Al-Andalus: The Survival of the Kingdom of Granada.

Al-Andalus: The Survival of the Kingdom of Granada.
After the defeat of the Almohads at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) and the subsequent rapid fall of major cities in al-Andalus (Badajoz 1230, Córdoba 1236, Murcia 1243, Seville 1248, and Cádiz 1265, all to Castile-León, and Valencia 1238, and the Balearic Islands –Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza– between 1230-35, to Aragón), the survival of the kingdom of Granada comes as something of a surprise.

Morale among the conquering Christians was high, the Reconquista was rolling along and the complete demise of al-Andalus appeared imminent. Nevertheless, an area stretching along the coast from about Tarifa to beyond Almería, and arcing inland roughly 60 miles (100 kilometres/ 60 miles) remained in Muslim hands for another 250 years.

Why, then, didn’t Ferdinand (Fernando) III of Castile-León (ruled 1217-1252) or James (Jaume) I of Aragón (ruled 1213-1276) press home their advantage and capture the last Muslim outpost?

The Nasrid kingdom of Granada

There is no single reason to explain why al-Andalus survived, but a combination of factors can throw light on its continued existence.

1)    The political astuteness of Muhammad ibn Nasr (aka Ibn Ahmar), founder of the Nasrid dynasty which ruled the kingdom of Granada, the last of the taifa kingdoms. Within 25 years of the defeat of the Almohads at Las Navas de Tolosa, Muhammad ibn Nasr had managed to carve out for himself  an independent kingdom with its capital first in Jaén and later in the city of Granada.

At the time of his death in 1273, the kingdom extended from Tarifa in the west to Almeria in the east, and inland to Ronda and almost to Jaén (which was handed to the Castilians 1243).

How did Muhammad succeed in doing this? Sensing the expansionist mood of the Christians, he came to an arrangement with Ferdinand III, and preserved his independence by 1) becoming a vassal of the king, 2) forfeiting Jaén, 3) paying tributes (parias) and 4) promising to assist Ferdinand in war against his fellow Muslims.

It was a case of political survival before religious concerns, a normal procedure in the politics of both al-Andalus and Christian Spain. (In fact, Muhammad had already helped Ferdinand in the conquest of Córdoba (1236), in order to rid himself of a rival for leadership in al-Andalus.)

Nevertheless,  Muhammad’s loyalty to Ferdinand was suspect to the whims of political conditions.  Indeed, Arab sources make no reference to his vassalage to Ferdinand, and in fact, only 16 years after helping Ferdinand win Seville (1248), Muhammad supported Muslim rebels in the lands newly conquered by Ferdinand (see 2 below). 

In addition, Muhammad was a staunch defender of Islam and Islamic culture within his kingdom. As a minority now in the peninsula, the Moors of Granada were acutely aware of their Muslim heritage and closed in against the dangers posed by their Christian enemies. And, in a reversal of what had been a policy of earlier Muslim rulers in Spain, no Christian communities (i.e. Mozarabs) lived within Granada’s boundaries.

The only Christians we hear about are prisoners, slaves, merchants or disaffected Christian nobles seeking support from Granada. There were small Jewish commercial communities in some of the coastal towns, but the traditional practice of convivencia  (“getting along”) that had marked Moorish policy in the peninsula for such a long time was over.  (Exceptions to the principle of convivencia were the fundamentalist Almoravids –1086 to 1145– and especially the fanatical Almohads –1145 to1212– whose religious zeal forced Christians and Jews to flee to northwards to Christian territory.)

2)    The loss at Las Navas de Tolosa was a body blow for al-Andalus, but disaffected Muslims in the Guadalquivir valley, Valencia and Murcia continued to put up resistance.

The high point of resistance was a series of revolts in 1264, which saw several important towns fall back temporarily into Moorish hands (Murcia, Jerez, Lebrija, Arcos, Medina Sidonia).  Such rebellions served as a timely warning of complacency amongst the Christians and underlined the dangers posed by disgruntled Moors now living under different masters.

3)    After the revolts of 1264, thousands of Muslims fled to Granada, following thousands who had done so after the battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212. All these resentful newcomers to the kingdom of Granada constituted a formidable backbone of opposition to Castile. Any Christian invasion against such committed people would have entailed considerable risks and incurred great losses.

4)    The kingdom of Granada was also protected by its geography. Like Asturias in the north of the Peninsula (which the Moors had found so difficult to conquer in the 8th century), much of the territory of Granada is mountainous (with the highest mountains in the peninsula) with dangerous passes and steep valleys.

