Military history


“The Jewel of the World”

AT THE HEART OF THE JEWEL-LIKE CITY OF CORDOBA WAS THE GREAT Mosque. It was built by Abd al-Rahman I from 785 to 787, and extended and embellished by his successors. Its architectural origins were complex, with suggestions of Byzantine forms as well as strong echoes of Syria. The Ummayad caliphs had ruled in Damascus from 641 to 750, when they were overthrown by their rivals the Abbasids, and all except one of the Ummayad family were hunted down and killed. The survivor—Abd al-Rahman—fled west to the remotest portion of the Mediterranean Islamic world. In Spain he found loyal supporters. Under his rule, Al-Andalus declared itself independent from the new Abbasid Caliphate, based in Baghdad. Abd al-Rahman I created a powerful state centered on Cordoba that eventually became the Ummayad Caliphate of Cordoba in 929.

The Great Mosque he built was the first evidence of this self-governing status. In structure and function it resembled the mosques of the East; but its forest of columns, crowned with polychrome double arches whose wedge-shaped stones (voussoirs) radiated from the arch’s center, were found in no building in the East. This was a characteristic of Visigothic buildings, and was adapted and extended by Mozarabic craftsmen.1 At each stage of its elaboration, the mosque became more Hispanized, and less like the great religious buildings of the Muslim East.2 There was also a direct connection with the Christian East, for in 965 Caliph Al-Hakam wrote to Constantinople asking for the services of a skilled mosaicist for the mosque. Not only did the caliph’s envoys return with a craftsman, but with 320 quintales of mosaic squares that “the King of the Rumi sent as a gift.”3

The same Hispanized cultural fusion—part Arab, part Mozarabe—was found in the palace of Madinat al-Zahra built outside Cordoba by Abd al-Rahman III, who had in 929 declared himself caliph, commander of the faithful, and defender of the religion of God. The new palace was a testimony to his exalted status. There marvels were to be seen: the same arches characteristic of the mosque, but more massive and emphatic; stone tracery like a forest of vegetation spreading over walls and columns; little water fountains gushing from the beaks of bronze birds or the mouths of sturdy horses; and ivory and alabaster boxes intricately carved with scenes of the court. These are almost all that now remains of life within this palace, which once rivaled the great palace of Constantine in Constantinople.4 Madinat al-Zahra had some of the elements to be found in the Ummayad palaces of Syria and Jordan, but many more that originated in Al-Andalus. The palace was named, it was said, in honor of Abd al-Rahman’s favorite wife, and called the City of the Flower. Building began in 936, and for twenty-five years up to 12,000 workmen were at work on the site. Its scale was vast, with the outer wall more than one and a half kilometers long while, in the great hall, a huge pool of mercury shimmered and reflected the arches and tracery.

The impact that the palace and the caliph made upon foreign visitors, accustomed to the cruder life of the north, was recorded on several occasions. One story tells how the caliph wished to impress them with his magnificence, so within the palace

he placed dignitaries, whom they took for kings, for they were seated on splendid chairs and arrayed in brocades and silks. Each time the ambassadors saw one of these dignitaries they prostrated themselves before him imagining him to be the caliph, whereupon they were told, “Raise your heads! This is but a slave of his slaves!”

At last they entered a courtyard strewn with sand. At the centre was the caliph. His clothes were coarse and short: what he was wearing was worth no more than four dirhems. He was seated on the ground, his head bent; in front of him was a Koran, a sword and fire. “Behold, the ruler,” the ambassadors were told.

This conspicuous modesty echoes the entry of the caliph Omar into Jerusalem in 638, with his darned and well-worn clothes and his broken-down mule.5 Symbolically, the Cordoban caliph showed himself as the humble servant of God, who would carry the holy word, with fire and sword, against the enemies of Islam. For although the city and the palace were architectural and human evidence of cultural fusion, the context in which the caliph presented himself also emphasized the oppositional purpose of Cordoba, its wealth, and its military power. Dozy wrote of Abd al-Rahman III, who “in his wide tolerance calls to his councils men of another religion … a pattern ruler of modern times, rather than a medieval Khalif.”6 But this claims too much. It is true that many of the early rulers of Cordoba were more open to non-Muslim influences than their Almoravid or Almohad successors from the deserts and mountains of North Africa. But for all the achievements in art, science, and learning, Cordoba was built around the theory, if not always the practice, of war with the Christian north. The true temper of the Cordoban caliphate was embodied in another symbolic moment. Abd al-Rahman III died in 961; in 997, the military strongman of Al-Andalus, Al-Mansur, led back his victorious army from destroying the great Christian shrine of Santiago de Compostela.

Compostela was, Spanish Christians argued, the holiest site in Europe. Many north of the Pyrenees agreed with them. For at Santiago, in about 818, the remains of St. James had been miraculously discovered.7 Moreover, these bones turned out not to be those of the apostle James, as was first thought, but of another James: the brother of Christ himself. Thus, on Spanish soil, at the heart of the Asturian kingdom, constantly assailed by the infidel Muslims, was a saint’s body intimately related to the person of Christ himself. This was a relic more precious than any sliver of the true cross or one of the holy nails.8 Already in 822, at the battle of Clavijo, St. James had intervened when King Ramiro of the Asturias was losing against the Moors. Suddenly, a figure on a white horse appeared, and turned the struggle in favor of the Christians. He told the king that Christ himself “gave Spain for me to watch over her and protect her from the hands of the enemies of the faith.” This was the first appearance of Santiago Matamoros, St. James Moor Slayer. Thereafter he returned time and again to save Christian Spain from disaster.

Thus for the Muslims to capture the saint’s remains would be an act of great audacity. In August 997, Al-Mansur and the army of Cordoba fought their way north to the city of Compostela, and the Christians were powerless to resist them. The shrine was deserted except for a single monk. Al-Mansur asked him why he had remained when all the others had fled. The monk said, “I am praying to Saint James.” The commander told him to pray in peace and set his own guard around him for protection. On the following day, Al-Mansur had the tomb razed “so effectively that on the morrow no one would have supposed that it had ever existed.”9 Yet the bones of the saint were left unmolested. “In due time Al-Mansur made his entry into Cordoba accompanied by a multitude of Christian captives, bearing on their shoulders the gates of Santiago’s shrine and the bells of the church. The doors were placed in the roof of the unfinished mosque and the bells were suspended in the same edifice to serve as lamps.”10

Why had Al-Mansur left the bones of the saint undisturbed? In one sense the objects he had carried back with him in triumph were the symbols of Santiago’s power. The sound of Christian church bells, louder than the muezzin’s call to prayer, was deeply offensive to Muslims. In Islamic states, Christians were usually prohibited from using church bells. Thus, by taking the bells he had silenced the voice of the saint and stifled the summons to his shrine. The doors were symbolic of the sanctity and power of the church, and by hanging them in the mosque he neutralized the power of the saint.11 In a later generation, a ruler of Granada similarly debased a Castilian prince’s status: he had the skin of the prince, who had been killed in battle, stuffed with straw and suspended before the great gate of his palace, before consigning it to hang in perpetuity in the city’s largest mosque. Yet Al-Mansur did not attempt to disturb the remains of Santiago, and Christians said that such was the holiness of James and the power of his bones that even Al-Mansur had not dared interfere with them. The efficacy of the saint and his relics was proclaimed as even greater than before. This was all the more remarkable given that at Al-Mansur’s hands, according to an anonymous Christian author, “in Spain divine worship perished; all the glory of the Christian people was destroyed; the treasures stored up in the churches were plundered.” Al-Mansur himself “was seized … by the demon which had possessed him while he was alive, and he was buried in hell.”12

Was it respect, or superstition, that had moved the “accursed” Al-Mansur at Santiago de Compostela? There is a case for preferring the former. Despite the Christian polemic, Al-Mansur was not a zealot. On the whole it was only fanatics among both Muslims and Christians who desecrated the shrines of the other castes.13 Muslims recognized both Jesus as a prophet and his mother, Mary, as a holy virgin. In some cases, Muslims and Christians used a shrine that attracted worshipers from both faiths. It was therefore quite consistent with Muslim practice not to disturb the bones of the brother of the prophet Isa (Jesus) while destroying the shrine above them. Indeed, during both the Emirate and the Caliphate of Cordoba, as already discussed, the instinctive practice of convivencia meant that Muslims, Jews, and Christians drew back from gratuitous insults to the other castes. The episode of the martyrs of Cordoba is the one striking example to the contrary.

