18 November 2009

Dynasties: The Nasrids of Granada

By Lisa Yarde

The Moors were Islamic people of Arabian and Negro heritage, who invaded the Iberian Peninsula, beginning in the eighth century. They called the conquered land al-jazirat al-Andalus. The last dynasty to rule al-Andalus were the Nasrids.

With the Reconquista, Spanish Christians were determined to drive out the Moors. By the thirteenth century, only one Moorish kingdom remained, the Nasrid Sultanate of Gharnatah, nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The family came to Spain during the very early stages of Moorish rule, claiming descent from a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad. They settled in the Arjuno region of southern Spain (modern Jaen province), serving in the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate, distinguishing themselves in their military leadership as officers and generals.

The first Nasrid Sultan, Muhammad I, was born in Arjuno in 1191, first of four brothers. Moorish Spain was confined to the lower half of the peninsula where a loose confederation of emirates, known as the Tai'fa states, evolved after the collapse of the Almohade Empire. A rival family, the Hud, controlled the south, but Muhammad was determined to overthrow them. In 1231, he became governor of his home region and soon conquered other principal cities, including Guadix in 1232, Granada in 1237, Almeria the following year, and Malaga by 1239. He had the help of powerful allies, the Ashqilula family.

In 1238 CE, Muhammad I began construction on his palace in the capital of Granada, which has since become one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the West, the Alhambra. As the Spanish Catholics encroached on Moorish territory, Muhammad submitted to a period of vassalage to the kings of Castile and in 1248, helped them conquer Muslim Seville. Muhammad had four sons, the eldest of whom he chose to rule after him. But that was contrary to the interests of his allies, the Ashqilula. A brutal civil war erupted that divided Spain for several years after Muhammad's death in 1273. Then, the dynasty began a slow decline.

The Nasrid rule was a tumultuous end to the reign of Moors in Europe. At least fourteen of Muhammad I's descendants were dethroned or murdered, often by members of their own family. Muhammad III poisoned his father, Muhammad II. Nasr I dethroned his half-brother Muhammad III, eventually blinding and killing him. Muhammad II's grandson Isma`il was stabbed to death by his cousin in a quarrel over a slave girl, and two of Isma`il’s sons, Muhammad IV and Yusuf I, also met violent deaths. When Yusuf's son Muhammad V came to power, his stepmother, half-sister, and her husband conspired to drive him into exile in Morocco. Muhammad V recovered his throne, but his descendants rarely held it for very long. His grandson Muhammad IX lost and regained the Alhambra at least four times during a span of thirty-five years. Also, the jealous mother of Muhammad XI encouraged her son to rebel against his father, Abu'l-Hasan Ali, because the ruler favored his second wife and her children.

The repeated incidents of patricide and fratricide through the Nasrid history weakened a dynasty that was already on a slippery slope to disintegration, almost from its beginnings. When the Reconquista culminated in the defeat and surrender of the last heir of Muhammad I, on January 1, 1492 CE, the Nasrid dynasty collapsed completely. Its final ruler, Muhammad XI, went into exile in Morocco, and never returned to his birthplace.