In addition, there were thousands of watchtowers (some 14.000) in strategic positions as well as numerous fortified towns supported by lightly-armed but swift moving cavalry that could take full advantage of the broken terrain.

5)    One of the features of the gradual Christian expansion southwards had always been a shortage of colonists to repopulate conquered territory. After the battle of Navas de Tolosa, Castile almost doubled the size of its territory, and suffered a severe lack of manpower both to colonise the unoccupied land and to carry the war against a committed enemy entrenched in difficult terrain.

6)    There had been keen rivalry between Castile and Aragón as they both pushed increasingly south into Moorish lands. This rivalry petered out after a treaty, signed in 1244, limited Aragón’s expansion into al-Andalus. 

As it turns out, the Aragonese had other avenues of expansion which responded to the commercial interests of Barcelona: affirming its presence as a trading power in the Mediterranean. Soon Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, and even Athens formed part of an Aragonese “empire” in the region.

7)    Following Ferdinand III’s death in 1252, his son, Alfonso X (ruled 1252-84), divided his energies between a scatterbrained attempt at a crusade in Africa, an expensive and unsuccessful pitch at getting himself elected Holy Roman Emperor, and endless pursuits of legal reform in Castile. Later in his reign, he also had to contend with a rebellion spearheaded by his son, Sancho, and a number of rebellious nobles ended up in Granada, seeking the support of Muhammad I against Alfonso!

8)    Christian Spain could not discount the reaction of the Maghreb (North West Africa) if all-out war against Granada were to be undertaken. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the the Almoravids and the Almohads had responded to calls for help from the taifa rulers of al-Andalus.  The possibility of another appeal could not be discounted.

Indeed, the emergence of yet another dynasty –the Merinids/Marinids– in Morocco around 1270 did pose a threat, and periodic sallies by the Merinids into Granada during the reign of Alfonso X were a constant reminder of this danger. Matters reached a head during the reign of his great grandson, Alfonso XI (ruled 1312-1350), after several battles in the area.

Determined to gain control of the straits of Gibraltar –the umbilical link that joined Granada to the Maghreb– Alfonso XI sent a call out through Christendom for assistance in capturing the coastal town of Algeciras, across the bay from Gibraltar. The response was enthusiastic: money and soldiers came from all parts in a latter-day crusade against the Saracen (as Muslims were frequently called). (One of those who proudly boasted of his participation in the successful two-year siege was Chaucer’s knight.)

9)    A series of child kings in Castile (four in the space of just over 100 years: 1295 to 1406), constant internal disputes between rival aristocratic factions for power, a dynastic struggle (1350-69) to the death between two half-brothers (Pedro/Peter the Cruel and Henry/Enrique of Trastámara) for the throne in the 14th century distracted Christian attention from its earlier goal.

In addition, the devastating Great Plague of the mid-14th century, with the subsequent loss of life, severely reduced the manpower necessary to attack a well-protected enemy.  At the same time, Castile got itself caught up in wars with Aragón and Portugal, and even got enmeshed in the Hundred Years War between England and France.

10)     Finally, and paradoxically, Muslim Granada was economically advantageous to Castile.  Trade between Granada and the Maghreb was brisk, which allowed the rulers of Granada to pay off Castile with gold as the need arose.

Notwithstanding all the above, Granada’s survival was always fragile and its borders with Castile always subject to skirmishes. Bits and pieces along the frontier were nibbled away (see map above for dates) and the spirit of the Reconquista was never completely suffocated.

As long as a rump of Islam remained, it reminded Christians of an unfulfilled task. The flames were kept alive not simply by the continued presence of the infidel, but also by papal reminders and ongoing hostilities in the Middle East. All it required was a momentous event in the Middle East (the fall of Constantinople in 1453) and the marriage of two determined and focussed individuals in Spain (Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabel of Castile) to set the wheels of change in motion.

Carr, Matthew Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain New York, London 2009

Fletcher, Richards  Moorish Spain  London 1992
Lomax, Derek  La Reconquista Barcelona 1984
Lowney, Chris A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain  Oxford 2006
MacKay, Angus Spain in the Middle Ages; From Frontier to Empire, 1000-1500  London 1977
Menocal, Maria Rosa The Ornament of the World Boston, London  2002
Map by Té y kriptonita based on Image:Iberian Peninsula base map.svg created by Redtony – self-made: