Gateway to the Classics: Spain: A History for Young Readers by Frederick A. Ober
Spain: A History for Young Readers by  Frederick A. Ober

How the Moors were Subjugated

The Castilian court was established at Cordova, where Isabella and Ferdinand received the swarms of courtiers and noble knights with brilliant retinues, as well as foreign ambassadors who swarmed hither to do homage to the Spanish sovereigns. And, though Christian and Moslem were still at enmity, the turbaned Arab, the warlike Saracen, with scimitar at his side, might be seen among the assembled thousands in the busy streets of Cordova. For, although an eternal barrier existed between these two peoples in their respective religions, and mutual hatred may have smouldered in their bosoms, yet they met and freely mingled, even intermarried, exchanged courtesies and compliments, and engaged in friendly jousts and tourneys.

But the time came when this strained con dition of affairs was suddenly changed, about the year 1478. The Moorish dominions, which once extended practically over all Spain, were now reduced to a single great province, or kingdom, that of Granada. Yet it was a fertile and populous province, comprising the best and most beautiful lands in the peninsula, with deep and rich valleys hidden among forest-clad mountains, the peaks of some of which reached the clouds and were covered with perpetual snows. The capital of this kingdom was founded by the Moors soon after their first arrival from Africa, in the eighth century, near the remains of a Roman town called Illiberis. It had grown in wealth and population, until, at the time of which we speak, it probably contained 400,000 inhabitants, and was surrounded by massive walls fortified with numerous towers.

Granada the capital consisted of two cities within one line of fortifications, the portion known as the Albaicin, perched on a hill, and containing the marts and dwellings of the common people, and the hill of the Alhambra, separated from the Albaicin by a deep gorge through which flows the river Darro. Here, about the year 1248, the founder of the Granadan dynasty, Ibn Alhamar, began to build that glorious palace, the Alhambra, which was completed by his grandson, Mohammed III, seventy years later. Within the surrounding walls defended by ninety towers the king held court, with a retinue that constituted the nucleus of a small town in itself. The founder of the Alhambra assembled here artists and artisans from every part of the Moslem world from Damascus and Bagdad, Cairo and Morocco; and their genius here evolved one of the most beautiful structures ever created by man. Who has not read of the beautiful Alhambra, with its pillared corridors, its assemblage of marble and alabaster columns, its halls and patios refreshed by splashing fountains, its cornices mazes of arabesques, its latticed windows, iridescent tiles, perfumed courts and gardens; and above all, its peerless situation, overlooking Granada, the Darro, the vast meadows of the vega, and with a background of cloud-capped, snow-crested mountains, shining in the sun?

More than two centuries had passed since Ibn Alhamar intrenched himself within the Alhambra walls, and purchased exemption from Christian assaults by the payment of tribute. It was just before the capture of Seville by Ferdinand the Saint that he bound himself and his people to serve the Christians as vassals, and, in consideration that his rich territory should be undisturbed, pay an annual tribute of two thousand dablas  of gold and sixteen hundred Christian captives, or the same number of Moors to serve as slaves. Less than three hundred years before (as we may recall) it was the Christians who paid tribute, and in the halls of the Aledzar, at Seville, were assembled the Christian maidens, shamelessly given over to the rapacious Moors. Now, however, the tide had turned, and the founder of the last Moslem dynasty on Spanish soil was glad to avert the possible loss of his kingdom by surrendering a tithe of his possessions to the Christians. Still, each ruler maintained his armies, and a state of armed neutrality existed.

Two centuries of comparative peace had broadened and strengthened the Moorish kingdom until it embraced a portion of south-eastern Spain estimated as containing more than eleven thousand square miles, with a population of three millions, including one hundred thousand valiant men of war. The natural resources of the country were enhanced by irrigation, at which the Orientals are so expert, canals and aqueducts supplied the cities and plains with water, and trade with Africa, and with the Christians of Spain, brought great wealth into the kingdom.

The King of Granada, at the time the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella united the thrones of Aragon and Castile, was one Muley Aben Hassan, a descendant in direct dine of the founder of the Alhambra, and when he succeeded his father, Ismael, he found himself ruler over no less than fourteen fortified cities and nearly one hundred towns, as well as many castled hamlets and villages. This fierce warrior, taking account of his vast possessions, refused longer to pay; tribute to the Castilian sovereigns, and in the in year 1478 a noble knight, Don Juan de Vara, was sent to Granada to demand it. He was admitted with his retinue of cavaliers, and found King Muley Hassan seated on his royal divan, within the Alhambra, in the spacious Hall of the Ambassadors. He was received with courtesy, but when he named his errand Muley Hassan haughtily replied: "Tell your sovereigns that the Kings of Granada who used to pay tribute in money to the Castilian crown are dead! Our mint at present coins nothing but blades of scimitars and heads of lances!"

