Gateway to the Classics: A Child's History of Spain by John Bonner
A Child's History of Spain by  John Bonner

Zahara and Alhama

A.D. 1481—1482

Muley abul hassan, the fierce Moor who said that his mints coined nothing but sword-blades, did not wait for King Ferdinand to attack him. On a dark night, between Christmas and New-year, in a storm of rain and lightning and thunder, he suddenly loomed up at the head of a large force before the Christian town and fort of Zahara, not very far from the town of Malaga. Everybody in the place, including sentinels, was asleep. In a silence only broken by the patter of the rain and the roar of the thunder the Moors set their ladders against the walls and scaled town and castle.

The cry arose: "The Moor! The Moor!" But in the darkness the garrison could not find their arms nor their comrades. They were cut down by the savage Moors as fast as they groped their way out of their barracks. All—men, women, and children—were bidden to gather in the square, and wait for morning in their night-clothes in the cold rain. When day dawned they were marched to Granada under an escort of troops, and prodded with spear-points when they slackened their gait. Muley Abul Hassan followed after them with a string of mules laden with the plunder of Zahara.

But the conqueror was not received at his home with the welcome he expected. The Moors were a wise people; they foresaw that this raid on a Christian town boded trouble in the future. A dervish paced the streets, groaning aloud: "Woe to Granada! The hour of its destruction is at hand! The ruins of Zahara will fall on our heads!"

In Christian Spain the news of the Moorish capture of Zahara roused the people to fury. They clamored for war on the infidel. The first one to act was a valiant knight named Ponce de Leon, the Marquis of Cadiz. He gathered a body of fighting men and promised them that Zahara should be avenged. Not far from his chief castle was the Moorish fortified town of Albania, on the top of a hill, about twenty-five miles from Granada. It was the town which was shattered by an earthquake a few years ago. To spy out this place he sent a trusty officer, who walked round it at night, measured the walls, peered over the heights, counted the sentries. Then the marquis started out.

With four thousand foot and three thousand horse he set forth from his town of Marchena on a dark February night. The little army crept cautiously, lay hid all day, and lit no fires at night; so that a little after midnight of the third march they reached Alhama without having been seen by a single Moor. Ladders were quickly set against the citadel, and it was taken by storm before the garrison had any idea that an enemy was near. The Moors in the town resisted for a while, but so many of them were shot down from the citadel—gunpowder was then used for the first time in the Spanish wars—that the rest surrendered.

There is a story of the assault which will show you that the fighters of this period, fierce and cruel as they often were in battle, had still on occasion the instincts of gentlemen. In leading the attack on the castle the marquis broke into room after room, and found himself unexpectedly in the chamber where the Moorish governor's wife was in bed. She shrieked, wrapped the clothes round her, and begged for life.

"Madam," said the marquis, "fear nothing. You are in the hands of a Spanish gentleman,"

And when her maids came running in presently screaming, with half a dozen soldiers at their heels pursuing them, the marquis drove his men out at the point of the sword, and set a trusty guard at the door of the lady, with orders to cut down any one who attempted to enter.

Alhama was one of the richest and strongest towns in Spain. It was so strong a place that the Moors had used it as a storehouse. It contained quantities of gold and silver and gems and rich silks and grain and oil and honey, besides numbers of horses and cattle. All this was now given up to plunder by the Marquis of Cadiz, and the Moors—men, women, and children—were sold as slaves. Zahara was indeed avenged.

When the news reached Granada the people cursed the Caliph.

"Accursed be the day," they said, "that thou hast lit the flames of war. On thy head and on thy children's heads rest the sin of Zahara!"

The old ballad "Ay de mi Alhama," which Spanish girls sometimes sing to this day, tells the story:

"Letters to the monarch tell

How Albania's city fell;

In the fire the scroll he threw,

And the messenger he slew.

Woe is me, Alhama!"

But Muley Abul Hassan was not the man to content himself with groaning over disaster. He called the Moors to arms and marched swiftly to Alhama to retake the place. The garrison was ready for him, and beat his forces back with great loss. He sat down before the place raging with disappointment, and yet resolved to succeed.

Now the fort and town of Alhama had no water supply except what it got from a little stream running past the base of the hill. There were a few wells in the place, but they soon ran dry. And then the Moors diverted the water of the stream, so that the Christians could not get grater without passing through the Moorish camp. The throats of the soldiers dried till they could hardly speak; some died, others went mad from thirst.

Christian knights, among others Don Alfonso de Aguilar, tried to raise the siege, but they were beaten back by the Moors. Muley Abul Hassan stroked his beard, and feasted his hungry eyes with the sight of the Christians on the battlements, knowing they were doomed and must presently surrender. There was but one man who could save them; that was the Duke of Medina Sidonia, and be was at deadly feud with the Marquis of Cadiz, and was not. likely to help his enemy.

When the duke heard of the trouble in which his old foe stood he said it was no concern of his. But when the wife of the marquis fell at his feet, with tears flowing from her beautiful eyes, and besought him, in a voice broken by sobs, not to allow her noble husband to be butchered by the infidel, but to go to his aid, for the sake of his honor and of knightly chivalry, the duke, in a voice like thunder, commanded his horse to be saddled, and bade his squire blow the war bugle, and to keep on blowing it as long as he had a breath in his body. His people were quite ready to march. Every man of them felt that the day had come to settle the question whether Spain should be Christian or Moslem.

Messengers were sent to every town and fortress, east and west, and north and south, to send all the troops they could spare to Seville, and just as the marquis's men were reduced to such straits that they had to make sallies to get a little water, and paid for every drop of it with a drop of their blood, the duke marched out of Seville with fifty thousand fighting men and a long army of gallant. knights from every part of Andalusia.

King Ferdinand was in Castile when he heard of the siege of Alhama; the rode south on relays of horses, hardly taking time to sleep. When he reached Cordova he despatched messengers to Medina Sidonia, bidding him to await his coming. But the peril was too pressing. The duke's personal enemy was dying of thirst. He sent word to the king that he would not wait. He would march, and would not tarry an hour nor the tenth part of a minute by the way for king or devil.

When Muley heard of his coming he made one more attempt to storm the place. A band of picked Moorish warriors attacked it on a side thus far untried, and seventy of them actually got into the town. But they were quickly surrounded, and though they formed back-to-back, with the Moorish flag in the centre, and fought like heroes or demons, they were all killed, and their heads were thrown over the wall to their friends outside. Then Muley Abul Hassan, tearing his beard in his rage, and knowing that if he waited till Medina Sidonia calve up he would be caught between two fires, sullenly drew off his army and abandoned Alhama to the Christians forever. I need not tell you of the joy with which the duke was received by the garrison. Ponce de Leon fell upon his neck; and these two fierce warriors, who thought nothing of killing an enemy in battle, threw their arms round each other and cried like girls. Ever after that day they were brothers-in-arms.

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