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The Final Flowering

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

That Muslim Seville was captured by the Christians with the aid of Muslim troops from Granada is not as surprising as it might appear at first glance. Political alliances, as well as marriages, between Christian and Muslim were common in Spain, and in any case Granada's taifa King Ibn al-Ahmar had little choice. His little kingdom, which reached down to the south coast between Gibraltar and Almeria, could easily have been overrun by the Christians had he refused to join Ferdinand III of Castile in attacking Seville.

In a sense Ibn al-Ahmar personifies the achievements, the failures and the sad romanticism that pervades the story of Islam in al-Andalus. He was the man who planned the glorious palace-fortress called the Alhambra. He was a petty princeling who like others throughout Islamic Spain diverted Islamic strength into the endless wars that opened the way to Christian reconquest. And throughout his reign, his small kingdom was corroded with intrigue, the political cancer that slowly, over the centuries, consumed both the caliphate and its innumerable offshoots.

Ibn al-Ahmar, king of Granada, was of Arab descent, born in al-Andalus. Starting out as the lord of a castle near Cordoba, he was just a little more successful than the other feuding taifa kings and leaders. Gathering supporters as he invaded one territory after another, he captured Jaen about 1231 and then, in 1235, Granada, to which, in 1245, he moved his capital.

By then, of course, Christian Spain was closing in on al-Andalus, and in response Ibn al-Ahmar had become the vassal of the Christian King Ferdinand III. But then he was faced with a cruel choice: join the Christians in their final assault on Muslim Seville?as a loyal vassal must?or risk extinction. He chose to help Ferdinand and Granada survived. But on his return, as the Granadans hailed him as a victor, he gave a quiet reply that hinted at his feelings and was later inscribed in the Alhambra: "There is no victor but God."

Since then, historians have speculated on the reasons why the Christians chose not to take Granada any way. One reason may have been that they no longer saw a threat in this little kingdom. Another could be that it made a convenient "reservation" for the Moors where they could mind their own business and pay taxes. In any case, Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, survived?for more than two and a half centuries, in fact?and nearly 100,000 Moorish refugees from throughout Andalusia poured in. They doubled the size of the kingdom, enriching it with the artisans, intellectuals, poets and merchants who were to contribute significantly to the final flowering of Islamic culture in Spain.

Ecstatic writers, Muslim and Christian, past and present, have praised Granada and its glories. Perhaps it is because Granada?unlike the beautifully preserved historical city of Toledo, which is almost an outdoor museum?has succeeded in combining its many parts, its cultural past, its pleasant climate, its splendid setting among snow-clad mountains, rivers and fertile plains, to become uniquely itself, alive and lovely. Or perhaps it is because Granada is crowned by that incomparable palace-city, the Alhambra (See Aramco World, May-June, 1967).

But whatever the reason, the praise has been profuse and unending. One example is the extravagent description written by Ibn al-Khatib, vizier and historian of Granada, in his work The Full Moon Splendor of the Nasrid Dynasty:

"The city is today the metropolis of the coastal towns (Granada is about 30 miles from the Mediterranean), illustrious capital of the whole kingdom, a great marketplace for traders, a pleasing hostess to travelers of all nations, a perpetual garden of flowers, a splendid orchard of fruit trees, an enchantment for all living creatures, the center of public finance, a place famous for its fields and forts, a vast sea of wheat and fine vegetables and an inexhaustible source of silk and sugar. Nearby soar lofty peaks, notable for the whiteness of their snow and the excellence of their water... The area abounds in gold, iron, silver, lead, pearls and sapphires, and its woods are full of blue gentian and lavender... There is not a shadow of doubt that the clothes made of silk surpass the silks of Syria in softness, delicacy and lasting quality."

Writing about the setting, he was equally enthusiastic:

"The great city of Granada with its suburbs lies partly on the hills and partly on the plain. It is not easy to describe the comfort and beauty provided there by the mildness of the winds and breezes, the solidity of the bridges, the magnificence of its temples and breadth of its squares. The famous River Darro rises at its eastern confines and flows through the town, dividing its suburbs, then changes and meets the River Genil which, after lapping the city walls, flows on through the spacious plain, now swollen by other torrents and streams, and finally directs its proud course, Nile-like, towards Seville... The streams flow in different directions, sometimes to supply the baths, sometimes to work the watermills, the income from which is earmarked for the restoration of the city walls... There are about 300 villages and 130 watermills in the immediate vicinity of Granada and 50 colleges and temples within the city."