Now, the name of Granada signifies in Arabic a pomegranate; and when King Ferdinand received this insolent answer from the Moor he quietly replied, "It is well I will pluck the seeds from this pomegranate, one by one!" and he began preparations for reducing the Moorish strongholds. But he was not to strike the first blow, for the old King of Granada, confident in the wealth of his provinces and the strength of his defences, and urged on by his fiery soldiery, led an army against an isolated frontier post of the Christians called Zahara. It was naturally so strong, being perched upon a craggy crest of a mountain, that its garrison neglected to keep watch, and, one dark and stormy night, was surprised and put to the sword; The wretched captives taken in the town below were driven like cattle to Granada; and thus in the year 1481 the gauntlet of war was thrown down by Muley Hassan, King of the Moors.

King Ferdinand was willing enough to take it up; in truth, had the Moors not taken the initiative, war would have eventuated just the same, for the one darling project of the Christian sovereigns was the expulsion of the Arabs from the country. But yet again the Christian king was forestalled, though this time it was by one of his own cavaliers. The valiant Marquis of Cadiz, Roderigo Ponce de Leon, who owned vast estates in Andalusia, and could assemble a small army of his own retainers, resolved to avenge Zahara and strike a terrible blow at the Moors. Informed by his spies that the Moorish town and castle of Alhama, in Granada, were but carelessly defended, he gathered together a small force of cavalry and foot soldiers, and, surprising the garrison and scaling the walls, took both castle an town by storm.

Alhama was known as the "Key of Granada," and was not many miles distant from the capital itself; it also was the richest town of the kingdom, and the Marquis of Cadiz and his soldiers secured a vast amount of booty, besides taking many captives. But their position was now perilous in the extreme, for when Muley Hassan learned the news he raged like a tiger and immediately set forth to retake Alhama with an army of fiercest warriors. The sufferings of the Spanish soldiers were intense, for they were cut off from water, attacked on every side, and allowed no rest; but succour came to them from an unexpected source. The Duke of Medina Sidonia—like the Marquis of Cadiz, owner of vast possessions and lord over an army of dependants, although an hereditary foe of the latter—collected a large force and hastened to the assistance of his beleaguered brethren. King Ferdinand also turned toward the scene of war; but, outstripped by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, halted on the way at Antiquera, and there began the assembling of an army, to follow up the advantage so unexpectedly gained by his ardent knights and soldiers.

Thus the immediate effect of this daring assault and reprisal was the joining together in friendly rivalry of two powerful lords who had hitherto been at enmity, and the union of many other rivals in arms, so that Ferdinand soon found himself in command of forces sufficient for the accomplishment of his long-cherished designs against the Moors.

Meanwhile there were strife and dissension in the capital city of Granada. The ill-timed assault upon Zahara was deprecated by the Moors, even before their loss of Alhama, and eventally King Muley was driven from the city during a revolt headed by his own son, Boabdil el Chico.

The grief and indignation of the Moorish populace of Granada are depicted in a popular Spanish poem, with its sad refrain, "Ay de mi, Alhama!" and which Lord Byron rendered into English verse, beginning:

"The Moorish king rides up and down

Through Granada's royal town;

From Elvis's gates to those

Of Vivarambla on he goes

Woe is me, Alhama!

"Letters to the monarch tell

How Alhama's city fell;

In the fire the scroll he threw,

And the messenger he slew.

Woe is me, Alhama!"

The aged Muley Hassan was expelled, but he returned a few weeks later, and, gaining the Alhambra, made the fountains and corridors run with human blood in his endeavors to regain the crown. But in vain: Boabdil el Chico was then King of Granada, and it was foreordained that his weakness should be the cause of its downfall; for in and assault he later made on upon a Christian castle, he was taken prisoner and only released after promising to hold himself a vassal to King Ferdinand. Meanwhile the contest spread over a widening territory, until all the kingdom was aflame with war.

King Muley Hassan, who had retreated to the port of Malaga, made a raid into the dominions of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, in revenge for the part the latter had taken at Alhama, and regained his stronghold with vast plunder. An incident of this raid shows a romantic trait of Moorish as well as Spanish character. Old Muley asked some captive Christians what were the revenues of his opponent, Don Pedro de Vargas, captain of the castle of Gibraltar, whose territory he was then invading. They answered that he was entitled to an ox out of every drove of cattle that crossed his boundaries. "Then," said the gallant old Moor, "Allah forbid that so brave a cavalier should be defrauded of his dues," and he selected twelve of the finest cattle and sent them to Don Pedro with his compliments. The latter, surprised and touched by this display of gallantry, reciprocated by sending Muley Hassan a scarlet mantle and a costly vest of silk, with his regrets that he had not been able to meet him personally in the field!

