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
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
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
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.
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.