AFTER THE DEATH OF AL-MANSUR, IN 1002, THE CALIPHATE OF CORDOBA had less than thirty years to run, and its increasing failure presaged military revolt and a succession of short-lived rulers. One caliph lasted no more than forty-seven days. The caliphal palace at Madinat al-Zahra was sacked and pillaged by rebellious Berber mercenaries, while the even larger palace complex built by Al-Mansur for himself and his family, and called (confusingly) Madinat al-Zahira, was torn down stone by stone so that nothing survived. By 1031, the entire valley of the Guadalquivir had been laid waste; trees were uprooted and the fields were left unplanted.14 Local Muslim chieftains set themselves up as petty kings, known as reyes de taifas. Some of the largest kingdoms were centered on cities such as Seville, Granada, Badajoz, and Saragossa, but others were little more than a castle and its surrounding lands. Many of those close to the frontier with the Christian states of the north began to pay protection money (parias) to the rulers of Castile and Aragon in order to survive.

For a little over fifty years, no central rule existed in Al-Andalus. Several of the petty kings sought to enjoy, albeit on a more limited scale, the good living that had formerly existed in Cordoba. The period of the taifas was an era of artistic efflorescence and rising consumption of luxury goods. Each little court vied with the next. Many of the statelets did not survive, their lands and palaces taken by their more powerful neighbors, their rulers quietly murdered. The Christian states exacted huge payments of protection money from the Muslim kingdoms, but in 1085 the king of Castile, Alfonso VI, instead of taking the bribes offered by the ruler of Toledo, took his city. However, he continued to exact payment in gold from more distant monarchs, such as the king of Granada. But Alfonso’s intent was clear. His envoy to Abd Allah, the ruler of Granada, was unambiguous: “Al-Andalus belongs to the Christians from the beginning until they were conquered by the Arabs. When you no longer have money or soldiers, we will seize the country without the least effort.”15 The Muslim kings, fearful of attack from the north after the capture of Toledo, sent messengers over the straits to North Africa to ask for help from the old Saharan warrior Yusef bin Tashfin, the Almoravid ruler of Morocco.

The human flow back and forth across the straits had been ceaseless since the first conquest of 711. Berber traders, settlers, and mercenaries had always regarded Al-Andalus as a promised land. The Almorávides, however, were not like the stream of earlier arrivals.16 They emerged among the tribes of the Saharan fringe, where many of the men were veiled and women went barefaced.17 One of their common names was “the Wearers of the Veil.”18 Like other reform movements refined in the harsh conditions of the desert, they saw the world in a stark perspective, and dedicated their lives first to purifying themselves, and thereafter, Islam. As with the tribal Muslim armies of the first Arab advance in the seventh century, they proved a strong, flexible, and cohesive military force. By 1061, armies led by Yusef bin Tashfin had conquered the coastline from the Kabyle mountains in what is now Algeria to the Atlantic. In 1062 he founded a new capital at Marrakech, and united the lands from the great bend of the river Niger south of Timbuktu to the Atlantic in the west and the Mediterranean in the north. This was a powerful empire, dominating the trade routes into Africa, with large resources of manpower, and controlling the ports of the North African littoral.

In 1085, while Toledo was under siege by the Castilians, the ruler of Seville, Al-Mutamid, appealed to Yusef bin Tashfin, who now styled himself “commander of the faithful”:

He [the ruler of Castile, Alfonso VI] has come to us demanding pulpits, minarets, mihrabs, and mosques, so that crosses may be erected in them, and so that monks may ruin them … God has given you a kingdom because of your Holy War and the defence of His right, because of your endeavour … And you now have many soldiers of God who through their fighting may win paradise in their own lifetime.19

Although Yusef did enter Spain with troops, and defeated the army of Alfonso at Sagrajas, close to Badajoz, in October 1086, he had little desire to embroil himself in the affairs of Al-Andalus. He went back across the straits, and it was not until 1091 that he finally returned at full strength, after many appeals from the Muslim rulers, to resist the advance of Christian power. Thereafter until 1145, Al-Andalus was ruled from Marrakech as a province of the Almorávides.

The capture of Toledo (plus the other advances by Alfonso VI, who raided as far as the walls of Seville) and the arrival of the zealot armies of the Almorávides were linked. After attacking Seville, Alfonso had ridden on to Tarifa, where the first Muslims had landed, and strode out into the surf. “This is the very end of Spain,” he declared, “and I have set foot upon it.” He wanted to make good his claim to be “emperor of all the nations of Spain.” The Christian “holy war” that began with Pope Urban II’s appeal for the First Crusade to the Holy Land in 1095 had its antecedents in Spain. Likewise, jihad—internal spiritual reform and external wars to advance the faith—which was the motive force of the Almorávides, was now echoed by parallel and contemporary developments within Christendom.20 Urban’s predecessor, Gregory VII, had encouraged Christians to fight in Spain on behalf of the papacy, which was seeking to extend its rights over lands once Christian but now held by infidels. Alfonso declined the opportunity to act as the agent of the papacy, and rejected the papal claims to power over Spain. He began to call himself emperor of all Spain (imperator totius Hispaniae). The reconquest of Toledo, the capital of the Visigoths, was a powerful restatement of the ancient claim of the Leonese and Castilian kings, the heirs of the Visigoths, to rule the whole peninsula.

Toledo surrendered to Alfonso VI on May 6, 1085. The Muslims who remained in the city were allowed to keep all their property and to exercise their faith freely. Like Christians under Muslim rule in Al-Andalus, they paid a poll tax. There was much disquiet when the new bishop of Toledo and the queen, both French in origin, while the king was absent on campaign, ordered that Toledo’s main mosque should become the city’s new cathedral. But that mosque in turn had been built above an ancient Visigothic church, as had the mosque in Cordoba. Nonetheless, in the years after the Christian reconquest of Toledo, as in the first centuries of Muslim Spain, the Muslims who now came under Christian rule established a form of convivencia.21 Many scholars have seen this spirit expressed in the intellectual production that emanated from Toledo, much as Cordoba was earlier celebrated as a center of culture. Toledo also became home to many Mozarabic Christians fleeing from the harsher environment of Al-Andalus under Almoravid rule.

