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Granada’s Last War

By the time of its last war, the Amirate of Granada looked back at seven centuries of Muslim dominance in southern Spain. The Christian kingdoms to the north had been unwaveringly hostile for most of that time, and over the last 200 years had begun to gain the upper hand with the fall of Cordoba and Seville in the 13th century. Granada: The Fall of Islamic Spain follows the final campaign for the Muslim kingdom, in which Ferdinand and Isabella destroyed what had been a great center of culture and learning.

War between Granada and the Christian Spanish kingdoms became inevitable in 1479. Ferdinand of Aragon had married Isabella of Castile a decade earlier, when both were teenagers. In 1474 Isabella’s half-brother Enrique IV died, and civil war wracked the kingdom for the next five years. Isabella’s side triumphed in 1479, the same year that Ferdinand became king of Aragon, Sicily and Naples.

The royal pair held their Roman Catholic faith very deeply, and in 1478 had invited the Inquisition into their kingdoms. Now seated firmly on their thrones, they could look to removing the last Islamic hold in Spain and beginning what they saw as a crusade that would sweep them across North Africa to Jerusalem. The Moors, as the Christian Spanish called the Muslim inhabitants of Granada, would have to go. All Ferdinand and Isabella needed was an excuse for war, and it didn’t take long to manufacture one.

Preparing for War

While Aragon and Castile had religion on their side, so did Granada call on the word of God to inspire the war effort. The two Spanish kingdoms had a serious advantage in total wealth and population, but Granada had a very militarized society and higher per capita income. In addition, many Moroccan volunteers came across the Strait of Gibraltar. This support declined after the Portuguese seized the African side of the Strait in 1413, and Morocco’s military power declined throughout the 1400s.

The Christians represented a dire threat, and could not be expected to show a great deal of mercy. Division between the Spanish kingdoms had saved the Muslim state in the past, but this factor had been removed by the royal marriage. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 also played a role, as some Christians sought a victory to offset this loss to the Muslim Turks. In Rome, the Pope gave full political support to the Spanish plan, pressuring the Italian seafaring republics of Genoa and Venice not to provide transport for North African troops coming to aid Granada, or to interfere with Aragonese naval moves on the Granadan coast.

Since the fall of Cordoba, Granada had been required to pay tribute to Castile. The emirs of Granada had refused to pay for some years, and this became the official reason for war. But the actual spark came on 26 December 1481, when Granadan troops in retaliation for Spanish border raids seized the fortress of Zahara in a daring nighttime raid and carried the population into slavery.

The Castilians struck back two months later, in an equally daring strike at the castle of Alhama deep inside Granada. Isabella decided to back her border commanders’ rashness with force, and both Christian kingdoms started mobilizing for war.

Battle and Betrayal

Granada had the upper hand in the first battles. Ferdinand’s attempt to attack the Muslim fortress of Loja in July 1482 ended in defeat and the death of the Grand Master of the Order of Calatrava, killed by a crossbow bolt. That ended operations for 1482, and in March 1483, the Moors led by their Amir Abu el-Hassan crushed the Grand Master of Santiago’s army in the Mountains of Malaga.

Jealous of his father’s victory at Malaga, the prince known as Boabdil (the future Muhammed XII) led a force against Spanish-held Lucena. Boabdil led his troops into an ambush and he was captured. Agreeing to peace with the Spanish, he returned home and promptly began a civil war against his father.

After a period of frontier raiding, Ferdinand returned to the offensive in 1485 with a new weapon: a powerful siege train. Having waited to gather many guns, his forces now smashed the walls of castle after castle. Abu el-Hassan suffered a stroke, and his brother al-Zagal took over as Muhammed XIII and continued the civil war against Boabdil, Muhammed XII. Boabdil swore allegiance to his uncle, was given command of Loja, and promptly surrendered it to Ferdinand. The Spanish sent Boabdil back to Granada, where street fighting broke out between his supporters and those of his uncle.

Muhammed XIII gained the upper hand, but suffered a new disaster in 1487. Using the Aragonese fleet and his new siege train, Ferdinand took the important fortress city of Malaga at the western end of Granada despite a daring night attack led by al-Zagal in person. The Spanish sold off the garrison as slaves, using some for live target practice. The next year, Ferdinand campaigned in far eastern Granada, overrunning much of the amirate and concentrating on lands and castles held by al-Zagal or his supporters while sparing Boabdil’s.

In late 1489 Muhammed al-Zagal finally gave up the struggle, surrendering and retiring to a small mountain village. Boabdil had promised to give up as soon as his uncle left the fight, but the Granadan people demanded resistance and he complied. Ferdinand cut the city off from the sea and began siege operations. It took 18 months of heavy fighting, but Granada finally surrendered in January 1492.

Warrior Monarchs

Though Ferdinand and Isabella are better known today for their protegés Columbus and Torquemada, the war proved them formidable rulers of great political skill. Ferdinand was a true warrior monarch, unafraid to wield his sword in person and showing good strategic and tactical skills.

On the Muslim side, Granada was betrayed by weak leadership, family infighting, and outright corruption. In these days of Renaissance warfare, an economically weaker state could stand up to a stronger enemy through battlefield success, and the Moors proved themselves capable of such feats at Loja and in the mountains of Malaga. But Boabdil’s treachery and al-Zagal’s loss of heart doomed Granada, and as is often the case, it would be their people who paid the price for that failure.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold has a very fine nose.