Ibn-Batuta described the situation of Granada as “unequaled by any city in the world.... . Around it on every side are orchards, gardens, flowering meadows, vineyards”; and in it “noble buildings.”14 Its Arabic name was Karnattah—of uncertain meaning; its Spanish conquerors christened it Granada—“full of seeds”—probably from the neighboring abundance of the pomegranate tree. The name covered not only the city but a province that included Xeres, Jaén, Almería, Málaga, and other towns, with a total population of some four millions. The capital, with a tenth of these, rose “like a watchtower” to a summit commanding a magnificent valley, which rewarded careful irrigation and scientific tillage with two crops a year. A wall with a thousand towers guarded the city from its encompassing foes. Mansions of spacious and elegant design sheltered the aristocracy; in the public squares fountains cooled the ardor of the sun; and in the fabulous hails of the Alhambra the emir or sultan or caliph held his court.
A seventh of all agricultural produce was taken by the government, and probably as much by the ruling class as a fee for economic management and military leadership. Rulers and nobles distributed some of their revenue to artists, poets, scholars, scientists, historians, and philosophers, and financed a university where learned Christians and Jews were allowed to hold chairs and occasional rectorships. On the college portals five lines were inscribed:
“The world is supported by four things: the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the good, and the valor of the brave.”15 Women shared freely in the cultural life; we know the names of feminine savants of Moorish Granada. Education, however, did not prevent the ladies from stirring their men not only to swelling passions but to chivalric devotion and displays. Said a gallant of the time: “The women are distinguished for the symmetry of their figures, the gracefulness of their bodies, the length and waviness of their hair, the whiteness of their teeth, the pleasing lightness of their movements... the charm of their conversation, and the perfume of their breath.”16 Personal cleanliness and public sanitation were more advanced than in contemporary Christendom. Dress and manners were splendid, and tournaments or pageants brightened festive days. Morals were easy, violence was not rare, but Moorish generosity and honor won Christian praise. “The reputation of the citizens” of Granada “for trustworthiness,” said a Spanish historian, “was such that their bare word was more relied on than a written contract is among ourselves.”17 Amid these high developments the growth of luxury sapped the vigor of the nation, and internal discord invited external attack.
Christian Spain, slowly consolidating its kingdoms and increasing its wealth, looked with envious hostility upon this prosperous enclave, whose religion taunted Christianity as an infidel polytheism, and whose ports offered dangerous openings to an infidel power; moreover, those fertile Andalusian fields might atone for many a barren acre in the north. Only because Catholic Spain was divided among factions and kings did Granada retain its liberty. Even so the proud principality agreed (1457) to send annual tribute to Castile. When a reckless emir, Ali abu-al-Hasan, refused to continue this bribe to peace (1466), Henry IV was too busy with debauchery to compel obedience. But Ferdinand and Isabella, soon after their accession to the throne of Castile, sent envoys to demand resumption of the tribute. With fatal audacity Ali replied: “Tell your sovereigns that the kings of Granada who paid tribute are dead. Our mint now coins nothing but sword blades! “18 Unaware that Ferdinand had more iron in him than was in the Moorish mint, and claiming provocation by Christian border raids, abu-al-Hasan took by assault the Christian frontier town of Zahara, and drove all its inhabitants into Granada to be sold as slaves (1481). The Marquis of Cádiz retaliated by sacking the Moorish stronghold of Alama (1482). The conquest of Granada had begun.
Love complicated war. Abu-al-Hasan developed such an infatuation for one of his slaves that his wife, the Sultana Ayesha, roused the populace to depose him and crown her son abu-’Abdallāh, known to the West as Boabdil (1482). Abu-al-Hasan fled to Málaga. A Spanish army marched to besiege Málaga; it was almost annihilated in the mountain passes of the Ajarquia range by troops still loyal to the fallen emir. Jealous of his father’s martial exploits, Boabdil led an army out from Granada to attack a Christian force near Lucena. He fought bravely, but was defeated and taken prisoner. He obtained his release by promising to aid the Christians against his father, and to pay the Spanish government 12,000 ducats a year. In the meantime his uncle Abu-Abd-Allahi, known as Az-Zaghral (the Valiant), had made himself emir of Granada. A three-cornered civil war ensued among uncle, father, and son for the Granadine throne. The father died, the son seized the Alhambra, the uncle retired to Guadix, whence he emerged repeatedly to attack Spaniards wherever he could find them. Stirred to imitation, Boabdil repudiated pledge and tribute, and prepared his capital to resist inevitable assault.
Ferdinand and Isabella deployed 30,000 men to devastate the plains that grew Granada’s food. Mills, granaries, farm houses, vineyards, olive and orange groves were destroyed. Málaga was besieged to prevent its receiving or sending supplies for Granada; it held out until its population had consumed all available horses, dogs, and cats, and were dying by hundreds of starvation or disease. Ferdinand forced its unconditional surrender, condemned the 12,000 survivors to slavery, but allowed the rich to ransom themselves by yielding up all their possessions. Az-Zaghral submitted. The entire province of Granada outside its capital was now in Christian hands.
The Catholic sovereigns built around the beleaguered citadel a veritable city for their armies, called it Santa Fé, and waited for starvation to deliver the “pride of Andalusia” to their mercy. Moorish cavaliers rode out from Granada and dared Spanish knights to single battle; the knights responded with equal gallantry; but Ferdinand, finding that his best warriors were being killed one by one on this chivalric plan, put an end to the game. Boabdil led out his troops in a forlorn sally, but they were beaten back. Appeals for help were sent to the sultans of Turkey and Egypt, but no help came; Islam was as divided as Christendom.
On November 25, 1491, Boabdil signed terms of capitulation that did rare honor to the conquerors. The people of Granada were to keep their property, language, dress, religion, ritual; they were to be judged by their own laws and magistrates; no taxes were to be imposed till after three years, and then only such as Moslem rulers had levied. The city was to be occupied by the Spanish, but all Moors who wished to leave it might do so, and transportation would be provided for those who wished to cross to Moslem Africa.
Nevertheless the Granadines protested Boabdil’s surrender. Insurrection so threatened him that he turned the keys of the city over to Ferdinand (January 2,1492), and rode through the Christian lines, with his relatives and fifty horsemen, to the little mountain principality which he was to rule as a vassal of Castile. From the crags over which he passed he turned to take a last look at the wonderful city that he had lost; that summit is still called El Ultimo Sospiro del Moro—the Last Sigh of the Moor. His mother reproved him for his tears: “You do well to weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.”19
Meanwhile the Spanish army marched into Granada. Cardinal Mendoza raised a great silver cross over the Alhambra, and Ferdinand and Isabella knelt in the city square to give thanks to the God who after 781 years had evicted Islam from Spain.