A counterpoint to the image of this scholarly tolerance under Alfonso VI lies in the career of Rodrigo Diáz de Vivar, known as El Cid Campeador, or more simply as El Cid (the Lord). Rodrigo straddled two worlds. He grew up in the equivocal and ambiguous border terrain of the taifas kingdoms, and ended up in the new epoch of Crusade and jihad. He died in July 1099, within a week of the final Crusader assault and capture of Jerusalem, in the city of Valencia, which he had conquered. Even before his death, his valorous deeds had been written of in a Historia Roderici. The Poem of the Cid was composed at the beginning of the thirteenth century. “Cid” is a version of the Arabic sidi, a title of respect, and Rodrigo was honored by both Muslim and Christian alike. He and his men killed “the Moors” with gusto, calling on their patron saint, St. James Moor Slayer, as they did so. But the killing was a matter of business and not hatred.

The Cid’s vassals dealt pitiless blows and in a short time they killed three hundred Moors. While the Moors in the trap uttered loud cries … the ever fortunate Cid spoke these words: “Thanks be to God in heaven and to all his saints. Now we shall have better lodgings for the horses and their masters … Listen to me, Alvar Fañez and all my knights. We have gained great wealth in capturing this stronghold; this many Moors lie dead and few remain alive. We shall not be able to sell our captives, whether men or women. We would gain nothing by cutting off their heads. Let us allow them to return to the town, for we are masters here. We shall occupy their houses and make them serve us.”22

When finally the Cid retreated from this stronghold (after selling it to the Muslims from the neighboring towns for 3,000 gold pieces), “all the Moors were sad to see him go: ‘You are going, Cid,’ they said. ‘May our prayers go before you! We are well satisfied with the way you have treated us.’ ”23

The Cid was presented as an ambivalent figure, who fought the Christian count of Barcelona, a Frank, with the same robust delight as he fought the Moors. In the poem, the Muslims are described simply as moros, without additional pejorative attributes. In battle, there is an equivalence between the adversaries: the “Moors called upon Mohammed, the Christians on St James.” Some Moors were craven, but so too were many Christians. The bulk of the poem deals with the treachery and spite directed at the Cid by his fellow Christians. The Cid described the Muslim governor of Molina as a friend with whom he lived in peace; and the governor gave the Cid’s men “a joyous welcome, saying, ‘Here are you, vassals of my good friend [mio amigo natural].’ ”24 Two generations after the poem was written down, elsewhere in Castile the Estoria de España, as we have seen, presented the relationship between Moor and Christian in terms that denied any possibility of amity.

The Cid was a man of the frontier who, rejected by his king, could take other service, with Muslim or Christian. In the first third of the thirteenth century, this was still just possible along the frontier, but it was much harder for a man to live, like Rodrigo, in both worlds. In The Poem of the Cid, Rodrigo was presented more as a Christian knight and less as the frontier mercenary of history. Later still he became the epitome of Spanish manhood, a human avatar of Santiago.25 As Eduardo Manzano Moreno observed, relationships between Muslims and Christians across the frontier were very different from either the theories of Christian scholars and canonists or the prescriptions of Islamic jurists. Nothing should

deny the existence of a difference, of an antagonism or a confrontation between the realms of Christianity and Islam in the Iberian peninsula. More or less continuously, more or less apparently, conflict did exist, and took a variety of forms throughout the eight centuries of Muslim rule. It is obvious that this strife produced frontiers, but it seems clear that these frontiers cannot be assessed by projecting present-day notions of borders on to the Middle Ages.26

However, the life of the border in the era of the crusade in Spain, or the “Reconquest” as it came to be called, was different from what it had been in the era of the Cid, and in the centuries before.

The capture of Toledo effectively began the Reconquest. The fall of Saragossa to the crusading army of Alfonso I of Aragon on December 18, 1118, meant the loss of Islam’s northern outpost. But the capture of Cordoba on June 29, 1236, was a decisive symbolic moment in the shifting pattern of Iberian history. Before Ferdinand III of Castile entered the walls of the city, he ordered that any who wished to leave were free to go, carrying all their possessions with them. Those who remained, it was also agreed, were free to practice their faith, but under Christian and not Muslim rule. For devout Muslims such a proposal was an abomination, and no doubt they formed the bulk of the refugees, some traveling south toward the coast to take ship for North Africa, and others southeast across the Guadalquivir and along the road to Granada. When the king entered the city, he went first to the Great Mosque, where he saw the bells of Santiago. In the words of the Castilian Primera Crónica General,

On the feast day of the apostles Peter and Paul, the city of Cordoba … was cleansed of all filthiness of Muhammad and given up and surrendered to King Ferdinand. King Ferdinand then ordered a cross to be put upon the chief tower where the name of the false Muhammad was wont to be called upon and praised, and then the Christians all began to shout with happiness and joy, “God, help us!, and he [the king] found there the bells of the church of St James the Apostle in Galicia, which had been brought there by Almanzor [Al-Mansur] … and placed in the mosque of Cordoba to the shame of the Christians; and there the bells remained until this conquest by King Ferdinand of the city of Cordoba … King Ferdinand then had these same bells taken and returned to the Church of Santiago of Galicia. Thus, the church of Santiago was once more happily adorned.27

Moorish prisoners carried the great bells back to Compostela, where in the church rebuilt after Al-Mansur’s assault a space had been left for them. Once they were rehung, the deep voice of the bells sounded again to announce that St. James had again triumphed over the enemies of Christ.

THAT MOMENT MARKED THE BEGINNING OF A NEW PHASE IN THE HISTORY of the peninsula. As we have seen, for most of the period from 711 until the late eleventh century Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together mostly under Muslim rule. There were then few Muslims in the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain. But by the early thirteenth century, the bulk of Muslims and Jews were living predominantly under Christian dominion; this situation persisted until this second period of convivencia ended with the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and the conversion by decree of the Muslims eight years later. The concept of living together characterizes both eras, but it unfolded under very different terms. By the mid–thirteenth century, Ferdinand III of Castile had occupied Seville and the whole valley of the Guadalquivir, and James I of Aragon had conquered the Balearic Islands, Valencia, and the little kingdoms to the south. Only the Kingdom of Granada remained a solid and coherent bloc of territory in Muslim hands.

The majority of Muslims now lived under Christian rule, a situation that the laws and practices of Islam had never envisaged.28 For the purist, good Muslims could fulfill their duty to God only within a Muslim-ruled community. Yet from the thirteenth century Muslims lived permanently in all the five Christian Spanish kingdoms. Each state had its own approach to its Muslim and Jewish subjects, and each kingdom, and every local community within each kingdom, had its own framework of regulations and customs governing the relationship. The theoretical position advanced by Alfonso X of Castile in his ideal law codes, the Siete Partidas, encompassed the double nature of the Christian attitudes to the Muslims:

Moors are the sort of people who believe that Mahomet was the prophet or messenger of God. Because the works or actions he performed do not demonstrate any great holiness on his part, such as might justify according to him such a holy status, their law is like an insult to God … And so we say that the Moors should live among the Christians in the same manner as … the Jews, observing their own law and causing no offence to ours. But in the Christian towns the Moors may not have mosques, nor may they make public sacrifices before men, and the mosques which were formerly theirs must belong to the king, who may grant them to anybody he wishes. And even though the Moors do not have a good law, nevertheless, as long as they live among the Christians under their protection, they ought not to have their property stolen from them by force.29

Under Islam, Jews and Christians had also been “protected,” as the “People of the Book,” since they venerated Abraham and the other precursors to the Prophet Mohammed. In practice, this had not prevented them coming under extreme pressure from the Almorávides and the Almohades. In the Christian kingdoms, the idea of the Moors as a necessary evil gained strength. The Infante Don Juan Manuel of Castile in his Libro de los Estados (“The Book of the Estates”) expressed a view common throughout Christian Spain:

