The Conquest of Granada.
In the ante room to the Royal Chapel in Granada, there is a copy of a 19th-century painting** by Francisco Pradilla depicting the king of Granada, Boabdil, handing over the key of the Alhambra to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.
There is nothing special about the painting, but the scene portrays a defining moment in Spain’s history.
1. the keys were actually handed over in the
Alhambra itself; 2. Ferdinand and Isabella wore
Moorish clothes. Pradilla was a Castilian from
near Zaragoza, which is why he probably placed
Isabella more prominently towards the front;
she is more colourfully dressed and is seated
on a dashing white horse. On her head, she wears
a crown. Set further back, Ferdinand looks smaller,
is dressed in muted red clothes and wears no crown.
Few events figure more dramatically in Spain’s past than the conquest of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada (also sometimes called Emirate of Granada), and no other year is more prominent than 1492. Not only did the Reconquista finally end, but by fortuitous coincidence the “discovery” of America in the same year marked the birth of the Spanish “Empire.” The two events were brought together in the person of the Genoese sailor-explorer Christopher Columbus. On January 2 of that momentous year, eight months before he set sail on his historic trip, he witnessed the entry of the Catholic Monarchs into Granada**.
the ultimatum of choosing between baptism
or exile. Culturally, 1492 saw the publication
of the first Spanish (Castilian) Grammar book
(in fact the first of any modern European language)
and the first Latin-Spanish dictionary, both by the
humanist scholar Antonio de Nebrija.
The kingdom of Granada had been a reality in the political map of the Iberian Peninsula for over 250 years. It was a tributary state, a survivor of the taifa kingdoms formed in the 11th century, and in the 15th century hardly represented a danger to the Christian kingdoms of the peninsula (even Castile with which it shared a border), despite frequent frontier skirmishes.
Why then should it have become necessary to conquer this tributary state in the late 15th century? Besides being a constant reminder of territorial rivalry, the kingdom of Granada clearly represented a different religion, and religion had again raised its ugly head at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The fall of Constantinople –capital of Christian Byzantium– in 1453 to Ottoman Muslim armies was viewed as a major blow to Christendom and rekindled the crusading spirit throughout Europe.
Papal appeals found immediate response in Spain with the taking of Gibraltar in 1462. By the time Ferdinand and Isabella took complete control of their respective kingdoms (Isabella became queen of Castile in 1474; Ferdinand became king of Aragón in 1479; in each other’s kingdom, they were consorts) that crusading spirit was fully alive. In 1486 they undertook a pilgrimage to Santiago –the home of that militant saint and Moor killer, Santiago Matamoros–to seek divine help in uniting their land under one religion. Shortly after, many soldiers wore crusader crosses on their uniforms.
The conquest of Granada was spearheaded by Castile, but Castile alone had neither the manpower nor the wealth to fund the crusade. When the final stage of the conquest finally got under way, it did so backed by financial aid from a variety of sources and by crusading soldiers from beyond Castile. Help from Aragón, of course, was a matter of course given Ferdinand’s role in the venture. Significant funds also came from the papacy in the forms of a special tax, the cruzada, levied on the church, from Jewish sources, and from Genoese financiers living in Seville. Volunteers came from France, Germany, Italy, England, Flanders, Portugal, not to mention Catalonia, Valencia, Galicia, Asturias etc. What it amounts to is that the Conquest of Granada was in fact a collaborative venture.
Of course, there were certainly practical benefits that were undoubtedly also on the Monarchs’ minds as they undertook the Holy War:
1. It would rally the people behind them in a common undertaking;
2. it would direct the energies of the nobles away from their internecine feuds, which had weakened Castile in the 15th century;
3.it would increase the territory under the Monarchs’ rule, despite Ferdinand’s pious claim to the contrary (“we have not been moved to this war by any desire to enlarge our realms” Kamen Empire 16);
4. finally, the gallantry and heroism associated with such a cause would add lustre abroad to the names of both rulers and their country.
The Christian conquest began in earnest in 1482, following a successful attack by Muslim forces on the Christian frontier town of Zahara (de la Sierra). It was an ill-considered move which prompted an immediate response with the taking of Alhama, a fortified town deep in Muslim territory and almost mid way between Granada and Malaga.
The mountainous terrain made rapid movement of troops difficult and decisive infantry confrontations almost impossible. Swift light cavalry incursions were useful for surprise attacks, but the numerous fortified hill towns meant that sieges -frequently ending with a negotiated surrender- were the preferred means of conquest. Here the Christians had an advantage in that it was they who carried the wars into Muslim territory and they who mastered the art of cannonry as a necessary means of weakening the defences of their enemies.
Christian success was also enhanced by fierce factional fighting within Granada itself, caused by family rivalry between King Abu’l-Hasan Ali (often called Muley Hacén/Hassan), his brother, Muhammad al-Zagal, and a son, Muhammad XII (better known as Boabdil). Boabdil rebelled against his father, splitting the kingdom in two. Then in a foolish invasion of Christian territory in 1483 he was captured. The kingdom was again reunited under Muley Hacén but in 1485 he was unseated by al-Zagal and died in the same year.
In the meantime, Boabdil had reached a secret understanding with Ferdinand to be his vassal and to continue his rebellion against his father. But Boabdil was to prove an unreliable ally. He was temporarily reconciled with his uncle, al-Zagal, and was captured again by the Christians in 1486. He returned in 1487 to oust his uncle and take the city of Granada with the probable help of Ferdinand.
The civil war that ensued between Boabdil and al-Zagal allowed the Christians to take the important port of Málaga in 1487. Al-Zagal, headquartered in Guadix (east of the city of Granada), actually sent a relief column to help the besieged fort at Málaga, but it was intercepted by Boabdil’s forces and routed. In 1489, al-Zagal surrendered Guadix and the coastal town of Almeria and crossed to North Africa.
By the end of 1489 only the city of Granada was left in Muslim hands. Nominally ruled by Boabdil, it was a city riven by internal feuds. Still, the inhabitants refused to surrender, but the establishment of a permanent camp site (Santa Fe – Holy Faith) within view of Granada left no doubt of Christian intentions… a protracted siege. Facing the inevitable, the Muslims negotiated surrender, and the long campaign finally came to an end on January 2, 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabel entered the city.
Boabdil received them in the Comares tower of the Alhambra, handed them the keys to the city, and kissed Ferdinand’s hand. There was a lot of dazzling pageantry in all this, because in fact the keys had already been delivered to a representative of the Monarchs a day earlier in the same room.
Al-Andalus (i.e. Muslim Spain) as a political entity had come to an end, although there were still Muslims who chose to live under their new masters. Certainly the terms of capitulation were generous, much in the tradition of the medieval convivencia (i.e. getting on together). The Muslims were allowed to retain their religion, their laws, customs and property. Those who wished to emigrate to Africa were free to do so, an option elected by about 200.000 (roughly half of the total population of the kingdom of Granada).
However, those Muslims who stayed –known now as Mudejars i.e. from the Arabic al-mudajjar, “people allowed to remain” – soon found themselves victims of breaches of the Capitulations agreement. Especially after 1500, Christian preachers, encouraged by the intransigent figure of the second archbishop of Granada, Jiménez de Cisneros, began to coerce Mudejars to convert. This and the fact that some Christians had converted to Islam provoked disturbances in the Albaicín where the Mudejars lived. News of these disturbances spread to the mountainous Alpujarras region south of Granada early in 1501 triggering a rebellion. This was extinguished in three months, but gave the Christians reason to revoke the Capitulations and offer the Mudejars a bleak alternative: baptism or exile. Quickly mosques were consecrated as churches and a massive bonfire of Arabic books was held in October 1501 in the Bibarrambla square in Granada. Officially, Islam was dead throughout the former kingdom of Granada (it survived in Aragon and Valencia until the 1520s) and those Mudejars who had chosen to remain were now converted to Christianity and known initially as Nuevos cristianos convertidos de moros,” a term eventually replaced by the word “Moriscos.” But that is another story.
Barton, Simon A History of Spain 2nd ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire, New York 2009
Carr, Matthew Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain New York, London 2009
Harvey, L. P Islamic Spain 1250-1500 Chicago, London 1992
Harvey, L. P Muslims in Spain 1500 to 1614 Chicago, London 2005
Ingram, Kevin ed. The Conversos and Moriscos in late medieval Spain and beyond: departures and change. Vols. 2 Leiden: The Netherlands 2012.
Kamen, Henry Spain 1469-1714. A Society in Conflict London, New York 1983
Kamen, Henry Spain’s Road to Empire: The Making of a World Power 1492-1763 London, New York 2002