On the road south from Granada, high along the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, there is a pass where one can see the Alhambra palace for the last time. El Puerto del Suspiro del Moro is named for Spain’s last Moorish king, who turned to look back on his birthplace before he left forever.
Abu Abdullah Muhammad XII, known as Boabdil to the Spanish, was Emir of Grenada, the last Moorish stronghold in Iberia and the peninsula’s most sophisticated city. The Emirate of Grenada covered most of Andalusia, the far south of Spain. It was here Boabdil’s forbearers first invaded six centuries before.
As the Moorish yoke waned the Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Portugal and Navarre grew ever bolder. By the 1000s their petty raids and skirmishes had evolved into full-scale crusades. In 1236 the Castilians conquered the capital of Cordoba and reduced the Muslim presence to a handful of petty kingdoms in the south.
Two factors spared Grenada the fate of its peers; geography and diplomacy. The Sierra Nevada sheltered the Emirate just as the Cantabrian Mountains and the Pyrenees restricted the Moorish advance of the 800s. The Emirs of Granada could feel the winds of change. Knowing it was better to work with, rather than against, their aggressors, they accepted protectorate status. For two hundred years Granada paid tribute to Castile in exchange for its autonomy.
In 1469 Queen Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, uniting the kingdoms into what we now call Spain. Though the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ shared their ambition, piety and zeal, Isabella was the true power behind the throne. She had earned her spurs in the court politics of Castile and proved an adept politician with a strict sense of justice. Isabella eliminated Castile’s violent crime and the crown debt within twenty years.
Previous Castilian kings had let Granada be, as a friendly Muslim neighbour provided a conduit to the lucrative West African gold trade. Isabela’s Catholic faith was paramount; she would complete the Reconquista no matter the cost.
The opportunity arose when Boabdil, then a mere prince, rebelled against his father over an inheritance dispute. Captured by the Spanish, Boabdil promised to swear fealty if they helped overthrow his father. The Pope called a crusade and the Catholic Monarchs assembled the largest army Spain had seen. The conquest was swift. Spanish cannons made short work of the Moorish castles that would have held out for years a century earlier and Boabdil’s plan to fight back was ruined.
When the Spanish besieged Granada, the Emir knew resistance was futile. Boabdil surrendered on the condition Ferdinand and Isabella would spare the libraries and mosques of Granada and respect the faith of its subjects. They agreed, seized the city then broke their word. The Spanish burned the library to the ground and converted by the sword.
On the road out of the city, Boabdil turned to the distant walls of the Alhambra where he had spent his days and emitted his famous sigh. His mother was not impressed: “Weep like a woman,” she chided. “For what you could not defend as a man.”
The episode has captured the western imagination ever since. It was the subject of numerous paintings, and the allusion behind Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’.
An Italian merchant in the Castilian employ was present at Granada:
“I saw Your Highnesses’ royal banners placed by force of arms on the towers of the Alhambra, … and I saw the Moorish king come out to the city gates and kiss Your Highnesses’ royal hands and those of my Lord the Prince.”
1492 ranks among the most significant dates in world history. Since the fall of Rome, the East had led the world in science, technology and culture. Even Constantinople, not Rome, was the centre of Christian civilization until its fall to the Ottomans. In 1492 not only did Isabella and Ferdinand drive their Moorish nemeses from Europe forever but, with Moorish gold, gave this Italian merchant the funding he needed to sail west. The wheels were in motion. No longer would Eurasia’s Atlantic fringe be a backwater, but the seat of world power for years to come.