Long after Jesus Christ was crucified, there arose a false man named Muhammad. He preached in Arabia, convincing certain ignorant people that he was a prophet sent by God. As part of his teaching he offered them wholesale indulgences in order that they could gratify their whims with excessive lust and to an unreasonable extent … They had seized lands belonging to Christians. That is why there is war between Christians and Moors [moros], and there will be until the Christians have recovered the lands that the Moors took from them by force; but there is no other reason either because of their faith or the [false] sect [secta] they belong to that there should be war between them. Jesus Christ never ordered anyone to be killed nor that anyone should be pressured to accept the Christian faith, for He does not wish any forced service.30

From the time that the Christian kingdoms acquired a large Muslim population with the capture of Toledo in 1085, their rulers attempted to preserve a clear separation between Christians, Jews, and those Muslims now living under Christian rule, and known as Mudéjares, or “those left behind.” Each district and region varied in the precise arrangements, but both minorities clustered around their own districts or settlements, especially since there they could have synagogues or mosques, which were not permitted in Christian areas. Repeated statutes were issued to require minorities to wear distinctive hats, badges, clothes, or in the case of Moors, a “Moorish haircut.”31 But plainly they often did not work. One ribald instance concerned a Christian prostitute called Alicsand de Tolba in the winter of 1304, when she was looking for business in an outlying shepherds’ camp in Aragon. She asked the shepherds whether there was anyone else who needed her services, and was told, “Only a Moor.” But one of the Christian shepherds went to the Muslim, Aytola “the Saracen,” and asked if he wanted to sleep with Alicsand. He said this was not possible since he was a Muslim and, moreover, he had no money. The shepherd, Lorenc, said he would give him the money, and as to the other, he should say his name was Johan and that he came from the port, and was presumably a foreigner. All was well until suddenly she cried out as she discovered at a certain point that her customer was circumcised and hence either a Muslim or a Jew.

This tale tells us several things: that Muslims and Christians worked together; that they could have the easy, bantering relationship that this tale implied; that it was not easy to tell a Muslim from a Christian by outward appearance. And finally, if even a rough joke like this became known to the authorities, the consequences could be dire. Aytola the Saracen wisely fled before the law could catch up with him, for the penalties for flouting the sexual boundaries between Christians and Moors could be savage, even for congress with a prostitute.32 He was in the Kingdom of Aragon but in Castile the law said, “If a Moor has intercourse with a common woman who abandons herself to everyone, for the first offence, they shall be scourged together through all the town, and for the second, they shall be put to death.”33

The more we know of the situation of the Mudéjares in the aftermath of the Christian Reconquest of the thirteenth century, the less it becomes possible to talk of the situation of Muslims in Spain with any overall or general perspective.34 Gabriel Martinez-Gros makes the point that there were many varieties of Muslim experience under Christian rule, partly because each kingdom or locality operated on its own lines. The long-established Mudejars in the communities of the north, like Toledo, were in a different situation to the “new” Mudejars of the south. But even in Toledo, often presented as a model of “pluralism and tolerance,” there were two very dissimilar categories of Muslims: free and slave.35 The slaves were those taken in war or by right of conquest, but also it was easy for Muslims who fell foul of the many laws governing their subservient status to cross the boundary between free and slave status.

These differences figured strongly in the language with which Muslims described Christians, and vice versa. The Spanish Arabist Eva Lapiedra Gutiérrez has painstakingly traced the sixteen terms used to describe Christians in Arab histories of Iberia written between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. Her conclusions are ambiguous, which no doubt reflects the reality. Enmity had its gradations. There were degrees and different types of hostility expressed in the words that were used. For example, she describes aduwallah, “enemy of God,” the most commonly used term, as aggressive. But the next most common term, Nasrani (“follower of the Nazarene,” Jesus of Nazareth), was neutral by comparison. Rumi, which technically meant a Byzantine but was haphazardly applied to Spanish Christians, fell somewhere between the two, but was less often used. Kafir, or “infidel,” was also used less frequently. So even in the context of Spain, with its ever-advancing war front in the north, sometimes Christians were spoken of as hated enemies, but on other occasions they were described in terms that contained no strong sense of hostility. Muslim Arabic speakers gradually created an expanding repertoire of terms to describe Christians and Jews. Frenk, Frenj, Ferinj, applied to Christians in Spain and the Holy Land, literally meant Frank or Frenchman. In the East, however, only Western Christians were described in this way. Local Orthodox or Syriac Christians were Nasrani, never Frenj.36

Gutiérrez has discovered the presence of a changing, adaptive syntax to encompass the increasingly dominant Christians. All save two of the terms were traditional, derived from the Holy Qu’ran, composed in the seventh century. But Muslims needed a new framework of language to describe the experience of Christian power. When Muslims wanted to extend their repertoire of insult they more and more departed from this hallowed traditional lexicon. Non-Muslims were increasingly called ily, “uncivilized.”37 It was, suggests Gutiérrez, “the most complex of all the terms used in the Arabic-Muslim chronicles to define the Christians.” It had the sense of someone bloated and crude, but also with the wildness and sexual proclivities of a wild ass.38

Using this vocabulary, Muslims could present Western Christians as inherently morally defective, condemned by their environment and the corrupting effects of their culture. The Franks’ misfortune was to come from bitter northern climes. Writer after writer stressed that this had determined their character: “Excessive cold … ruined their manners and hardened their hearts … Their colour is, of course, white and they, like beasts, care only for war, combat and hunting.”39 Even their manner of writing was against nature, being from left to right and thus “away from the heart and not towards it.” Christians came to be described in zoomorphic terms: as dogs (especially despised in Islam) or, worse still, as pigs. This then brought the terms of condemnation back within the Qur’anic system of what was permitted and what forbidden.

Infidels were unclean, in the same way that semen, urine, menstrual blood, and feces were filthy and contaminating.40 If Muslims wanted to make the taint of being infidel even stronger, they then associated it with other ritually and fundamentally unclean objects. Terms like “wild beast,” “dog,” or “pig” referred to inalienable characteristics.41 A pig was always a pig.42 To bestialize any human being, to give them the character of a despised animal, carried a huge metaphoric potential, and their animal qualities by exchange emphasized the speaker’s humanity and Muslim cleanliness. But the curse of infidelity would be lifted at the moment that the infidel made the profession of faith and began to lead a truly Islamic life.

The everyday Christian perceptions of the Moor were correspondingly fearful. The border ballads romanticized the Moorish warriors of the frontiers with Granada, but they were still figures of fear and danger. Christians rarely made a direct equation between Muslims and the other (and more prosperous) minority, the Jews, but distaste for one group also seemed to spill over onto the other, and Jews and Moors were linked together in the minds of many Christians. Rulers and popular opinion alike regarded them as enemies, existing only by the benevolence of the Christian community. The Jews suffered attacks more regularly and more severely than the Moors. An outburst of popular rage, which led to savage massacres of Jews, began in Seville in June 1391 but soon spread to many parts of Spain. It was the product of many different causes, mostly purely local. But running as a common thread through all the killings, in Andalucia, in the rest of Castile, in Aragon, and especially in the Balearic Islands, was a sense of revulsion against all those who were not Christian.