Housed in this city was the greatest concentration of craftsmen anywhere in Spain at any time?the Muslim artisans who had lived all over the peninsula and had flocked to Granada as the Christians, kingdom by kingdom, drove the Muslims south.

By this time their crafts had become more refined and elaborate than during the Cordoba and Seville ascendancies and their famous silks, gold and silver embroideries, wood veneer inlaid with infinite skill and patience, embossed leather, carpets, ceramics, ivory, filigreed silver and fine arms had won fame?and markets?in Christian Spain, northern Europe and Africa.

Out of this fusion of craftmanship and prosperity, Ibn al-Khatib suggests, came a citizenry that to him seemed physically and socially superior:

"The people of Granada are orthodox in religious matters... They are loyal to their kings and extremely patient and generous. They are generally slim, of medium height and well-proportioned, with black hair. They speak an elegant form of Arabic, and their speech is full of proverbs and occasionally rather too abstract. In discussion they tend to be unyielding and hot-headed. Like the Persians they dress in fine clothes of silk, wool and cotton, striped in subtle shades. In winter they wrap themselves in the African cloak or the Tunisian burnous. In summer they wear white linen. The faithful assembled in the temples, arrayed in their many-hued clothing, present the appearance of a spring meadow covered in flowers... Among the ornaments thought particularly tasteful by the princesses and ladies of Granada are girdles, sashes, garters and coifs, exquisitely worked in faceted gold and silver. Precious stones such as zircons, topazes and emeralds glisten amid their finery. The women of Granada are graceful, elegant and svelte. It is rare to find one who is ill-proportioned. They are neat, take great pains to arrange their long hair and delight in displaying their ivory-like teeth. The breath from their lips is as sweet as the perfume of a flower. Their charms are highlighted by their graceful manners, exquisite discretion and delightful conversation. It is regrettable, however, that we are reaching a moment in which the women of Granada are carrying the magnificence of their attire and adornment to the brink of fantasy."

Describing the Alhambra, which was begun by Ibn al-Ahmar in 1238 and enlarged and perfected by his Nasrid successors, Ibn al-Khatib was oddly restrained:

"The regal residence of the Alhambra presents a fine appearance, rising like a second city. The enclosure is embellished with lofty towers, thick walls, sumptuous halls and other elegant buildings. Sparkling torrents rush downwards, soon to become quiet brooks that murmur through the shady woods. Just like the city below, the Alhambra has so many orchards and gardens that the palace turrets are glimpsed amid a canopy of foliage, like bright stars in the night sky."

But if Ibn al-Khatib was restrained, subsequent writers were not. The Moors left Granada some 500 years ago, but physically the Alhambra is still one of the loveliest palaces anywhere. Its lofty beauty was achieved with simple materials such as wood, carved stucco, tiles in geometric patterns and the repetitive application of Arabic lettering or calligraphy (See Aramco World, May-June, 1976). Everywhere water?laughing, burbling, pouring, sparkling, leaping, or dead still in order to reflect the blue sky, the towers, the flowers, myrtles and the elegant cypress trees. The Alhambra is a perfect fusion of the efforts of man and nature, and a fitting monument to the civilization that even then was crumbling.

The final years were not unlike the preceding years: there were occasional incursions of Berber tribes from North Africa, frequent raids and counter-raids among rival factions within Spain. But commerce continued as before and, in general, there was extensive mixing between Muslims and Christians.

Towards the end, unfortunately, a new, less pleasant spirit began to grow, especially in the north, as tensions mounted between the Christians on the one hand and the Mudejars and Jews on the other. Part of the reason for this was simply envy; although the Christians again held political power they saw that their subjects were less prosperous. The Mud?jar population in the north, like the overseas Chinese in so many places today, worked hard, saved their money, paid their taxes and were model citizens. Generally they were much more skilled than their Christian neighbors in the arts and crafts as well as in the cultivation of land. As for the Jews, many had reached high positions within the Christian community as administrators, merchants, doctors and tax collectors.

Then, in 1453, news reached Spain that the Ottoman Turks had taken Constantinople and the old Christian fear of Islam was fueled. It smoldered uneasily through 16 years in which tensions and frontier skirmishing increased until, in 1469, the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile fanned it into flames.

