terms for everyday objects — particularly foods, beverages and musical instruments — are just altered pronunciations of Arabic words brought from Morocco.
A surprising number of those Arabic words even found their way into modern English! For example —
The words “alcohol,” “lemon” and “guitar” — along with many others — come to English from Arabic, by way of Islamic Spain.
Though few of us know the Almoravids, Almohads and Nasrids by name, we still speak their words, play their instruments, and enjoy their food — and recreate their culture in the fictional worlds we love.
And though nearly a thousand years have passed, we still make pilgrimages to the Alhambra, to stand in awe of the beauty they left behind.
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