In 1378 Archdeacon Ferrán Martinez, of Ecija near Seville, began to deliver a series of popular sermons directed against the Jews. They were well attended. In 1391, he encouraged the Seville mob to attack the Jewish quarter and raze “the houses of the devil,” the synagogues. It is hard to find any direct cause for new animosity toward the Jews, but the eminent Castilian statesman Perez Lopez de Ayala reflected a general prejudice when he wrote of the Jews as “ready to drink the blood of the oppressed … The Jews divide up the people, who die undefended.”43 In 1412 the Valencian Dominican preacher Vincent Ferrer castigated the Jews, but he also made explicit their connection with the Muslims. Both Jews and Moors should be isolated from contact with Christians. As he put it, “Just as prostitutes should live apart, so should Jews.” Muslims should be confined to their morerias, where they could not contaminate Christian Spain.44

Increasingly vicious attacks prompted many Jews to accept baptism. As “New Christians,” or conversos, there was nothing in law to prevent their intermarriage with other, “Old Christian” families, and both among the “Old Christians” and among Jews who had kept their faith, old fears of consanguinity and sexual mingling across the boundaries of the castes once more came to the fore. A sixteenth-century Jewish writer blamed the persecutions themselves on this cause: “These sufferings were a just punishment of divine wrath. For many had taken Gentile women into their homes; children were born of these illicit unions and they later killed their own fathers.”45 The process of mass conversion, however, also changed the whole pattern of relationships between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. During the fifteenth century, the dominant Christian states in Spain began to develop a new theory of the infidel. In this view, Judaism and, by extension, Islam carried a genetic taint and thus no convert of Jewish or Muslim stock could ever carry the true faith purely, as could someone of “untainted” Christian descent.

No doubt these views had long been embedded in Christian society within the peninsula, where sexual deviance could carry a stigma that extended down the generations (“son of a whore,” hijo de puta was and is a classic Castilian imprecation, but one that was once upon a time severely punished if uttered publicly). This latent tendency within Hispanic society was elaborated into a body of law from the mid–fifteenth century, but emerging from below rather than by royal decree. The first instance was in 1449, when Pero Sarmiento—the leader of a rebellion in Toledo against royal support for Jewish converts—issued a declaration that no one except an Old Christian of untainted blood could ever hold public office. In front of a large gathering in the city hall of Toledo, Sarmiento catalogued all the evil deeds that the Jews were said to have committed. The first was that the Jews of Toledo had opened the gates of the city to Tariq’s Moors in 711, thereby ensuring centuries of Muslim domination; and their descendants, the “New Christians,” were continuing their “intrigues” against true Christians.46 Within living memory, they had conspired with the enemies of Toledo to “wage a cruel war with armed force, with blood and fire, inflicting theft and damage as if they were Moors, enemies of the Christian faith.”47 Even when the rebellion was suppressed in 1451, Sarmiento’s decree continued to be observed. Over the next forty years, more and more institutions adopted requirements that “purity of blood” (limpieza de sangre) should be a prerequisite for membership of a guild or any similar body. The vocabulary that was used is particularly significant: the “Old Christians” described themselves as the “pure” (limpios); they were “fine Christians,” and the assumption was that the converts were impure and coarse.

The fresh attack against “New Christians” that began in the 1460s was inflamed by sermons, and by influential polemical publications such as the Fortress of Faith (Fortalitium fidei contra Christianos hostes) by Alonso de Espina. The Holy Inquisition, established in Castile in 1478, led the charge. Albert Sicroff, the principal scholar of the early history of limpieza de sangre, makes the point that Muslims were not the main target or the subject of these restrictions.48 However, the language used almost always embraced both “Jews and Moors,” as in the case of Toledo in 1449. In the fifteenth century, the limpieza de sangre laws were constructed to constrain the converted Jews. But after 1500, and especially after their revolt in the Alpujarras in 1568, the (forcibly) converted Muslims, or Moriscos, were increasingly seen as the more dangerous of the enemies within the lands of Spain. There was a deep ambiguity in the laws of purity of blood. In Christian belief, baptism purged all sins, and sincere repentance meant that nothing remained from the former life. Yet could baptism and repentance obliterate the popular perception of Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus Christ? For theologians knowledgeable in the biblical sources, conversion indeed wiped clean the past through the sacrificial blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.49 But this was too intricate an idea to resonate with the unlearned. Thus, the complex messages of Espina and his fellow polemicists were simply received as a call to protect Christian society from its assailants, the Jews and the Muslims.

The number of Moors (Mudéjares) exceeded the number of Jews in Christian Spain, yet paradoxically it was the Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity who throughout the fifteenth century, and afterward, were the primary target of the purity legislation, and later, of the Holy Inquisition. This is explained by the fact that the two communities were very different in their distribution and function. The bulk of the Muslims labored on the land, while the Jews were concentrated in the towns, where tensions, especially over trade and business, could easily spill into violence. They also performed roles, such as tax gathering, that roused hostility.50

Moreover, although Islam was the menacing external enemy, the relationships between Judaism and Christianity (born out of Judaism) had become a ritualized antagonism. The ritual could all too often become reality. In many places, the Holy Week celebrations required the portrayal of the Jews in an enactment of the crucifixion. This was frequently a time of heightened feelings that might be carried into symbolic attacks on Jewish houses and synagogues. Whether these emblematic acts of hatred triggered real violence is not clear, but there were numerous assaults, often accompanied by gratuitous acts of savagery, on Jews in Castile. The attacks in 1391 were the most notorious, but these assaults recurred on many occasions during the fifteenth century: in Toledo in 1449 and 1467, in Vallodolid in 1470, and in Cordoba in 1473. None of these was officially sanctioned, but from the 1480s official policy toward non-Christians, both Jews and Mudejars, began to harden. Ancient edicts concerning dress, restrictions on trade, and living apart from Christians were enforced. Isolated ghettos and morerias were constructed outside towns or by blocking off streets and filling in doors and windows.

It is not surprising that most scholars have focused on the Christian obsession with newly converted Jews. These false converts were said to make constant attempts to undermine the Christian kingdoms. Crudely forged texts were produced, like the concoction in 1492 of the letter of Yusef, chief of the Jews of Constantinople, who was supposed to have laid out a plan of infiltration and subversion of Christian Spain. Its content strongly suggested the main elements of Christian paranoia. Asked by the Jews of Spain how they could resist the king of Spain, who was forcing them to convert or even killing them, Yusef is supposed to have replied:

Where you say that the King of Spain would convert you to Christianity, do it because you have no alternative. Where you say that they deprive you of your property, make your sons merchants so that little by little you can take theirs. Where you say that they are robbing you of your lives, make your sons doctors and apothecaries so that you can end theirs. Where you say that they are destroying your synagogues, make your sons clerics and theologians, so you can destroy their churches. And as far as your other troubles are concerned, make your sons advocates, administrators, lawyers, and advisors, and let them take part in affairs of state so that you can gain land.51

However, while historians’ preoccupation with the persecution of the Jews in the fifteenth century is understandable, it obscures the roots of the oppression suffered by the Muslim population in the following century. The Muslims were left out of the account, and to modern eyes it seems implausible that an attribution of blood taint—as Christ killers—could suddenly be applied to them in later years. It was well known that Islam had developed centuries after the death of Christ. Yet by a process of syllogistic argument Muslims too, stage by stage, acquired an ineradicable taint like the Jews. Did they not, so many Christians believed, worship the Antichrist, Mohammed, and had they not despoiled the Holy Land itself? Had the Jews not aided the Muslims and were Muslims not therefore as guilty as those who had actually killed him? So, while in the drive for purity of blood the main victims were Jews and Jewish converts, the Moors were usually yoked with them in the litanies of hatred.