Stung by this successful raid of the Moors into the heart of Christian territory, some cavaliers, headed by the Marquis of Cadiz and Don Alonzo de Aguilar, made a foray into the mountains of Malaga, expecting to take and sack several wealthy towns. But they were ambuscaded by a Moorish army under the veteran Zagal of Malaga, and not only vanquished, but nearly exterminated, a miserable remnant only escaping to Antiquera, on the borders of Granada. In the meantime a siege of the wealthy city of Loxa, which lies not far from Granada, was abandoned by King Ferdinand on account of the superior tactics of another Moorish veteran, Ali Atar, father-in-law of Boabdil the king, and more than ninety years of age. He too, led the Spaniards into and ambuscade, and then set upon them with such vigour that their camp was captured and many Christians slain.

So the demon of war stalked up and down the land, with victory first with Spaniard, then with Moor. Still, all the time the Spanish forces were augmenting, their territory being steadily extended by the, capture of one stronghold after another, until, when King Ferdinand again sat down before the city of Loxa with a vast army, well equipped with cannon and foreign auxiliaries, he could count up more than seventy places that had fallen before the assaults of his soldiers. Among these were Coin and Cartama, and the almost inaccessible castle of Ronda, on the crest of the mountain of that name. Loxa (pronounced Lo'ha) finally fell, and then the victors were within thirty miles of the capital, Granada, against which Ferdinand's forces were impatient to be led.

But though the ill-fated Boabdil, King of Granada—who had violated his pledge of vassalage to Ferdinand, and had hastened to the defence of the city—was among the captives, and though later the Castilians captured the important towns and castles of Illora and Moclin, within ten or twelve miles of Granada, yet the army was temporarily withdrawn. Ferdinand ravaged the vega, or plain of Granada, up to the very gates of the capital; but he was at that time unprepared to attempt its capture or siege, and so retired with his army to Cordova, whence he had set forth in May of that year.

The next year (1487), early in the spring, a mighty army might have been seen leaving Cordova, composed of twenty thousand horse and fifty thousand foot. Its destination was Malaga, the Mediterranean seaport, sometimes called the "hand and mouth of Granada"; for it was the outlet of the province, through which its trade was conducted, and also through which assistance came from the Moslems in Africa: Isabella and Ferdinand had received information that the Oriental infidels in Turkey and Egypt were preparing to make a landing here, and come with a vast army to the assistance of the last of their faith in Spain. So it was excellent strategy to first dispose of this opulent seaport, with its towers of defence, its large and hostile population, and adjacent tributary country, before marching upon the capital. The siege of Malaga was prolonged many months by the valour of its defenders. In the grim old tower above the city, the ruins of which may still be seen, a grizzled warrior, Hamet el Zegri, held out the longest, with a handful of warriors who had already tasted Christian blood at Ronda and other places; but finally he too was obliged to capitulate, and was cast into a dungeon.

From the ransoms of the Moors of Malaga Ferdinand probably derived a larger amount than the Romans received from the Carthaginians, fourteen hundred and eighty years before. Many unfortunates, who could not pay the extortionate sums demanded, were carried off into slavery, to the number of more than ten thousand.

The cities of Guadix and Baza suffered in their turn the fate of Malaga, and at last Almeria, the final refuge of that brave, fierce son of Africa, El Zagal, an uncle of Boabdil, and yet his bitterest enemy. With his surrender the last of Granada's outlying provinces also fell into the hands of the enemy, and the old warrior went over into Africa, where he was imprisoned by the King of Fez and ended his life in poverty.

During the ensuing winter Ferdinand was busy with preparations for the final attack upon the capital. He had, in truth, plucked out nearly all the "seeds" of Granada, "the pomegranate"; the time was now ripe for finishing the fruit. In his acknowledgment of vassalage, Boabdil had stipulated that, should the chances of war give to the Christians the cities of Baza, Guadix, and Almeria, he would surrender Granada itself, accepting other and inferior towns in exchange. But when the demand came for his compliance, he at first hesitated, then shut himself up within the city and bade the king defiance.

So it was, in April, 1491, that the Spanish army, fifty thousand strong, again appeared in the vega  of Granada, and was soon encamped so near the city walls that the soldiers could hear the cries' of the muezzins, as they sent forth the Moslem calls to prayer.

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