ZARA and Nerestan, Christian slaves, had grown up in the palace of Osman, Sultan of Turkey. Zara was but a baby when she was brought to the palace. In fact, the only proof that she was a Christian lay in the ornamental cross she wore. Consequently she had found no difficulty in accepting the Moslem faith. Nerestan, however, though but a young lad when captured, took his obligations to Christianity and his fellow slaves seriously. Two years before the opening of the play he had secured from the Sultan permission to go to France to seek ransom for his comrades, promising on his honor to return.
After his departure, Zara, budding into a lovely womanhood, fell deeply in love with the splendid young Osman. When she discovered that her love was requited and that Osman would make her his only wife and empress, her happiness was complete. On the day of her appointed nuptials, Nerestan returned from his long absence. He had been able to secure ransom for ten Christians only, but was willing to become again a slave if Zara were included in the ten. Even the hundred slaves freed through the Sultan's generosity, Nerestan included, did not make up for his bitter disillusionment when he found that Zara was about to marry the Sultan. He was gravely disappointed, too, that the Sultan had not felt it politic to release the aged Lusignan, descendant of the ancient kings of Jerusalem.
Zara, however, pleaded so successfully for the old man that presently she was enabled herself to conduct him, a free man, to join Nerestan's party. Through the cross she was wearing as an ornament, Lusignan recognized her as the baby daughter lost in the sack of Jerusalem by the Moslems. By means of certain scars, he likewise identified Nerestan as his son.
Horrified at the thought of Zara's proposed marriage to a Moslem, the two men obtained from her the promise that she would be baptized that day in Nerestan's presence and follow the priest's instructions. They also made her swear to keep the whole affair secret from Osman until they were gone.
Zara's plea that their nuptials be delayed for a day roused Osman's suspicions. The interception of Nerestan's letter bidding Zara meet him that night convinced the Sultan that she was faithless. Going himself to the appointed place, he stabbed the girl and had Nerestan seized. Only then did he learn the story and, unable to forgive his own lack of faith in his beloved, stabbed himself with the dagger that killed her.