THE POSITION OF GRANADA, THE LAST NON-CHRISTIAN ENCLAVE IN the peninsula after the mid–thirteenth century, was in a permanent state of flux. Granada could become an ally or an enemy of the Christian realms with bewildering speed, as one faction or another took control either in the Christian kingdoms or in Granada itself. In Granada power shifted back and forth from one part of the royal family to another. One ruler, Mohammed IX “the Left-Handed,” took the throne on no fewer than four separate occasions. However, despite the instability of Granadine politics, the military might of the last Moorish state grew during the fifteenth century. While Castile, in particular, had begun to develop gunpowder weapons and a siege train with cannon and bombards, the Granadines concentrated on building a profusion of small fortified towns and peel towers. These could be used as bases for a type of highly mobile border warfare that was becoming increasingly prevalent along the frontier.

Two styles of campaigning began to emerge from the 1400s. The Castilians with their superiority in weapons, money, and manpower could usually take even a strongly fortified citadel after a long siege. But not always. In 1407 the three great guns of Infante Ferdinand, son of King John II of Castile, had successfully breached the walls of the Granadine town of Zahara, and moved on to nearby Setenil. Here the guns were set up and battered the town day and night to such an extent that within a few weeks the Castilians had run out of stones to fire. Each knight and man-at-arms was thereafter given a daily quota of rocks to find to keep the guns from falling silent. But as autumn passed, the citizens continued to hold out, repairing the damage by night. By the end of October, Ferdinand had still not brought the city to the point of surrender and he did not want to be trapped over the winter in enemy territory, where the Granadine light cavalry (jinetes) could cut off his supply train. So the Christian besiegers withdrew in some disorder, to the taunts of the defenders on the walls.52

The Granadine method of war depended on speed and mobility—classic border raiding. The jinetes had adapted the loose riding style of North Africa (which Géricault would later, to great effect, depict for the salons of nineteenth-century France). The horsemen rode small and lightly built stallions, bred for sure-footedness over rough and stony ground, and wore only light armor, usually chain mail or, at most, a light cuirass. Their offensive weapons were a bundle of throwing spears and a long sword, but many were also proficient in the use of a light but powerful crossbow, which they could fire and reload even while moving. They had perfected a tactic called kerr wa-farr, often used in the tribal battles of Morocco. They would attack, and then retreat, trying to draw their enemy after them. Against Christian cavalry this proved very effective, because the charge of heavy armored cavalry depended upon mass and impact for its success. Once separated from their “squadron” the Christian knights were easy targets for the jinetes. Indeed, to meet the challenge, the Castilian nobles whose lands bordered Granada began to employ light horsemen themselves.

Conversely, in a battle where the Granadines fought in the static Castilian style, they invariably came off worst, as in an encounter near Lorca in 1452, where a raiding party returning to Granada with 40,000 head of livestock was caught by Christian knights.

When they came in sight of one another, the Moors drew themselves up in battle array and the Christian knights did the same. The battle was so keenly fought that the Christians had to make three charges, but finally the Moors were beaten, and more than eight hundred of them killed; the Christians lost forty killed and two hundred wounded.

The Christians’ leader, Alonso Fajardo, further took his revenge by mounting a raid on Lorca, where he slaughtered the Muslim inhabitants, and then on to a village on a high peak. He recorded laconically, “I took Mojacar where such great deeds were done that the streets ran with blood.”53This raiding and skirmishing continued regardless of whether or not there was declared war between Granada and its neighbors, winter and summer alike. Granadine bands ravaged up to the gates of Cartagena, while Miguel Lucas de Iranzo from Jaen burned towns only a few miles from Granada itself in retribution.

Prophecy had always been popular in Christian Spain and settling the final account with Granada had long been expected. It was remembered that King Pelayo in his Asturian cave at Covadonga had foretold that God would eventually come to the aid of his people, and that was taken to mean that God willed the reconquest of Granada. But the omens that attached themselves to Prince Ferdinand and Princess Isabella, the heirs to Aragon and Castile respectively, exceeded those of the past. Many Castilians believed that Isabella the Catholic (La Católica) had been born miraculously, for the “redemption of lost kingdoms.” Others called her a second Virgin Mary.54 The conjuncture of the birth of a male heir to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1478, the settlement of the Castilian succession, and Ferdinand’s coming to the throne of Aragon generated still more prophecies. The salvation of the kingdom would be accomplished, and Spain would be restored as “one Christian nation, destined first for universal monarchy, and thereafter, for celestial hierarchy.”

Ferdinand and Isabella were seen as the chosen agents of the divine plan. Their victory over evil, it was hoped, would have two aspects. The first was interior purity. A national council of the Spanish church was held in Seville in the summer of 1478 and declared a program for reform. In the autumn, Isabella and Ferdinand secured approval from Pope Sixtus for the appointment of inquisitors to serve in the realm of Castile. They began work in earnest in 1480, and between 1481 and 1488, thousands of “Judaizers,” heretics, and other enemies of Catholic Spain were “reconciled” to the church or relinquished to the state to be burned.55 The other aspect of this national purification was completing the holy work of the Reconquest. A popular poet, Fray Iñigo de Mendoza, proclaimed that the king and queen of Castile would end the abomination of Islamic rule in the peninsula.56 The old ideas of “imperial” Castile were revived, while prophecies appeared in Aragon that Ferdinand would drive the Moors completely from the land of Spain and, indeed, out of North Africa.57

The idea of recapturing the entire peninsula from Muslim dominion was not the same as removing Moors from the face of Spain. For centuries, the communities had lived side by side, in varying political circumstances. Where under Islam the Christians and Jews were dhimmis, the protected but subordinate minorities within the state, in Christian Spain the Muslims now became feudal subordinates (or the slaves) of either king or some noble, who thereafter had responsibility for them. Granada was abominable not so much because it was filled with Muslims, but because it was a free and independent state, aggressively Muslim and endlessly fomenting intrigues with North Africa and pursuing border skirmishes with the Christians to the north. Even while a notional truce existed with the Granadines, Ferdinand and Isabella began to plan for a campaign against Granada, for, as they wrote to the pope, they were motivated not “by any desire to enlarge our realms but … hoping only that the Holy Catholic faith will be multiplied and that Christendom will be quit of so constant a danger as she has here at our very doors, if these infidels of the kingdom of Granada are not uprooted and cast out from Spain.”58 Thus, while it was a Granadine attack on long-disputed Zahara on December 26, 1481, that became the casus belli, the plan for the final extirpation of Islamic rule in Spain had already been devised.

However, the Kingdom of Granada was well defended, by both nature and military art. Every town and city was walled, and the frontier zone was studded with a profusion of stone-built peel towers which, if held by a determined garrison, could only be starved out or taken when the defenses had been breached by artillery. Centuries later, the American writer Washington Irving described the land as he first saw it:

The ancient kingdom of Granada, into which we were about to penetrate, is one of the most mountainous regions of Spain. Vast sierras or chains of mountains, destitute of shrub or tree and mottled with variegated marbles and granites, elevate their sunburnt summits against a deep blue sky … In traversing these lofty sierras the traveller is often obliged to alight and lead his horse up and down the steep and jagged ascents and descents, resembling the broken steps of a staircase. Sometimes the road winds along dizzy precipices … [or] straggles through rugged barrancos or declivities, worn by winter torrents.59

But once through the mountains, a different Granada appeared. There “lie engulfed the most verdant and fertile valleys, where desert and garden strain for mastery, and the very rock is, as it were, compelled to yield the fig, the orange and the citron, and to blossom with the myrtle and the rose.”60 The walled capital itself had, it was said, 1,030 turrets and seven great gates; inside was a population estimated at the beginning of the fourteenth century to be around 200,0. Above the city on a rocky outcrop stood the fortified palace of the Alhambra, with its citadel, the Alcazaba, and outside its perimeter wall, the summer palace, or Generalife. The splendors of the city gave rise to a little refrain: a citizen of Seville could assert

El que no ha visto á Sevilla

No ha visto maravilla.

