Descended from line of kings that ruled Granada, Spain for more than two centuries, Abu 'abd-Allah Muhammad XI was perhaps the unluckiest man to ever ascend the throne. His hold on his kingdom was unsteady from the start, and in the end, he lost it forever to the Catholic monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon.
Life was already turbulent when Muhammad was born in 1459. He descended from a royal line which had come to power in the mid-1200s. His grandfather Abu Nasr Sa'd maintained a tenuous control of a shrinking territory, which was routinely shaken up by internal squabbles. Over two centuries, the rulers of Granada had developed a reputation for killing their closest relations to hold the throne; at least half of those rulers who came before Muhammad were either dethroned or assassinated by their own relatives. His mother was a princess named Aisha, herself a daughter of Muhammad IX of Granada, who precariously held the kingdom four times. His father Abu'l-Hasan Ali was the heir to the throne, impatiently awaiting an opportunity to seize power.
In 1464, when Muhammad was five years old, his father Abu'l-Hasan Ali, deposed Abu Nasr Sa'd. Aisha and Abu'l-Hasan Ali had at least two more children after Muhammad, a son Yusuf and a daughter, but the new king was not content with his wife. In a raid on the Catholic town of Martos, his men captured a teenaged girl, Dona Isabel de Solis, who was the daughter of the governor. Allegedly, she was so beautiful that Abu'l-Hasan Ali fell deeply in love with her. After her marriage and conversion to Islam, she took the name Soraya and had two sons by Abu'l-Hasan Ali. Legends detail the rivalry between the queens of Granada, especially how Aisha's influence over her son Muhammad XI led to Granada's end.
The fractured family relations in Granada vied with Catholic attempts to retake the Iberian Peninsula. The near-800 year Reconquista of Spain had begun almost as soon as the Muslims invaded. The rulers of Granada had already lost key territories; Antequera in 1410, and Gibraltar and Archidona in 1462. In 1482, they defended the town of Loja against attack from Catholic forces. Its governor, Ibrahim Ali al-Attar had a 15-year old daughter Moraima, who had married Muhammad earlier that year. The governor held the town until his son-in-law arrived with reinforcements and a surprising announcement; Abu'l-Hasan Ali had been driven from Granada into exile in Malaga. Allegedly, Queen Aisha's hatred for her rival Soraya and her husband inspired Muhammad's revenge.
Despite all appearances of a happy union with his queen Moraima and the birth of their first son Ahmad in 1483, Muhammad XI was not to have any peace on the throne he seized. He was captured in battle later that year and held by the Catholics until 1487. Now known to the Catholics as Boabdil, a corruption of his given name Abu 'abd-Allah, Muhammad XI was released under two conditions; he would accept the dominion of the Catholic monarchs and give up his son Ahmad as a hostage. The boy was raised as a Christian in Queen Isabel of Castile’s household, spoke no Arabic and would not see his parents for several years. Despite their agreement with Muhammad XI, Isabel and Ferdinand continued to chip away at the shrinking territory around Granada. Baeza, Malaga and Almeria fell in 1487, followed by Almunecar and Salobrena two years later.
The Capitulation of Granada by Francisco Padilla
By the end of 1491, the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella were at the gates of Granada itself. Muhammad XI secretly agreed to hand over the city to the Christians. He reunited with his eldest son Ahmad. On January 2, 1492, as he left the city with his wife Moraima, the rest of his family and retainers, he paused to look back at the Alhambra palace, which his ancestors built two hundred and fifty years before, and the whole of Granada. "Allahu akbar!" he said, "God is most great," and burst into tears. His mother Aisha chided him: "You do well to weep like a woman, for what you could not defend like a man." The spot where Muhammad XI took his farewell bears the name "el ultimo sospiro del Moro" which translates as "the last sigh of the Moor."
The family retired to an estate in the Alpujarras Mountains. Moraima died soon afterward, and was buried in Monjudar. Muhammad XI crossed over to Morocco. He never returned to Spain.