21 January 2015

The Moorish Loss of Muslim Granada in 1492

By Lisa J. Yarde

1492. A year most often remembered for significant change inspired by the Spaniards. Christopher Columbus’ initial voyage to the West under the auspices of King Ferdinand of Aragón and Queen Isabella of Castile occurred in the summer, as did the ascendancy of the new pope in Rome, Alexander VI, who was born Rodrigo de Borja in the Spanish province of Valencia. 

Granada's Alhambra
There’s another event in 1492 that forever altered Spain, the recapture of Muslim Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella, who according to the chroniclers of the period, ... Always had in mind the great thought of conquering the kingdom of Granada and of casting out from all the Spains the rule of the Moor and the name of Muhammad. Religious fervor and propaganda may have inspired Spanish Catholics to reclaim their land, once governed throughout seven centuries by Islamic rulers. In truth, the Moors of Granada needed little help to tip the scales of history against them. For the last 200 years of their rule, they had been destroying themselves from within their hilltop palace, the beautiful Alhambra.

Seville's Giralda
By the 13th century, the territories of Moorish sovereigns had shrunk to major cities like Granada near the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Malaga on the coast. Catholic monarchs governed three-quarters of the country, occupied the gorgeous estates and palace of Seville, abandoned the observatory at Giralda, and turned the former mosque of Cordoba into a Christian cathedral. Even the bastion at Tarifa more often belonged to the Sultans of Morocco than anyone in Spain. 

The last Muslim dynasty of the country, the Nasrids, rose to power in 1232 through marital and political alliance with another powerful family, only to terminate the foundations of friendship through a brutal civil war that lasted 10 years. The most brilliant rulers of Granada, Muhammad II, his great-grandson Yusuf I, and Yusuf’s son and heir, Muhammad V, staved off the inevitable through treaties. Even they lost the throne or their lives because of jealousies within their own households. A plague of greed and self-annihilation haunted the Nasrid family through each generation. Sons murdered fathers and brothers vied in bloody struggles. Exactly fifty years before their defeat at Granada, the Moorish people had seen no less than five members of the Nasrid clan claim power over the capital, all cousins and direct descendants of Muhammad V.

Out of such dizzying chaos, the last rulers emerged with a fragile grip on the Moorish frontier.  In 1482, Ferdinand and Isabella descended like vultures on the carcass of a civilization that had been in its death throes for several decades. No wonder the Catholic Monarchs assumed God was on their side alone, especially when the king and queen discovered bitter conflict dividing their adversaries.

As had occurred in centuries past under Yusuf I, the politics inside the harem influenced events outside its gilded walls. The penultimate sultan, Abu’l-Hasan Ali, better known as Muley Hacen to the Christians, had two wives, his cousin Aisha and a former Christian slave girl converted to Islam, named Isabel de Solis. Moorish propaganda from the supporters of Aisha claimed Abu’l-Hasan Ali intended to put aside his eldest son by her in favor of Isabel’s boy, who was still a child. 

Sword of Muhammad XI,
displayed in Museum of Cluny
Such fears and bigotry fractured the dynasty, ensured the removal of Abu’l-Hasan Ali from power, and consigned Granada to the ineffectual rule of Aisha’s son Muhammad XI (Boabdil in Spanish sources). A young man when he claimed the throne, he had the misfortune to fall into Christian hands for four years after his first foray. He lost his eldest son Ahmad as a hostage to Ferdinand and Isabella for so long that when Ahmad reunited with his parents, he could not speak Arabic and knew nothing of Islam.

Losses of cities like Archidona and Algeciras reduced the Moorish power bases. Desperate pleas for aid went unanswered by Morocco, Egypt, and the emergent Ottoman Empire. The cities of Alhama and Loja, where the Nasrids had relied upon governors to defend Moorish lands, fell. By 1489, Muhammad XI could count only Almeria, Baza, nearby Guadix and his home at Granada as part of his domain, but soon all but the last would be in Christian hands after brutal sieges at their walls. In 1491, Muhammad XI had no choice except to surrender. According to the Capitulations of November 1491, Ferdinand and Isabella offered him the option to leave his capital with his family for an estate in the hills of Alpujarras.

For Muhammad’s people, the king and queen pledged, “Any Muslim wishing to remain in Granada was granted secure status…” and “No Moor will be forced to become Christian against his or her will…” – first among many broken promises from Ferdinand and Isabella. While he sought a guarantee of his life and freedom, the last sovereign of Granada must have known the precariousness of his situation. His final request to the Catholic Monarchs received the following reply, “The obligation and the grant of lands will last, for so long as he (Muhammad) remains in the service of their highnesses.”  

Pradilla's The Capitulation of Granada
Christopher Columbus was in Granada during this tumultuous time, likely to beg the favor of Ferdinand and Isabella for his voyages that year. Columbus might have witnessed the departure of Muhammad XI for he wrote, “On January 2 in the year 1492, when your Highnesses has concluded their war with the Moors who reigned in Europe, I saw your Highnesses’ banners victoriously raised on the towers of the Alhambra, the citadel of that city….” 

The day must have been a terrifying nightmare for Muhammad XI, his young wife Moraima, his mother Aisha and Muhammad’s children. They departed for Alpujarras, but tragedy followed with the death of Moraima at Andarax. The last young queen of Granada was buried near Mondujar in the modern-day Spanish province of Almeria. Muhammad and his remaining family immigrated to Morocco, never to see their beloved birthplace again. As Muhammad wrote to the ruler of his new home, “... We hope we would not be returned and that our eyes will be satisfied and our hurt and grievous souls will be healed from this great pain....

Seville's Alcazar
Throughout years of researching and writing about the Nasrids of Granada, a consistent theme of my Sultana series has been how internal squabbles among its members did more to weaken the dynasty than warfare with their Christian neighbors ever could. My study also revealed unexpected and pleasant surprises, such as the Christian heritage of some of the Moorish sultans like Muhammad II’s son Nasr I, the loyal Christian personal guards of Muhammad V, who followed him into his exile for a time in Morocco, and the lifetime of friendship between Muhammad V and his contemporary Pedro of Castile, who modeled the reconstruction of Seville's Alcazar on the architecture of Moorish Spain.

The struggle between the Catholics and Muslims of Spain was not just a religious war. Instead, for me, it was a civil war between peoples of a common Spanish heritage.   

Images are mine, or from the public domain, or licensed from Fotalia.com

Sources include L.P. Harvey's Islamic Spain: 1250 to 1500, Barbara Boloix Gallardo's Las sultanas de la Alhambra, and Peggy K. Liss' Isabel the Queen: Life and Times 

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written four novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two Sisters, and Sultana: The Bride Price where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.