(He who has not seen Seville has not seen a marvel.)

To which the Granadino would reply:

El que no ha visto á Granada

No ha visto de nada.

(He who has not seen Granada has seen nothing at all.)

The Kingdom of Granada was rich and productive. Ships from the eastern Mediterranean called at ports such as Malaga to purchase silks and other textiles, sugar, and fruit.61 Florence bought “Cordovan” leather. Unsurprisingly, the Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador en route to Lisbon contrasted the refinement and elegance of Granada with the more rudimentary facilities of the Christian kingdoms.62 The pomegranate, Punica granata, was Granada’s eponymous emblem. For Muslim mystics the fruit, filled to bursting with tiny glistening seeds, signified the Garden of the Divine Essence, and represented the vast multiplicity of God’s creation.63 Christians like King Ferdinand knew nothing of this deeper symbolism. He once described his strategy for the conquest of Granada in the form of a pun: he would, he said, eat the seeds of the pomegranate one by one. But he tempted fate. Everyone knows that a pomegranate contains seeds in vast profusion. The joke rebounded, for the final act of the Reconquest took more than ten years to accomplish and then only at ruinous cost.

The medieval battles of the Reconquista had largely been fought on terms that favored the Christian armies of the north.64 Even where they had suffered a catastrophe, as at Alarcos in 1195, it was usually the result of some tactical or strategic misjudgment, not of inferior numbers or resources. The war for Granada was no different. The nobles, towns, and cities of Castile were all summoned to provide their contingents of horsemen and men-at-arms, as in any medieval army. The military orders of Calatrava, Santiago, and Alcantara formed the professional and disciplined elite cavalry used to spearhead attacks. But beside them, drawn up in ranks with powder and projectiles carried in a line of carts, was a new element: a large number of artillery pieces designed to batter down the stone walls. Some of these were huge, much larger than those used with such success earlier in the century. Those deployed at the siege of Baza were twelve feet in length, with bores fourteen inches in diameter and firing a stone ball weighing over 175 pounds. These great guns could discharge only a single shot per hour, but few walls could stand up to steady fire. Yet they were not necessarily decisive. The defenders of Baza were not battered into submission, but simply ran out of food and ammunition.

The Castilians were also overconfident. Their first success had been capturing the town of Alhama, in the heart of the Kingdom of Granada, by a bold surprise attack. Such a masterstroke could not be repeated. Their next assault, at the town of Loja in July 1482, a move designed to reinforce Alhama, was a disaster. Granadine jinetes swiftly overran the Christian positions, while Granadine crossbowmen picked off the more heavily armored and cumbersome Castilians. Few of the Christian troops had ever fought in the torrid climate and rough conditions of the south, while the Granadines had been hardened over generations of border warfare. A major Castilian advance on Malaga the following spring was ambushed in the wild mountains and deep ravines to the north of the city. Battered on every side, the grand master of the Order of Santiago, the premier order of Spanish chivalry, was supposed to have cried, “Oh God how great is Your anger this day against Your servants. You have changed the cowardice of these infidels into desperate valour, and have made peasants and serfs into men of valour.”65

It was becoming clear that the war for Granada could be won only by slow and remorseless pressure.66 Staying clear of the high ground wherever possible, the Christian armies began to advance along the river valleys and flat plains that led eventually to the capital of Granada, beneath the Sierra Nevada. But all approach roads were heavily defended, and at each stronghold or fortified town the same drama was enacted. Setenil, north of Ronda, which the Castilians had failed to take in 1407, was carved out from the hill and was protected by a tower on the hill above it. The Castilian artillery was emplaced and slowly battered down the walls. Once the troops were able to enter, they slaughtered everyone left alive amid the rubble. At other sites, such as Benamquex in 1408, Ferdinand took a town by storm, and then hanged more than a hundred of the most prominent men of the town, suspending their bodies in a long line like a necklace over the walls. He enslaved the rest, men, women, and children. But the towns continued to resist stubbornly and the pace of advance grew slower. The capture on May 2, 1485, of Ronda, a fortress town built upon a sheer rocky outcrop above the river Guadalevín, turned the war in the Christians’ favor. Ronda could have held out longer, but a number of its leaders decided to surrender on favorable terms. Thereafter Ferdinand gave his enemies these options: death or enslavement to those who resisted; honeyed words and favors to those who surrendered their posts. The latter proved increasingly alluring as the long war continued.

The Christian armies were now moving toward Granada from both the west and north. They were beaten back from Moclin, south of the Castilian frontier town of Alcala la Real. Moclin was another citadel built to take advantage of the lay of the land, making it a near-impregnable barrier to any advance along the main road to Granada.67 They failed to take it. But the long frontier meant that there were many other points of attack. Rebuffed from Moclin, the Christians probed again from farther east, and with much greater success. A large force moved south from Jaen to attack the twin fortresses of Cambil and Alhaber, which had been erected to protect the high road to Granada. Once again the Castilians laboriously maneuvered their heavy guns into position and shattered the old walls. They succeeded, and with the twin forts fallen, the last of Granada’s outer lines of defense had been pierced. By the summer of 1486, after four years of campaigning, Ferdinand’s front line rested at the “apple of Granada,” the fortress of Illora. In front of it lay the river Cubillas, crossed by a narrow bridge at the village of Piños Puente; and thence, for an ordinary traveler, it was less than half a day’s easy walk into the city of Granada itself.

The greatest danger now lay not in the city before them but from behind. While the coastline was still in Muslim hands, the threat of Moroccan or even Ottoman support for their Muslim brothers could not be discounted. The garrison of Malaga was largely made up of Berber volunteers from North Africa, eager to strike a blow against the infidels. Meanwhile the rulers of Granada sent a stream of envoys to seek support from any Muslim state that would come to their aid. However, neither the rulers of Morocco and Egypt nor the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople was willing or able to help them. Nonetheless, Ferdinand decided on a strategy that would cut off Granada from the ports along its southern flank, and then isolate the capital entirely. Granada’s best tactic was to attack each Castilian force in turn, relying on the fact that their speedy horsemen could move more easily from front to front. What ultimately doomed their defense was disunity. The royal family was split into numerous factions, intent on fighting one another rather than their external enemy. At times, one group held the city of Granada and besieged another in the Alhambra above. At other times some of the leading figures of Granada were in league with the Christians while others were struggling with them on the battlefield.