This marriage constituted a powerful union. Ferdinand was a gifted soldier, diplomat and politician and Isabella had a forceful?some say bigoted?character. The marriage, in any case, signaled the last assault on Granada, a campaign carefully planned by Ferdinand and Isabella and well financed. The King and Queen even convinced the Pope to declare their war a Crusade. The Christians crushed one center of resistance after another and finally, in January 1492, after a long siege, the Moorish king of Granada, Muhammad abu Abdallah, known as Boabdil, surrendered the fortress palace of Alhambra itself.

Observing the surrender were two men. One, by coincidence, was a man who would make history that same year: Christopher Columbus, who had come to speak to Isabella and seek her royal patronage. Another was an eyewitness who left a vivid account of the surrender in a letter to the Bishop of L?on:

"The Moorish king, with about 80 or 100 on horseback, very well dressed, went forth to kiss the hand of their Highnesses. Whom they received with much love and courtesy (Some historians believe that the contrary was true?the Highnesses were rude and condescending), and there they handed over to him his son, who had been hostage from the time of his capture, and as they stood there, there came about 400 captives, of those who were in the enclosure, with the cross and a solemn proccesion singing Te Deum Laudamus and their Highnesses dismounted to adore the cross to the accompaniment of the tears and reverential devotion of the crowd, not least of the Cardinal and Master of Santiago and the Duke of Cadiz and all the other grandees and gentlemen and people who stood there, and there was no one who did not weep abundantly with pleasure giving thanks to Our Lord for what they saw, for they could not keep back the tears; and the Moorish king and the Moors who were with him for their part could not disguise the sadness and pain they felt for the joy of the Christians, and certainly with much reason on account of their loss, for Granada is the most distinguished and chief thing in the world, both in greatness and in strength as also in richness of dwelling places, for Seville is but a straw hut compared to the Alhambra."

The famous Spanish poet Garc?a Lorca, himself from Granada, has said of this junction: "It was a disastrous event, even though they say the opposite in schools. An admirable civilization and a poetry, architecture and delicacy unique in the world?all were lost..."

Boabdil sadly rode off into oblivion, but his subjects were allowed to stay on, and for a brief period the future even looked bright for them. Surprisingly, the defeated ruler had obtained very favorable terms of surrender. The Muslims were guaranteed virtual self-government, freedom of movement, complete religious freedom and even a three-year exemption from taxes after the surrender. After that they were to pay no more than they had under Nasrid rule.

Europeans elsewhere were exasperated by the Spanish attitude, and unable to understand why the Moors had not all been expelled or slaughtered after the victory. They failed to realize that, for all their fighting, after 800 years of coexistence and mixed marriages the Christians and the Moors had, in spite of themselves, become very much alike. Also, in the final centuries the Christians had to a large extent lived off taxes paid by their Mud?jar population as well as by the Muslim vassal kingdoms. The Catholic kings, moreover, must have known that if they had thrown the Moors out abruptly, much of the peninsula's flourishing trade would have come to an end. Nor did they want large depopulated areas.

Nevertheless, the end did come soon. In 1499 the primate of Spain, Xim?nez de Cisneros, arrived in Granada and was soon applying strong pressure on the Muslims to become Christian. Three years later the Muslims were told simultaneously that they must convert or leave?and that they would not be allowed to leave.

In 1526 the Inquisitor General moved to Granada to speed things up. But the process dragged on for years with many Muslims pretending conversion to survive?they were called Moriscos?and others rebelling. There were, for example, serious uprisings in the Alpujarra mountains near Granada; one was so long and well fought that Philip II of Spain finally had to call in Austrians to put an end to it.

Eventually, between 1609 and 1614, Spain gave expulsion orders to the Moriscos. Only six percent were to be allowed to stay, most of whom were children and their mothers, and some 250,000 to 500,000 Moriscos were driven out.

During the journey into exile, it is estimated, up to three quarters of the exiles died and Henry Charles Lea, writing on Moriscos expelled from Aragon, provided a description of their fate:

"There was one body of some 1,400 souls, that was refused admission to France... They had paid 40,000 ducats for permission to go to France besides the export duties on what they carried and the expense of commissioners in charge of them. Forced to turn back on the long road to Alfaques, so many of them sickened and died in the summer heat that it was feared that they would bring pestilence to the ships."

With that footnote the long history of al-Andalus came to its end.

This article appeared on pages 28-32 of the September/October 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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