While the Granadine aristocrats squabbled, the full weight of the Spanish siege train was marshaled against the port city of Malaga late in the spring of 1487.68 Soon more than 60,000 men were encamped around Malaga, with detachments from Germany, France, England, and many other parts of Europe. Every attempt by the besiegers to overcome the defense with siege towers and mining was frustrated by the Muslims. The historian of the War of Granada, Fernando de Pulgar, observed, “Who does not marvel at the bold heart of these infidels in battle, their prompt obedience to their chiefs, their dexterity in the wiles of war, their patience under privation and undaunted perseverance in their purposes.”69 The strength of their resistance made the Castilians fight for every yard of ground. Pulgar said that they seemed to have a greater desire to kill Christians than to preserve their own lives. On the Christian side the savagery of the fighting meant that a desire for vengeance predominated over the desire for financial gain. No one attempted to take prisoners. They wanted only to kill or maim. But as the siege was prolonged the townspeople began to starve. According to an Arabic source, when the food stocks ran out, “they had to eat whatever was edible: horses, asses, donkeys, dogs, skins, the leaves from trees,” and only then would they seek terms.70

But Ferdinand in this case would give them none, so they faced either death or slavery. When the city and its fortresses finally surrendered after three months of siege, Ferdinand and Isabella with their whole court celebrated mass in the principal mosque, hurriedly consecrated as St. Mary of the Holy Incarnation. Meanwhile long lines of the people of Malaga were led away into slavery. For two groups, however, a special fate was reserved. Twelve renegades, who had abandoned their Christian faith for Islam, were led out to an open field, stripped, and bound to upright posts. They were to be killed with sharpened canes, acañavereado. The horsemen in the army were given bundles of long stiff canes cut to a fine point. They rode back and forth, hurling their improvised javelins at the tethered renegades. Their accuracy improved until the bodies of the condemned resembled models for the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, spiked through with arrows. This protracted and exemplary execution lasted most of the day under the summer heat before the last unfortunate had expired. To complete what the chronicler Father Abarca described as “the festivities and illuminations most grateful to the Catholic piety of our sovereigns,” a number of Jewish converts who had returned to the faith of their fathers were burned alive at the stake.71

Malaga had guarded the western approaches to Granada, and Ferdinand already controlled the approach to the Vega of Granada itself. The only other area where the Muslims remained in control was the eastern half of the kingdom, with the great fortress city of Baza dominating the road from Valencia and Murcia. In the spring of 1489, the Castilian siege train deployed once more, but after five months Baza seemed no closer to surrender than on the first day. Even heaven seemed against them, for a sudden and unexpected flash flood swept away much of the Castilian camp and destroyed most of the rudimentary roads. Six thousand pioneers were set to work by Queen Isabella to restore the roads, and she came in person to raise the waning spirits of her troops. In the adulatory phrases of Peter Martyr d’Anghiera (later a noted historian of Spain and its empire in America), while the Muslims crammed the battlements of the city to watch, the queen arrived, “surrounded by a choir of nymphs, as if to celebrate the nuptials of her child; and her presence seemed at once to gladden and reanimate our spirits, drooping under long vigils, dangers and fatigue.”72 It had the opposite effect on the defenders, who sent negotiators to Ferdinand. His terms were as generous as those offered to the people of Malaga had been harsh. The surrender was quickly agreed, and on December 4, 1489, Ferdinand and Isabella rode into Baza, while a banner emblazoned with the cross was raised over the battlements. With the fall of the city, the last fortified town other than the city of Granada was in Christian hands.

But the cost of the war was growing daily. The king and queen had 80,000 men in the field and the prospect of undertaking a siege of Granada itself was an enterprise far greater than either Malaga or Baza. The task was more akin to the Ottoman assault on Constantinople in 1453 than anything that the armies of Spain had tackled. Peter Martyr said that Genoese merchants, “voyagers to every clime, declare this to be the largest fortified city in the world.”73 But unlike Constantinople, with its tiny garrison wholly inadequate to defend the long walls, Granada was crammed with 20,000 armed men, including the remains of the garrisons of Baza and Guadix, determined to defend the last piece of Muslim land in Al-Andalus. The heights above the city were walled and heavily defended and overlooked the plain below. The city itself was immured and could only be attacked frontally. William Hickling Prescott, in his History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, likened it to a sturdy oak, “the last of the forest, bidding defiance to the storm that had prostrated all its brethren.”74

So the Castilians sat down before the city and waited for it to yield. From the spring of 1490 to the winter of 1491, they waited. The delay was punctuated by enemy sallies from the gates of Granada, one-to-one combats, processions, and church services amid the tented city. Early in 1491, a permanent encampment called “the Holy Faith” (Santa Fé), a name given to it by Isabella herself, was built in the shape of the cross. In the end, a small band of the city’s leading citizens began to open secret negotiations for its surrender in October 1491. Once more faction and division undermined the Granadine cause. To avoid a longer siege, or the risk of an attack, it was sensible for the Christians to offer acceptable terms. Ferdinand’s negotiators agreed to everything that was demanded of them. The Muslims of Granada were to be allowed to remain in their homes or emigrate to North Africa as they wished; their rights of worship, their own legal codes, protection from unfair taxes, all were guaranteed. Only, the Jews of Granada were less lucky. Perhaps in anticipation of the greater fate that was to befall them, those who did not convert to Christianity were “to cross to North Africa within three years.”75

The agreement was formally concluded in secret, but some of the inhabitants of Granada got wind of it, and “a Moor … began an outcry within the city, saying that they were bound to win, if only they exalted Muhammad and if they challenged the settlement. He went about the city shouting, and twenty thousand Moors rose with him.” It was decided to advance the day of formal surrender from the feast of the Epiphany (January 6) to January 2. On January 1, one of Ferdinand’s officers, Gutierre de Cárdenas, with a troop of veterans received the keys to the citadel and occupied all the key points of the fortress. When on the following day Ferdinand received the keys to Granada from Emir Mohammed XII, known as “Boabdil,” who kissed his hand, it was an event enacted for the poets and historians. The transfer of power had already taken place: Al-Andalus had submitted to all-conquering, eternal Spain.

Most of the Castilian chroniclers, poets, and artists celebrated the accomplishment of God’s promise to his people. Moreover, the end of Al-Andalus was merely a stage in the advance of the cross of Christ that was to lead to the recovery of the Holy Land itself. In 1506, it was proposed that Ferdinand, with his kinsmen Emanuel of Portugal and Henry VIII of England, should march through North Africa to Jerusalem.76 The moral consequence of ending Islamic rule in Spain was enormous: the grant of the title of Catholic Kings (Los Reyes Católicos) to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1494 by Pope Alexander VI was primarily a reward for the conquest of Granada and for expelling the Jews from Spain. The imagery of Crusade or “Reconquest” stressed the continuity with an imagined Christian-Visigothic past, for the title itself had a historic echo. King Alfonso I of the Asturias in the eighth century had also been a “Catholic” king, as had Peter I of Aragon in the thirteenth. The exuberant exaltation of the Catholic faith rewrote the past, and the voices of those cultures destroyed in the process were largely mute.

Myth (and history) records the “last sigh of the Moor” as the last emir, Boabdil, mourned the loss of Granada; but this is merely an elegiac of submission. It does not capture the sense of resistance, the determination to die rather than yield, that better characterized the long war for Granada. The Castilian historian Fernando de Pulgar recorded one small incident that is more truthful to the character of Al-Andalus, and predictive of the final throes of the Muslims in Spain. He told the story of a simple Moorish weaver at Loja in 1485. When his neighbors and his wife prepared to flee from the advancing Castilians, he continued to work at his loom. When they begged him to join them, he rejected their pleas.

Where do you want us to go? Where should we seek to preserve ourselves? From hunger? From cold steel? Or from persecution? Wife, I tell you that since we have no friend to take pity on our misfortunes and to put them to rights, I prefer to wait for an enemy who covets our goods and will kill me. I would rather die here by steel [fierro] than later by shackles [fierros]. For Loja, which once defied the Christians and defended the Muslims, has become the tomb of its defenders and the home of its enemies.77

Refusing to change his mind, the man remained in his own house, until the Christians broke in and killed him.

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